Joseph Conrad, born Józef Korzeniowski, was a Polish author who lived in England and wrote in the English language. He wrote Youth in 1898, a short story drawn from his experiences in the British Merchant Marine. The story is a metaphor for existence, for the experience of attempting to direct our lives and determine our own fate only to have all of our efforts thwarted.
A young man, Marlow, sails on his first voyage to The East, on an ancient wreck of a ship sailing from London to Bangkok. The story is told in the form of a tale told by Marlow many years later to a room full of old former seafarers like himself.
The ship is a rusty barque named the Judea and before she even picks up her load of coal she hits storms. The deck is flooded and the ballast shifts, leaving them tilting in the water. The crew has to shovel sand by candlelight in the hold of the ship to right her. It takes sixteen days to get from London to the Tyne River in England’s North.
At the Tyne it takes a month to load the coal. Finally ready to sail they haul off to the dock gates, where they collide with a steamer. The damage takes three weeks to repair.
Good weather is had through the Channel but then gales hit again. The ship begins to leak, and Marlow and the old skipper, Mahon, pump all night and all day, but the storms rage on. Marlow is not discouraged, instead he revels in the adversity.
“…she seemed to me to throw up, like an appeal, like a defiance, like a cry to the clouds without mercy, the words written on her stern: Judea, London. Do or Die.”
The galley and the crew’s quarters are swept away, all the men’s belongings gone and the food spoiled. The cook is found, gone ‘completely and forever mad’ and the ship limps into Falmouth. At Falmouth the cargo is taken out, the ship is repaired and the cargo put back. They launch her but she leaks. She is towed back and work starts again. The crew are stuck in Falmouth for six months, until the ship is resealed. Then the rats leave.
“Rat after rat appeared on our rail, took a last look over his shoulder, and leaped with a hollow thud.”
They set off for Bangkok. The cargo promptly catches fire. No rats are harmed, as they are all safely in Falmouth.
“Once Mahon, as we were working side by side, said to me with a queer smile: ‘Now, if only she would spring a tidy leak– like that time when we first left the Channel– it would put a stopper on this fire. Wouldn’t it?’
They finally put it out. The ship catches fire again and then, just for variety, explodes.
” The deck was a wilderness of smashed timber, lying crosswise like trees in a wood after a hurricane; an immense curtain of soiled rags waved gently before me– it was the mainsail blown to strips.”
Marlow finally reaches Java as a castaway in a lifeboat but undaunted decides that this boat constitutes his first command, comprising ‘two men, a bag of biscuits, a few tins of meat and a beaker of water.’ The older, wiser Marlow states that this voyage was ordered for the illustration of life.
“You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself, sometimes do kill yourself, trying to accomplish something– and you can’t. You simply can do nothing, neither great nor little– not a thing in the world– not even marry an old maid, or get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its port of destination.”
Youth is a story that offers condolences for this experience of life, it is ultimately a comforting message: that we are not in control, that no-one ever really is, that we are at the mercy of the elements and that sometimes we may be stuck on a rusty old ship and the journey may seem to take forever.
Youth is usually packaged with several other short stories, for example ‘Youth and two other stories’ or ‘Youth and Gaspar Ruiz’. It is also, as most of the older books I review are, available to read for free at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/525/525-h/525-h.htm