Published in 1987, this story is one of the shortest works by Joseph Conrad. Like many of Conrad's other works, The Lagoon is a framed narrative. Before I continue this review, and explain what the book is about, there is something I need to comment on. Most publishers and sites I've come across describe Lagoon as a story about a white man called Tuan, but I personally can't agree with that description.
This short story does open up with a white man, but the story is really, for most part, about the man's Malaysian friend Arsat. Perhaps the most accurate thing to say is that the story is about both of them. Another thing worth noting is that we never do learn the name of the white man. Tuan is just a word that means 'sir' in the native language of the inhabitans. When other characters address the narrator as Tuan, they are calling him 'mister' or 'sir'.
The opening lines of The Lagoon are quite descriptive, not only setting the tone but introducing (by reference) the character of Arsat.
The white man, leaning with both arms over the roof of the little house in the stern of the boat, said to the steersman--
'We will pass the night in Arsat's clearing. It is late.'
The Malay only grunted, and went on looking fixedly at the river. The white man rested his chin on his crossed arms and gazed at the wake of the boat.
The writing that follows after those three 'introductory' sentences is absolutely beautiful and wonderfully lyrical. Conrad was often praised for the beauty of his writing, and as you will see once you read this excerpt, this short story is another testament to his talent. Moreover, the writing in this story is not only poetical, it also does a wonderful job of bringing us into this world and preparing us for the story that will follow:
At the end of the straight avenue of forests cut by the intense glitter of the river, the sun appeared unclouded and dazzling, poised low over the water that shone smoothly like a band of metal. The forests, somber and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of the broad stream. At the foot of big, towering trees, trunkless nipa palms rose from the mud of the bank, in bunches of leaves enormous and heavy, that hung unstirring over the brown swirl of eddies. In the stillness of the air every tree, every leaf, every bough, every tendril of creeper and every petal of minute blossoms seemed to have been bewitched into an immobility perfect and final. Nothing moved on the river but the eight paddles that rose flashing regularly, dipped together with a single splash; while the steersman swept right and left with a periodic and sudden flourish of his blade describing a glinting semicircle above his head. The churnedup water frothed alongside with a confused murmur. And the white man's canoe, advancing up stream in the short-lived disturbance of its own making, seemed to enter the portals of a land from which the very memory of motion had for ever departed.
Framed narrative, quite common in Conrad's works, works quite well in this one. Tuan (the white man) serves the same function as Marlow the narrator in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. It may seem an unnecessary complication in a short story, but framed narrative actually helps to set a tone and atmosphere as well as to provide additional commentary. Conrad foreshadows the plot wonderfully. Tuan's arrival to Arsat's dwelling is quite full of meaning and symbols.
One more thing- I actually read The Lagoon on a well know site that offers free classical eBooks, that is, project Gutenberg. If you haven't heard of this site before, do check it out. It is a lovely site that makes works of classical literature accessible in digital form. Having read this short story in digital form I wasn't able to take pretty photographs of the book like I usually do. Nevertheless, I did manage to find some of my own photography to go along with this review, because we all like to see pretty images, don't we?
Let's get back to reviewing this short story. As I explained, the story really starts when Tuan visits his old friend Arsat, only to find out that Arsat's beloved wife is dying. Even before Tuan arrives, there are some bad signs, other inhabitants of the area dislike Arsat and they don't trust him. " The polers ran along the sides of the boat glancing over their shoulders at the end of the day's journey. They would have preferred to spend the night somewhere else than on this lagoon of weird aspect and ghostly reputation. Moreover, they disliked Arsat, first as a stranger, and also because he who repairs a ruined house, and dwells in it, proclaims that he is not afraid to live amongst the spirits that haunt the places abandoned by mankind. "
It seems that Arsat is seen as a stranger himself. The other Malays see him as 'the other' and he is indeed different from them, different because he has left him home, because he has abandoned traditional ways, and probably most of all because of his sad story. When Conrad describes the meeting between Tuan and Arsat, he provides us (the readers) with additional information about these two, going as far as revealing their personal history. Tuan and Arsat have been friends for a while, in fact, Tuan has known and befriended Arsat before he had met his wife. Moreover, Tuan has spent many nights in Arsat's home. In not so many words, Conrad manages to perfectly describe both the meeting between the two friends, the inner state of Arsat and his desperation, the physical state and the impending doom of Arsat's wife, the hopelessness of Tuan, and the atmosphere in the house.
