Monday, April 25, 2011

Conrad's Secret Agent: On terrorism and politics

Joseph Conrad's haunting novel, The Secret Agent, written in early twentieth century is one of the front runners of spy novels. Probably it was the first time that politics and terrorism makes a major appearance in this genre. Even for Conrad, this was a first. More than suspense or thrills, the novel concentrates on the psychology and motives of perpetrators and those involved in the story with varying degrees of guilt.

This is the story of Verlock, who is a shop keeper, a family man and a secret agent for a foreign country, settled in London. He is a mole in the group of anarchists, interacting and spying on them. One day his boss calls him to office and gives him a mission- to commit a terrorist act on a building of Science so that people will think this is the work of anarchists and they will lose their public support. This mission creates ripples in the life of every one connected - Verlock, his family, anarchists, politicians, police officers, thus starting off a cycle of events getting more and more complicated by the plotting and sub plotting by all involved, to manipulate events to their personal benefit. 

Major themes of the novel are terrorism and anarchism, which is pretty much contemporary even after a hundred years. But if you closely look, the novel implies the hands of external forces in such events. In the novel anarchists does not do any big crime and most of them, except the character Professor, (whom I suspect is a wise but psycho kind of guy) does not have the will power or guts to carry out any atrocity. But it is the people in high positions, who manipulates middle men like Verlock, for whom the job of secret agent is a mode to sustain his life, an employment, and makes them commit things they will never do or even think to do in their right minds.

The novel is superbly written with some wonderful characters, but a bit depressing, unevenly paced and much dark. So be prepared if you plan to read it...

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