The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad – published in 1907, and set in the London of 1886 – is surprisingly contemporary in its themes. The book deals with terrorism, looking at the sort of people involved, and the possible motivations behind their inexplicably destructive acts. We meet characters whose vanity and self absorption drive them to seek notoriety, when they lack the ability or desire to shine in normal terms. Their supposed revolutionary ideology is simply a disguise for twisted personal deficiencies. The book also illustrates the way in which people of limited intellectual abilities can be manipulated into becoming terrorists.
On the other hand, the book’s many contradictions, make it impossible to write terrorism off as an aberration confined to psychotic, or vulnerable individuals. We see this at the beginning when the ambassador of an east European country has a meeting with Mr Verloc, one of his secret agents. The ambassador complains that Britain’s liberal society allows anarchists to hide and operate. The ambassador sees this as a threat to his own country. In response, he demands of Verloc an atrocity of such absurd barbarity that the British will be forced to accept much more rigid social controls. He directs that there should be a bomb attack on the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
So an act of terrorism begins as an attempt to make society “safer”. From there the contradictions continue. We meet, for example, a rich, well connected woman who enjoys showing off a former anarchist at her fancy parties, thereby demonstrating her worldly broad-mindedness. And when it seems this man might be involved in the Greenwich Park plot, a senior government official intervenes in a police investigation to ensure his usefully well-connected lady friend is not caused embarrassment by association with her tame terrorist. This craziness makes you wonder if there is something in the ambassador’s criticism of British society.
Finally, there are all the contradictions personified by Stevie, the simple, innocent young man manipulated into carrying the Greenwich Park bomb. Stevie has a painfully developed sense of empathy, feeling pain in others as if it were his own. Verloc exploits this gentle, humane quality, as a means to manipulate Stevie into taking extreme measures to attack an unfair society which allows some people to enjoy great wealth while others suffer in poverty.
The Secret Agent is a dark and twisty book, both in terms of subject matter and style. With its dense writing, point of view changes, and switches of plot direction, you do have to concentrate. But it’s worth the effort.