Friday, December 14, 2007

book review - The Secret Agent

This is an odd book to be reading right now. Joseph Conrad might be credited with writing one of the first novels to cover the subject of terrorism but it feels all too familiar in this age of suicide bombers.

The irony with The Secret Agent is that The Professor, who is rigged and boldly talks about being prepared to blow himself up, never does it while an innocent simpleton stumbles and trips blowing himself to pieces.

Living not too far away from Greenwich Park and enjoying strolls through its tree-lined avenues it is odd to think of someone choosing to target the observatory for a terrorist attack.

But maybe it is never intended to be chosen with Mr Verloc being intimidated into making some sort of outrage to ensure he keeps the cheques coming from the embassy that pay him for being a secret agent. Verloc is the main character in the story flanked with his wife Winnie and his brother-in-law Stevie.

Back in his past Verloc once tipped off a foreign dignitary over the possibility of some sort of assassination attempt and ever since then has been dining out on the performance. But with a change of guard at the embassy he is challenged to show his worth by exploiting his position as a leading light in anarchist circles in London. Verloc feels blackmailed and disappears from view while he thinks about the consequences.

Conrad starts to weave the story around the encounter and takes the reader into a pub where two anarchists, nicknamed The Doctor and The Professor, are talking about the power that comes from the knowledge that you could blow yourself up. The Professor is rigged permanently to blow. But he finds it hard to believe someone has beaten him to it when The Doctor produces the paper to show that someone has blown themselves up in the park.

Conrad manages to leave you wondering if it was Verloc for a while before the identity of the simpleton Stevie is revealed. The reader finds out only just before his sister and her grief leads to the murder of Verloc. All of the secret agents protestations of innocence laying the responsibility at the door of the embassy count for nothing.

With Verloc dead the story fizzles out but Winnie tries to take refugee in the arms of the Doctor but once he sees the dead Verloc he is intent on escaping her clutches. Left alone she commits suicide leaving those who knew the couple shell shocked and undermined by the experience. The power of the bomber has been tested and found wanting.

This is sometimes a book that is difficult to follow because of the style but the message is as up to date as ever. Here is a morality tale of the costs of taking lives and the results on those who have been involved in that process. The outcome is that innocent people die and even those that believe they are in the right are plagued with self-doubt, recriminations and a sense of futility. A bomb might make a temporary outrage but does not do much more other than main and kill innocent people who had to be killed for some one, and some radical group, to make a point.


Stephen said...

I read this some years back as a student. I enjoyed it, but I've never returned to Conrad. I find him difficult. Having said that, I do find the ending of The Secret Agent particularly good, and I like his characterisations in this book more than in any of his others.

simon quicke said...

Stephen you are right he is not easy. He is one of those authors that could be used in an arguement to counter against the ease of reading 19th century literature. But this book seems more chilling than most his others because sadly it seems the issues he was writing about are still around us today.