It is no secret in the vast world of literature that Joseph Conrad is considered a master of both the written word and the untamable power of Nature. Most of his stories reflect on Man’s struggle against overwhelming odds in small and large encounters with the natural world – most often the sea as he was a weathered sailor himself. Typhoon is one such story… Published in the early 20th century, the novella is thought to be based on one of Conrad’s experiences as a seafarer.
The title says it all. The word itself possesses the mystique perfume of exotic danger and adventure, the awe-inspiring strength of the Oriental seas and brings alive a fear anchored in all sea-going people. Typhoon is a novella which, some would say, is eponymous since the typhoon in the story is as much a character as any of the other humans. The tempest is at the same time a protagonist, an antagonist and some otherworldly force not in the slightest concerned with the minuscule lives of men. Yet the reader trembles to read the description of the fury the typhoon wreaks upon the poor souls caught in its winds.
Captain Thomas MacWhirr, not known for his emotional attachment to other human beings, finds himself leading his steamer and crew into the whirling eye of a typhoon. Though it is his mulishness which leads the ship into the typhoon in the first place, it is that same iron-hard stubbornness which will give his crew the resolve to fight for their lives throughout the storm. During the typhoon, the reader discovers the other characters as they fight to survive aboard the Nan-Shan, notably Jukes the first-mate and Solomon Rout the chief engineer.
Typhoon is a short, intense and resounding work about the raw, indomitable power of Nature over Man. Such a book written by another author might not have had the same impact, but penned by Joseph Conrad, a master of both language and the sea, Typhoon is a must-read for sea-farers and lovers of literature.
And as Conrad himself once put it; ‘The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice to human restlessness.’
1. It is quite difficult to explain what makes Conrad’s writing so engaging and powerful… Like the sea, it is at times soft and fluid, or hard and curt, but it is always impressive by its depth. Most readers know that English wasn’t Conrad’s first language, but his control over it is inspiring. In Typhoon, the author focused mainly on paragraphs painting a vivid image of the terrible force of the sea. Because of this focus, putting down this novella is like stepping off a broken ship onto firm land after surviving a storm that was never meant to be survived.
2. The brevity and intensity of Typhoon make for both a quick and engaging read. Pick this novella up when in the mood for a harsh look into the wrath of the sea. In just over a hundred pages the reader can expect at the end of it all to surface gasping for breath.
3. If you believe the legends, and keep in mind that that is not an obligation, then most of Conrad’s works are based on his life as a sailor and a traveler. Besides being a formidable wordsmith, he is also known for the raw truth of his accounts and the strength of his analogies. The truth in Typhoon is perhaps not one, but it is far more satisfying to believe that Conrad lived through a similar storm and told the tale than that he was sitting at home on his couch trying to come up with a good story. No matter whether this particular story is true or not, his writing benefits greatly from his boundless knowledge and years of experience in seamanship.
4. Despite the length of the book and the important place that the typhoon takes in the story, Conrad manages to give several of his characters backstories. This is important because, in the midst of a life-threatening storm, it is obviously better to care about the characters… Though the motivations of Captain MacWhirr, Jukes and Solomon Rout are different and slightly shallow (it is a novella after all), the reader finds themself hoping that they all survive.
5. The typhoon as a character. Thanks to Conrad’s impressive descriptions and first-hand experiences with storms, each and every instant the reader spends facing the typhoon is jaw-dropping. Like a character, the typhoon changes and evolves, grows and learns and is many things at once. The only difference with a human is that the typhoon has no motivations, no deep love or hatred for Man and no existence beyond this moment in time. This lack of emotional drive makes the storm even more terrifying as an antagonist and more endearing as just another aspect of Nature. Throughout the entire novella, the conflict between Man and Nature is omnipresent and is a true conflict due to the typhoon’s essence.
1. Joseph Conrad was both a sailor and a writer, and gave his life to these two passions. He is generally considered a master of words and historical accounts prove that he was also a renowned seaman. Combine these two aspects of his life and you get an expert navigator who manipulates words with absolute ease. The problem with that is that the reader faces an array of nautical terms and situations which are alien to those who don’t know the sea well enough. And even for those who enjoy the occasional sail excursion or are professional skippers, Conrad’s stories take place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, meaning that most terms are outdated and must be looked up from time to time. IMPORTANT NOTE : This does not take away from the overall enjoyability of the experience in the slightest. The fact that the reader is thrown mind and body onto a steamer in the middle of a storm is absolutely fantastic, even considering the expertise of the words employed.
2. Finally, though the chaos wreaked by the typhoon is incredibly well-described and the reader is easily plunged into a frightening tempest, the narration sometimes comes off as confusing. The points-of-view are many, ranging from Captain MacWhirr, to MacWhirr’s wife living halfway across the world, to a discussion between the captain, Chinese interpreters and officials. The ending (no spoilers) is written from yet another exterior point-of-view looking in on the Nan-Shan. In such a short story, with few chapters to speak of and a structure that represents the fury of a typhoon, it is sometimes difficult to navigate between the different perspectives.