Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent

Robin Williams cast against type as the Professor in the 1996 film of The Secret Agent, showing off the detonator he is always ready to use to kill himself and the police if they attempt to arrest him
The Secret Agent seemed an appropriate book to choose in the light of the current developments in international terrorism.  I’ve read it before – it was on a school reading list at least 50 years ago – but all I remember is the sense of a grim and dark corner shop, and an intense feeling of claustrophobia.

The Secret Agent was certainly interesting.  It tells the story of a bombing in Greenwich, provoked by the dastardly ambassador of a nameless foreign power in order to generate an international repression of the rebellious underclasses.  The ambassador puts financial pressure on one of his “sleepers”, Adolf Verloc who he regards as slacking.  Verloc carries out the bombing with unintended consequences that ripple throughout the story and destroy both him and his family.  Interesting choice of name for a political villain in 1907 when this was written – Adolf!!  Prescient?

It’s a seedy world of dark rooms and nefarious plots.  There’s the Professor, an anarchist bomber always carrying a detonator and a phial of explosive in his pocket ready to blow up himself and any police should they attempt to arrest him.  Verloc himself sells pornography from his grubby corner shop – the word is never used but implied by his many business trips to Paris for papers and pictures.  Verloc’s wife, Winnie, is too concerned with caring for her mother and her sickly and weak minded brother Stevie to notice much about her husband at first.  And then there’s Detective Heat, the policeman who knows where all these bombers and anarchists are hiding out – and likes it that way – he can keep his eye on them – much to his boss’s disapproval.  Does that give you the gist of the sort of interactions we get?

The narrative structure is unusual – the characters pass on the narrative duties like runners in a relay race – from the Professor to Heat to his boss and so on – as they meet in cafes or bump into each other on the street.  It’s a clever trick for its time and quite interesting – varied.  Though Conrad doesn’t really do dialects – he’s just the omniscient narrator, seeing into their dark souls.

The politics of Conrad’s The Secret Agent are interesting.  It’s set in a time of growing nihilism, and the politics of nihilism and anarchy are the focus of the bombers’ conversations.  There are also the first dawnings of fascism or nazism – Ossipon is aiming to create a better world by eliminating all the weaklings – such as Stevie.  There’s an element of phrenology in there too – the idea that you can tell someone is “degenerate” by looking at their face.  Chilling stuff and really for Conrad to be publishing this in 1907 is quite impressive – it all coalesced in the 30s and 40s in Nazi Germany, but the philosophical foundations had been laid much earlier.  The violent nihilism and racism we see today – from Islamic terrorists, to the National Front, all come from the same brood – for them creeds, ideas and countries have become more important than people and the love of God.

In the end though, this isn’t a book about spying.  It’s about a woman’s love for her brother, about a practical man who can’t understand that, and about another who finally realises too well, and too late, the price and the value of human life.  I suppose that’s what makes Conrad great.  He writes adventure stories but they transcend their genre to take on universal significance.


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