Sunday, September 25, 2016

The first great novel about terrorism

I just added The Secret Agent to my Watchlist at Amazon Prime based on John Miller's NR review. I have never read Conrad's 1907 book on which the BBC series is based. From the review:
When Martial Bourdin moved through the streets of London on February 15, 1894, he planned to strike a blow against the order of the world — or so it would seem, judging from his decision to bomb the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park. The truth is that nobody knows exactly what the 26-year-old Frenchman intended. Rather than blowing up his apparent target, Bourdin managed only to blow up himself. Investigators collected his bone fragments from a path that led to the famous hilltop building, which was unharmed.

A dozen years later, Joseph Conrad used the incident as an inspiration for his book The Secret Agent. Just as Bourdin had become the sole casualty in what may have been the first act of international terrorism on British soil, Conrad wrote what may be the first great novel of global terrorism....

The Secret Agent tells the story of Adolf Verloc, a London shopkeeper who sells “shady wares” (i.e., pornography). He lives with his much younger wife, Winnie, and her adult brother, Stevie, a gentle but confused soul who nowadays probably would be diagnosed as autistic. Verloc also associates with a band of anarchists and informs upon their activities to Mr. Vladimir, an official at the Russian embassy.

At the time Conrad wrote, the international anarchist movement included peaceful strains embodied by the likes of Leo Tolstoy, but also became notorious for its violence. In the United States, the lone-wolf anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. Meanwhile, Russia’s czarist government saw anarchists as proto-Communists and sought to suppress them. In The Secret Agent, Vladimir, Moscow’s man in London, orders Verloc to become an agent provocateur who pushes the anarchists to commit an act of terrorism that will give the public “a jolly good scare” and compel the British government into a repressive crackdown on political radicals and refugees. “This country is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty,” he says. Then he proposes a bombing of the Royal Observatory. ....

.... Much of the dialogue comes straight from Conrad’s pages, even as it compresses an important chapter into just a few moments of screen time. In the book, Vladimir says that the anarchist terror “need not be especially sanguinary.” He adds that royalty and religion no longer hold the public’s esteem. “The sacrosanct fetish of today is science,” he says. “What do you think of having a go at astronomy?” ....

The BBC version of The Secret Agent is a reasonably faithful adaptation. .... Toby Jones plays Anton Verloc as a bumbling, amoral manipulator, and Vicky McClure as Winnie Verloc shows that good actresses can do great work even in motionless silence.

Behind it all sits Conrad’s perceptive and prophetic novel, written for his times but with lessons for ours.