- Who Are the Alfuros?
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[End Page 198]
Throughout the first half of Joseph Conrad's Victory, Axel Heyst is described by the male gossips who hang about Schomberg's table d'hôte as living alone like Robinson Crusoe on "a desert island," in "a desert jungle" (42, 52). The difference is that while Crusoe is shipwrecked on an island that nobody wanted, Heyst lives amid the wreckage of a failed colonial adventure. A wave of Western progress washes over Samburan in the form of the No. 1 coaling station of the Tropical Belt Coal Company "with offices in London and Amsterdam": "Engineers came out, coolies were imported, bungalows were put up on Samburan, a gallery driven into the hillside, and actually some coal got out" (Victory 21, 24). But this tsunami of progress ends in "liquidation," and leaves in its wake only an abandoned ruin in which the "tall heap of unsold coal at the shore end of the wharf" resembles a grave, with the "blackboard sign" of the company for a tombstone (Victory 42). As Schomberg says, "The company is gone, the engineers are gone, the clerks are gone, the coolies are gone, everything's gone; but there he sticks"; and Schomberg feels Teutonic Schadenfreude at the thought that Heyst may be starving, eating only "[a] piece of dried fish now and then" (Victory 27).
Not until Heyst returns to Samburan with Lena in part 3 of the novel does the reader learn that Heyst is actually not alone on the island and is certainly not starving. He is attended by the last of the imported coolies, a Chinese servant named Wang, who apparently does all the cooking and cleaning and generally makes it possible for his master—whom Wang calls "Number One," like the coaling station—to enjoy a life of colonial leisure and philosophical contemplation. Wang is an excellent servant, inscrutable and even semi-invisible, able to appear or disappear suddenly. It happens that Wang also has a significant Other, a "shy, wild creature" who never sets foot in Heyst's bungalow but [End Page 199] lives "in a remote part of the company's clearing" that Number One avoids, out of consideration for her "primitive nerves" (Victory 179).
This nameless woman is an Alfuro, from a village on the other side of the island, separated from Heyst's side by a barricade built by these "harmless fisher-folk" to protect themselves from the "sudden invasion of Chinamen" brought in to work the coal mine (Victory 179). The omniscient narrator would have us believe that the King Kong who menaces these natives is not the force of Western progress and civilization represented by the Tropical Belt Coal Company, but an eastern extension of the Tartar hordes of Genghis Khan. Heyst knows better, explaining to Lena that the felled trees are "a barrier against the march of civilisation [ . . . ] as it appeared in the shape of my company" (Victory 344). Heyst also believes that Wang had "persuaded" the Alfuro woman to come live with him, but we later learn what form this persuasion took: she was someone "in exchange for whom he had given away some considerable part of his hard-earned substance" (Victory 307).
If Wang is semi-invisible and his "Alfuro woman" is rarely sighted, the natives themselves are never seen at all and are represented in the novel only by glimpses of their spear-blades sticking through the barricade. Their voices are also never heard, and Wang is their spokesperson to "the envoys of the outer world" (Victory 329).1 Heyst explains to Lena that "anyway only women and children and a few old fellows are left in the village," since "[t]his is the season when the men are away in trading vessels"; but she remains nonetheless profoundly shocked at the idea of finding refuge in "that village of savages" (Victory 347–48). Heyst acknowledges their savage qualities when he tells her that "[t]hey are peaceable, kindly folk and...