We tend to think of terrorist outrages as a relatively modern thing, part and parcel of the somewhat unstable world we live in nowadays. However, a cursory glance through Russian literature, or a look at works like my most recent read, soon gives lie to this. As soon as man created the means of mass destruction, there were human beings happy to use them against their own kind for a political or moral cause.

Secret Agent cover image

“The Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad is an unusual novel for a number of reasons: it’s not the usual sea story or trip to dark continents normally associated with him; it’s actually got a lot of sparky humour; and it’s based on a real event. The book opens with the reader being introduced to the Secret Agent of the title, Mr. Verloc. He runs a seedy shop in London, selling mild pornography and contraceptives, where he lives with his wife Winnie, brother-in-law Stevie and mother-in-law. Stevie has some kind of mental disability and Winnie is, in effect, his carer, acting more like a mother than a sister. Verloc has an oddball set of revolutionary friends: Comrade Ossipon, Karl Yundt, Michaelis and the rather sinister ‘Professor’, purveyor of explosives. They are a pretty ineffectual bunch, producing pamphlets and well-known to the local Chief Inspector Heat – in fact, the only one who is really threatening is The Professor, who carries a bomb at all times, prepared to self-immolate rather than be arrested.

Verloc works as a spy for an unnamed foreign country, and he is summoned to the embassy as they are not happy that enough is being done in the way of agitation. Ironically, because of the British justice system, they feel that there is not enough oppression in the country which would allow them to persuade the working classes to revolt. Therefore, they want Verloc to create some kind of bomb outrage to cause a clamp-down. Verloc is thrown into disarray by  this, as he is petty purveyor of secret information, not a bomb-throwing anarchist. Nevertheless, he finally decides to take action and a bomb explodes in a park near the Greenwich Observatory. But the bomber is killed as well, and it initially seems that Verloc has destroyed himself accidentally. However, the case is more complex than this, and as Heat begins to investigate, he is hampered in this by his superior, who has social connections with one of the anarchists. Who really did throw the bomb, why, and what will the consequences be?

The structure of TSA is unusual, shifting back and forward in time – from the initial scenes of Verloc being told to create an incident, we then flash forward to after the incident and the investigations taking place by Heat and his boss, the Assistant Commissioner. We then flash back again to before the explosion and follow the Verlocs in the time leading up to the explosion and then the immediate consequences for them.

If I’m honest, it was pretty obvious early on who the bomber was and what had happened, but this novel is certainly not meant to be a mystery at all. TSA is a novel that is less about actions and more about the motivations and results of those actions. The main event in the book, the bomb, actually ends up being of secondary importance to the exploration of why people take these actions and the consequences to all. But more than anything else, it is a novel about Winnie Verloc – her childhood and upbringing, her marriage and life choices, what it was that made her what she is, a women who does not look to closely at things; and how this is the undoing of her, and those around her. Conrad’s genius is in the way he allows the story to unfold gradually, shifting from one viewpoint to another as the characters come to recognise what has happened and what effect this has had. He never the rushes the reader, and we take the journey with the characters, witnessing Verloc’s lack of understanding of his wife’s temperament, Ossipon’s panic, the Assistant Commissioner’s joy at his unusual behaviour and ultimately, Winnie’s despair.

Conrad’s prose is quite dense but very lovely, and this is all the more surprising when you remind yourself that he was born a Ukrainian so English is not his native language. The book is remarkably involved and involving, following the emotions, motivations and beliefs of the main characters, but also featuring some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of foggy London, its post-Dickensian squalor and moral and physical poverty of the people living there. It even has dry humour:

“Mr. Verloc was an intermittent patron. He came and went without any very apparent reason. He generally arrived in London (like the influenza) from the Continent, only he arrived unheralded by the Press, and his visitations set in with great severity.”

Everything in the book is distorted some way  – the characters physically (Michaelis and Verloc are obese, the Professor and Yundt like skeletons); the family relationships of the Verloc are askew (Winnie being like a mother to her brother, Verloc being more like a father than a husband). There is also Verloc’s skewed moral outlook, as he believes he is undertaking his actions to provide for his family and he tries very hard to perpetrate a bombing outrage that will bring no physical harm to people. However, because he and his wife never communicate, he is unaware of the one small action she has taken which will bring about their downfall.

Joseph_ConradThe discussion of the morals and motivations of terrorism as an act is quite chilling, too. We live in an age that has become almost used to random acts of violence, but reading the rationale behind the acts, and seeing the fanaticism of its followers spelled out, is frightening.

“But what is one to say to an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable; in fact, mad? Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion or bribes.”

Or as the Professor says, when discussed the inability of the authorities to stop him dealing in explosives:

“They are bound to all sorts of conventions. They depend on life, which, in this connection, is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex organised fact open to attack at every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident.”

However, the final irony is that this bomb outrage is not perpetrated by a madman but simply by an agent wanting to keep his job.

I was absolutely riveted by this novel – it’s an exceptional piece of writing, a gripping tale, and a very thought-provoking exploration of the points where the personal and the political meet – highly recommended.
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As a side note, on the subject of the physical book, this is my first Penguin English Library volume and what lovely things they are too! The cover is sturdy and slightly plasticky, so nice and strong, and there is an author picture on the inside cover. I can see myself investing in a few more of these…..!