He knelt on the edge of the platform to receive the bundle. Then the boat shoved off, and the white man, standing up, confronted Arsat, who had come out through the low door of his hut. He was a man young, powerful, with a broad chest and muscular arms. He had nothing on but his sarong. His head was bare. His big, soft eyes stared eagerly at the white man, but his voice and demeanor were composed as he asked, without any words of greeting--
'Have you medicine, Tuan?'
'No,' said the visitor in a startled tone. 'No. Why? Is there sickness in the house?' 'Enter and see,' replied Arsat, in the same calm manner, and turning short round, passed again through the small doorway. The white man, dropping his bundles, followed. In the dim light of the dwelling he made out on a couch of bamboos a woman stretched on her back under a broad sheet of red cotton cloth. She lay still, as if dead; but her big eyes, wide open, glittered in the gloom, staring upwards at the slender rafters, motionless and unseeing. She was in a high fever, and evidently unconscious. Her cheeks were sunk slightly, her lips were partly open, and on the young face there was the ominous and fixed expression - the absorbed, contemplating expression of the unconscious who are going to die. The two men stood looking down at her in silence. 'Has she been long ill?' asked the traveler. 'I have not slept for five nights,' answered the Malay, in a deliberate tone. 'At first she heard voices calling her from the water and struggled against me who held her. But since the sun of to-day rose she hears nothing - she hears not me. She sees nothing. She sees not me - me!' He remained silent for a minute, then asked softly-- 'Tuan, will she die?' 'I fear so,' said the white man sorrowfully. He had known Arsat years ago, in a far country in times of trouble and danger, when no friendship is to be despised. And since his Malay friend had come unexpectedly to dwell in the hut on the lagoon with a strange woman, he had slept many times there, in his journeys up or down the river. He liked the man who knew how to keep faith in council and how to fight without fear by the side of his white friend. He liked him - not so much perhaps as a man likes his favorite dog - but still he liked him well enough to help and ask no questions, to think sometimes vaguely and hazily in the midst of his own pursuits, about the lonely man and the long-haired woman with audacious face and triumphant eyes, who lived together hidden by the forests - alone and feared.
The reunion between Arsat and Tuan is sad in tone, as is the story that is to follow. When Malay learns that Tuan will not be able to help his wife, he then tells Tuan the tragic history of their love. The story itself is very powerful, yet the conversation between the two men gives it additional meaning. It is a conversation that can offer no comfort- perhaps precisely because of it, the dialogue between them feels honest and raw. After the tale was told, I could sense Tuan's pain, his feeling of helplessness, his sorrow for not being able to help his friend Arsat. Perhaps Tuan did help, simply by listening to Arsat. A careful listener is after all, not easy to find.
What can one person say to another after such a tale of betrayal and sadness? What would you say if you were Tuan? What would you do if you were Arsat? This is where the framed narrative really makes sense, as it makes the reader ponder the harshness of life, and gives the reader a chance to reflect on the horrible choices we are all sometimes forced to make. I won't reveal anything else to avoid spoilers, but it is certainty a powerful story driven by a serious moral dilemma.
This short story is the shortest work by this author that I read, but it is, nevertheless, poignant with tragedy and symbolism. It is written as beautifully as Conrad's best works, yet what particularly fascinated me is the perfect of its form. It is one of the most perfect short stories I have ever read- this is how it is done. It is amazing how much can be conveyed with so few words. Considering that I am and remain a fan of Conrad's writing, it could be argued that I may be inclined (even motivated?) to read more into it. Nevertheless, even after mentally forcing myself to make some time to observe it without connecting it to other Conrad's other works, I have found it to be amazingly rich in meaning.
Perhaps those who love Conrad's prose will enjoy it more, but even those unfamiliar with this author might like it. This is a very moving short story, filled with sadness, but balanced out with beauty. I love it in more ways that one. The pacing is absolutely perfect. You can really sense that this short story was crafted with care. I loved not only the Arsat's story (that would be the main plot) but also the way his story was introduced. The friendship between these two man was very touching. I have a feeling that The Lagoon will continue haunt me. A few short stories have impressed me as much as this one. I would go as far as to suggest that The Lagoon is a masterpiece of the short story form.