The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad

July 15, 2010

This is only the second book by Joseph Conrad that I have read. The other was the novella Heart of Darkness and that was close to twenty years ago in university. I only have a vague recollection of my reaction to Heart of Darkness and, I am quite certain, my reaction now would be entirely different. As a practical matter, Conrad was a new author to me.

The Secret Agent is a deceptively simple tale. I kept expecting a bigger twist than ever occurred. The key events of the book are well set up, nicely foreshadowed, and brought off with a sure hand. The simplicity of the tale provides stark relief to the complexity and the horror of Conrad’s subject. With a little research, I discovered (after reading it) that it has been reported as being the most widely cited novel in the period just following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a huge fan and identified strongly with one of the characters. The events of the novel revolve around the planning and aftermath of the bombing of an English landmark, the Greenwich Observatory.

There was an actual attempt to bomb the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, only a little over a decade before this book was published. Conrad explained in his author’s note that the genesis of this novel was a conversation he had with a friend (apparently Ford Madox Ford) regarding that bombing.

[W]e recalled the…story of the attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought…..[My friend] then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.”

From that simple remark by his friend, Conrad developed a story that explained the bombing as the inane result of defectively logical processes on the part of a cast of characters, from high-ranking officials to a backwards boy. His story has definite and bold political facets. He portrays politicians as morally vapid, the police as either ineffectual or corrupt, upper class socialites as powerful but dangerously naïve, and organized anarchists as inert speechmakers. It is hard to think of anyone who is portrayed in a positive light. Stevie, the dull-witted boy, has the best heart of the lot, but that gets him no farther than you would expect it to get a compassionate but slow young man.

The book is connected with 9/11 and likely gained the attention of Kaczynski for speeches like this one, by the anarchist, Karl Yundt:

”I have always dreamed,” he mouthed fiercely, “of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity – that’s what I would have liked to see.”

The character that steals the show, at least with respect to terrorism, is the Professor. He is a small, intelligent, unsightly man. He grew up in a strictly religious home with a strong belief in morality and in the right of the talented to succeed. Life has proven the world otherwise. A lesser or perhaps better man would have reacted differently, perhaps.

The Professor had genius, but lacked the great social virtue of resignation.

He is the most ominous of the players in this drama. Conrad plays this character masterfully. It may be true that:

[I]n their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind – the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.

According to this line of thought, most “revolutionaries” are simply misfits. They never made it into the enviable cliques, so they rebelled. Undoubtedly, this explains the appeal of radicalism for some. Maybe even all. But even if that is the motivation, the individual can still be dangerous. Most are not. Most talk the game, but do not play it.

The Professor is different. His bruised ego has made him truly reactionary. He walks about fingering the trigger of a bomb he wears. He is dangerous. This keeps him safe, as he explains:

”In the last instance, it is character alone that makes for one’s safety. There are very few people in the world whose character is as well established as mine…..I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore, I am deadly.”

His role in events is both more powerful and less obvious than the reader initially expects. Conrad is rightly renowned as a storyteller and as a writer.

Another aspect, which goes to craft more than anything, is Conrad’s subtle play with time. He does not tell the story in a strictly chronological fashion. Instead, he alternates timelines. The story begins at the beginning, more or less, and proceeds. Soon, however, Conrad begins switching between events before the bombing and events after. The shifts are not abrupt, nor signalled by any especially obvious markers. However, this braiding together of before and after allows the climax to be the revelation of the identity of the bomber. It is a softly understated detail that elevates the novel above a simple mystery or thriller. I find it hard to express exactly how and why this timeshifting is so critical, but it is. In some ways, it feels like two storylines racing to the climax from opposite directions. The reader can see the crash coming well before the crescendo, but it is all the more powerful as a result.