I admit it is absurd to be concerned with the morals of one’s ship-chandler, if ever so well connected, but his personality had stamped itself upon my first day in harbour, in the way you know.
Or at least, in the way I know. This is the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s novella A Smile of Fortune, lamenting his minor obsession with Jacobus, a ship-chandler on a Pacific island. Told by his company to seek out a Jacobus to refit his ship, the narrator, a captain, is surprised to find the man aboard his ship the first morning it’s in harbor, bearing a delicious breakfast to win the captain’s business with. This is all highly irregular, and there is something a bit off about Jacobus. But the narrator tries to ignore these issues as trivial and begins to conduct his business with Jacobus.
Before long, the captain finds out that his Jacobus is actually the brother of the one recommended by the company, and considered throughout the island rather a scandalous character. He has a daughter hidden away at home, the product of an ill-starred romance with a circus performer who abandoned them both. The other Jacobus is “good,” and the two haven’t spoken in years. But when the captain finally does meet the good brother, he is far more scandalized: this Jacobus has an unacknowledged, illegitimate mixed-race son working for him, whom he beats.
The captain doesn’t much enjoy having to stand up to the talk of the town by doing business with the first Jacobus, but he does. And in the process he ends up even more obsessed with this Jacobus’s daughter, Alice. She’s mysterious and antisocial and strangely irresistible. “I felt myself growing attached to her by the bond of an irrealisable desire, for I kept my head—quite,” he tells us—or himself. But he’s right that the desire is irrealisable.
Both these quotes come from the heart of what I would call the “Conrad intelligent nonintellectual narrator.” Freya of the Seven Isles has one too. The Secret Sharer has a particularly amazing example. The captain is thoughtful, introspective, down-to-earth, extremely rational while still being subject to heavy emotion. Salley Vickers describes him in her foreword to the Hesperus edition of the novella (the last Hesperus in the house!) as “a man of depth and philosphical temperament, the kind of man Conrad loves to write about: something of a loner, though clearly a man of sensibility and social polish, who looks at life with a wry and often wary eye.”
It’s safe to say these characters are at least half the reason I read and love Conrad, and A Smile of Fortune is a good read, though not one of his best. And the captain isn’t the only good character; the main Jacobus and his daughter are compelling. And it’s as if the whole island has a deep psychological effect on the captain. He is changed during his time in port here.