Sunday, February 04, 2007
book of books - Under Western Eyes
This book by Joseph Conrad followed on the heels of Petersburg by Andrei Bely, which is also set in Russia around the period 1905 when throwing bombs at politicians was a popular way of expressing discontent with the Tsarist rule. The cover made it stand out as a related read with a picture of a man fleeing the bronze horseman.
A diligent student, Razumov, is interrupted one night by a fellow student Victor Haladin who explains that he has assassinated a politician and needs someone trustworthy to help him escape. He has clearly misunderstood Razumov’s sympathies and instead the student reports the assassin to the police via his mentor Prince P. Haladin is captured and executed but as a result of the his brush with the revolutionaries Razumov is considered to be one of them and becomes a secret agent sent to Geneva to unearth the activities of the exile Russian community. But Haladin’s mother and sister live in Geneva and Razumov finds that in the end the only option left to him is to confess both to the Haladin’s and the revolutionists his role and as a reward he has both ear drums burst and without the aid of hearing walks into a tram and is left as a virtual cripple with just a few days left to suffer.
Is it well written?
Having read Heart of Darkness, The Shadow-Line and now Under Western Eyes there is a device that Conrad uses - allowing a narrator to tell his or someone else’s story – so this is based largely on a document that Razumov is meant to have written. As a result you get to be inside the Russian’s head while the Westerner (narrator) struggles to understand what it all means and fails to grasp what constitutes the motives for Russian behaviour most of the time. But of course none of those sentiments would be possible if the writing was not able to express them. The one note of criticism here is that perhaps this story does not lend itself to the Conrad style, which slowly evolves to a crescendo when the truth become apparent. The problem here is that there is nor clear cut right and wrong making it harder for a reader to judge Razumov’s actions.
Should it be read?
It is not going to be top of the list unless you happen to like Conrad and books about Russia, particularly ones covering the early days of the revolutionary movement. As a love story it has a bitter ending for Miss Haladin and as a story of courage the man who speaks the truth (both Haladin and Razumov) both end up getting executed in different ways. But it does deserve to be read alongside other works, like Petersburg, and reminds you in a way that perhaps a native Russian writer might not have done so much, that large amounts of activity in the run-up to the 1917 revolution happened outside Russia in places like Geneva.
In this tale of revolutionists and those trying to stop them there are no real victors only innocent victims torn apart by events and of those possibly the most obvious to begin with is Razumov.
Version read – Penguin Twentieth Century Classics paperback