(Book Review) The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

By Ian G. Wilson

When I hear the term “secret agent” I imagine a suave, good looking personage who wins at gambling and rolls their own cigarettes while sipping vodka martinis. These are characters who go to exotic locales in search of bad guys, whom they usually shoot dead with effortless panache. So what am I to make of a secret agent who is tubby and middle aged, wanders about in old clothes, and whose cover is operating a pornography shop in one of the seedier areas of London? Doesn’t exactly sound like James Bond, does he? No, he is Mr. Verloc, the agent provocateur of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale.

The first thing you have to dismiss when reading Conrad’s seminal political novel is any preconception of what a secret agent does. Once you’ve done that, then you open yourself up to the absorption of Conrad’s remarkable prose and characters, as well as a fascinating peek into the state of European political affairs in the 1880’s, which may not seem so very different after all from international relations today.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, governments perceived two major international threats, that of espionage and sabotage by agents employed by foreign embassies, and that of anarchists, who wished to wipe away all forms of government. Verloc is a British citizen in the employ of an unnamed foreign power. He usually passes on secrets that he picks up on his trips to the Continent, ostensibly to replenish his wares for the shop. He also has contacts with an anarchist cell, whose members mostly spend time arguing and writing pamphlets while waiting for the revolution to happen around them so they can take credit for it.

As The Secret Agent opens, we find Verloc called to his employers and charged with a mission of destruction, an act of terrorism that will be blamed on the anarchists and cause panic in London. He is to do nothing less than blow up the Greenwich Observatory, and if he fails, he will be fired from his job. Verloc abhors any sort of activity, however, so the thought of actually having to carry out a mission, especially one with such public repercussions, fills him with dread.

Most of Verloc’s anarchist contacts are all talk and no action, but there is a sinister fellow called “the Professor” whose sole object is to manufacture explosives. He eats, drinks, and sleeps bombs, and has wired himself up to explode should anyone (notably London’s police force) try to apprehend him. The Professor thinks Verloc and the other anarchists are wimps because they don’t have the stomach to put his meticulously crafted bombs to their proper purpose of murder and mayhem.

We meet Verloc’s wife, Winnie, who helps him run his shop. Winnie is a bright woman, but she tends not to ask too many questions about her husband’s affairs, being grateful that he has put a roof over the heads of her mother and brother as well. In fact, she has no inkling of what Verloc actually does for a living, and she puts up with the fireside meetings of the anarchists in the shop’s parlor without complaint, though secretly, she finds most of them disreputable characters. Her disabled brother, Stevie, helps out with the cleaning, and spends the rest of his time drawing circles on bits of paper. He is very fond of Verloc, a fact which becomes important later in the book.

Another fine character is Chief Inspector Heat, who has the remit of keeping London safe from terrorists. Heat angers his superior by his failure to keep his boss informed regarding evidence and information he collects. But Heat has promised that the police have an eye on all anarchists in London and that any terrorist threat will be quashed before the public is endangered. Such an ironclad guarantee begs to be tested.

The Secret Agent reads well on two levels: as a tale of sabotage gone horribly wrong and as a series of carefully crafted character studies. The story itself digresses and falls back on itself chronologically, so although the plot is, as Conrad suggests in his subtitle, “simple,” it can be difficult for readers to follow. Nonetheless, the emotional toll that Verloc’s actions take on himself and Winnie and the efforts of the police to identify the person responsible for the explosion and to maintain the confidence of their political supervisors are masterfully handled. Like Dickens, whose writing this story on some levels resembles, Conrad assembles a colorful cast of characters and describes them with some of the most brilliant phraseology I have run across. Here, for example, are the anarchist pamphleteer Ossipon’s observations of the Professor:

“. . . the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table. His flat, large ears departed widely from the sides of his skull, which looked frail enough for Ossipon to crush between thumb and forefinger; the dome of the forehead seemed to rest on the rim of the spectacles; the flat cheeks, of a greasy, unhealthy complexion, were merely smudged by the miserable poverty of a thin dark whisker. The lamentable inferiority of the whole physique was made ludicrous by the supremely self-confident bearing of the individual. His speech was curt, and he had a particularly impressive manner of keeping silent.”

The dialog, too, is excellent, though it took me awhile to get used to some of it being long winded. Vladimir, Verloc’s embassy contact, carries on for three or four pages of monologue to describe his reasons for wanting a bomb attack on a scientific establishment, but the reward is a telling and darkly humorous revelation of the man’s thought processes:

“’You anarchists should make it clear that you are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole of social creation. But how to get that appallingly absurd notion into the heads of the middle classes so that there should be no mistake? That’s the question. By directing your blows at something outside the ordinary passions of humanity is the answer. Of course, there is art. A bomb in the National Gallery would make some noise. But it would not be serious enough. Art has never been their fetish. It’s like breaking a few back windows in a man’s house; whereas, if you want to make him really sit up, you must try at least to raise the roof. There would be some screaming, of course, but from whom? Artists—art critics and such like—people of no account. Nobody minds what they say. But there is learning—science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish. All the damned professors are radicals at heart. Let them know that their great panjandrum has got to go, too, to make room for the Future of the Proletariat.’”

The Secret Agent is based loosely on a real explosion which took place on the grounds of the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. Conrad wrote the short novel in 1907, three years after the publication of one of his masterpieces, Nostromo. Because of its theme of terrorist activity, it is surprisingly topical. The book is on reading lists at many high schools and colleges and has been adapted for stage, film, television, and even opera. Though Polish by birth, Conrad wrote in English, and many of his novels and novellas, such as The Secret Sharer and Heart of Darkness, are classic psychological studies. Conrad’s long experience as a sailor also made him adept at writing seafaring tales. He died in 1924.

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale is available in the young adult section of Greenville Public Library.

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