"Victory" is not so much a conventional novel as a fable, with strong influences of the Bible, Milton's "Paradise Lost" and Shakespeare's "The Tempest". This story is absolutely marginal, that is, it occurs to people who inhabit the margins of the world, the margins of society, and within the margins of a common life. The characters also operate in one or the other of the two extremes of morality. Axel Heyst, a Swede son of a bitter and disenchanted philosopher, is extremely influenced by the parental way of thinking, to the point that he follows the advice provided by his dying father. When Heyst, disconcerted at the foot of the bed, asks him what is the proper way to live, Heyst senior answers: "Look on, and make no sound". So, after his father dies, Axel emigrates to the colonies in Southeastern Asia, where he makes a living as a merchant, coming and going about the islands. Heyst is a distant but kind guy, always with a smile on his face and willing to help others, but always refusing any kind of intimacy. One day, he enters a business about a coal mine with an associate, the death of whom (not a murder) he is later accused of provoking, which gives him a reputation throughout the islands as a mysterious, somewhat mischievous man. His main detractor is a hotel keeper, one Schomberg, a hateful, coward, and calumnious man. After the business goes broke, Schomberg escalates his tirades about "that Swede", slowly developing an irrational hatred towards him. Meanwhile, unaware of his reputation and of Schomberg's hatred, Heyst decides to stay on the remote island where the coal mine used to be, totally isolated from humanity, except for the silent and shadowy company of his servant, Wang.
One day, on account of old business affairs, Heyst travels to the island where Schomberg's hotel is, and stays there. There he meets a young woman who plays in a "ladies orchestra", managed by a sinister couple who practically treats their employees as slaves. The girl, Lena, tells Heyst that the hideous Schomberg has been sexually harassing her, and begs him to get her out of there. Heyst, attracted by the beauty and mystery of the girl, manages to smuggle her out of the hotel and take her to his island. This, of course takes Schomberg's hatred to extremes. A little time later, three criminals arrive to the hotel. They force Schomberg to host illegal gambling, and make his life hell, practically taking over the place. As the secretary of the boss (one Mr. Jones), Martin Ricardo, reveals their past (true or imaginary, but certainly scary), Schomberg comes up with an idea. He tells them that Heyst keeps vast amounts of money on the island. Ricardo convinces his boss to go there and assault him. He hides from his boss the fact that there is a girl, for Mr. Jones has an irrational hatred and fear of women. Meanwhile, Heyst and Lena lead a loving, peaceful life. It's easy to see here the metaphor of Adam and Eve. One day, the three thugs arrive, almost dead, and Heyst rescues and shelters them, but with a gloomy feeling of something bad to come.
It would be foolish to reveal anything more. The rest is a hair-rising game of psychological chess, where suspense and tension are almost unbearable. The intruders in Paradise and the primeval Man and Woman struggle to achieve their ends, in sequences of undescribable beauty and sadness.
As I said at the beginning, this is more a fable than a common novel. I think it is wrong to do what another reviewer here, Bruce Kendall (otherwise an excellent one) did: to concentrate on novelistic technique. Yes, the narrator begins by being a casual follower of the story, and ends by being omniscient. Yes, some of Heyst's and Lena's dialogues are almost corny. Yes, the allusions to Paradise Lost are too obvious. But that's not the content nor the point. This is a powerful, moving, unforgettable tale of innocence violated, of pure evil against goodness, of the pain stupid and useless people can inflict on persons who are only minding their own business. It is also a cautionary tale about the perils of isolation. About the dangers incurred on by giving up on people, on love, on trust. At some point, Heyst wishes he had learned to hope and to fight as a young man. So many subjects, the quality of character development, so beautiful a literature (you will find passages and sentences that are real poetry), make for a great piece of art. Joseph Conrad grows in time as one of the quintessential writers of history.