“Conrad says the two salient things about a terrorist’s mind, what motivates him, are sloth and vanity. The more I think about it, really, the more telling it is. Vanity makes you want to be famous, sloth means you’re not going to be able to do it out of exertion.” Martin Amis said this of Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent in an interview about his own novel about sloth and vanity, Lionel Asbo. A fascinating, post-modern, cocky romp; it lacks something Conrad’s The Secret Agent possesses in chilling quantity: prescience.
A novel about a fat, disinterested anarchist who makes his official living from a shop that sells essentially pornography and snuff – he is also, strangely for a dedicated anarchist, a married man. This Mr. Verloc is contacted early on in the novel by a mysterious, dominating figure called Mr. Vladimir, who works in the Embassy of an unnamed Eastern country, probably Russia. Mr. Vladimir’s solitary aim is to spread a Mexican wave of genuine fear throughout England – fully understanding that when the populace is afraid the authorities will have to intervene.
“Nothing would please me more than to see Inspector Heat and his likes take to shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of the public. Half our battle would be won then; the disintegration of the old morality would have set in in its very temple.” Take a moment to absorb that quote. It talks, as Mr. Vladimir does, about a police state demanded by the very people it would come to oppress. Think then of the scenes we witnessed last Christmas, of Brussels closed down, its festive celebrations cancelled, all because of the people’s fear of an ‘impending’ terror attack. Reading The Secret Agent makes even the most disciplined minds conspiratorial. It lets you indulge in the fantasy that ISIS is just a fabrication of the powers-that-be, made up so as to make people willingly surrender their freedom to the authorities.
“The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality – countermoves in the same game; forms of idleness at bottom identical.” All this in a book written in 1907. A book based on a true story, the failed bombing of the Greenwich Observatory in 1894 by a French anarchist Martial Bourdin. Bourdin was carrying a set of explosives in his pockets that accidentally detonated, blowing him to bits and leaving the wall of the Observatory unscathed. This incident seemed to pique Conrad’s literary curiosity. He asked himself: what kind of a man would go through with such a thing. Ford Madox Ford, fellow writer and pet-hate of Hemingway, suggested an answer to Conrad: “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.”
This led Conrad – up to that point a weaver of exotic sea stories about sinking ships and outcasts – to conceive one of literature’s most starkly realistically depicted characters: Stevie. The probably autistic brother-in-law of Mr. Verloc. A shy, submissive, silent, impenetrable “idiot” portrayed in tender detail by Conrad, in an age when mental disabilities were treated as mere lunacies. Here Conrad tells us how Stevie felt when he saw a cabman badly whipping his horse: “He could say nothing; for the tenderness to all pain and all misery, the desire to make the horse happy and the cabman happy, had reached the point of a bizarre longing to take them to bed with him.” A remarkably childish, yet compassionate tone pervades, making you love Stevie, all the more, not needing any 21st century sensibilities. But this is the trap Conrad lays for us.
For it is Stevie who serves as Mr. Verloc’s mule. It is Stevie, simple, loyal Stevie, that is charged with carrying out the attack on the scientific cathedral that is Greenwich Observatory. And, as we know, it is Stevie who gets prematurely blown to bits in Greenwich Park. This revelation is as shocking in literature as the murder of Marion Crane in Psycho.
But what about the sister that committed suicide after?
Her name is Winnie Verloc, Mr. Verloc’s dutiful, indifferent wife. A woman who never really loved her husband, who married him purely because Mr. Verloc had the means of taking care of her needy brother, Stevie. A brother who she treats more as a son, a childless woman who babies and coddles her hapless brother – making her a Freudian’s wet dream. Throughout most of the novel she is but a passive piece of the furniture, hands over her ears, waiting hand and foot to serve her husband and his hilariously obese anarchist friends. But then… like the bomb that kills her brother, she explodes into dark life when she learns of how they had to scrape her brother with a shovel. All because of her husband. Her husband – who took the only light of her life away from her. Her husband who butchered that innocent soul.
I will spare you the long road she takes to her eventual suicide, holding off on major spoilers, and daring you to read this unputdownable classic for yourself. But I’m doing so also to maintain the spirit of Conrad’s writing style. Which is journalistic, matter-of-fact, but wonderfully impressionistic. This novel reads like a Van Gogh painting: when you’re reading it, up close, all you see are harsh heavy swirls. But move back a bit, put it down, and you will see a sombre but busy image that will addict your sensations. It might be just over 200 pages long, but its 200 pages of terribly important literature.
If you want to delve into the dark, but often Benny Hill-like world of a terrorist, you will find no better guide. It’s no wonder that immediately after the September 11th attacks this century-old book went off the shelves all over America.
“He beheld all his enemies and fearlessly confronted them all in a supreme satisfaction of his vanity. They stood perplexed before him as if before a dreadful portent. He gloated inwardly over the chance of this meeting affirming his superiority over all the multitude of mankind.” Vanity and sloth, as Martin Amis pointed out, are the prime evils we are dealing with today. And like a card-trick exposed, once stripped, they leave behind only a comic, weak figure. Mr. Vladimir wanted to use Mr. Verloc as his means of instilling panic into people, asking him to attack a scientific institution, for science at the time was a “sacrosanct” trend (don’t attack a church or a ministry – that would be too superficial, people wouldn’t be scared that way, they would think terrorists are after politicians and priests. But attack science and show them that terrorists will attack just about anything and anyone. ISIS did the exact same thing when they attacked Charlie Hebdo and Paris – attacking our own current sacrosanct trend, free speech, and oh how we shivered.) – but when you zoom in and see Mr. Verloc for what he is, somehow the aura of carefully constructed power and confidence fades away.
What we are left with is a comical farce not worth our time. Conrad did us the favour, a hundred years ago, of uncovering the tricks of our enemy. Showing us their bluff, reassuring us that we, really, hold all of the cards.