While Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is certainly his most famous work, I think that The Secret Agent is infinitely better. Why? It’s beautifully-written, full of action, suspense, well-drawn characters, and although it was published in 1907, Conrad’s astute observations about society are relevant even today. Especially today.
The plot: Adolf Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is to operate as a secret agent. However, Verloc is certainly no James Bond; he prefers to do the absolute minimum required to receive his paycheck. That is, until he is confronted by the shady Mr Vladimir, a foreign ambassador of some kind, with an ultimatum: lose his job or blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The idea behind this plot is that by targeting a building of such symbolic significance, England will be stirred into decisive, even extreme action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist organisations. This is pretty dark stuff and it is easy to see how this bleak take on the political world would be eaten up by conspiracy theorists.
One of the first things I noticed about this book is that although the novel is set in London, it is surprisingly un-English. None of the characters have very English-sounding names, and even the descriptions of the city do not bring to mind images of red telephone boxes and Buckingham Palace. Rather, Conrad’s London appears to be permanently engulfed in darkness, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell that the novel is actually set in London and not in some bleak, cold corner of Poland (Conrad’s home country).
Another thing I loved about this book is that although it is so obviously, relentlessly political, the characters are not one-dimensional. Throughout the novel, Verloc grapples with his conscience as he is forced to adjust from being an observer to an active participant in a terrorist plot. Then there’s the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. It is difficult to discuss this relationship without divulging any spoilers, but it is safe to say that he is, in a sense, both a symbol of innocence and the human mirror of Mr Verloc’s emotional state.
I think you can probably gather that I really loved this book, but I must admit that I did have a couple of issues with it. It did take me about 100 pages to get into the story and I did contemplate giving up once or twice towards the beginning because the writing is so dense (I’m so glad I didn’t). I also thought that some words were used a little too frequently (Mr Verloc ‘mumbles’ so much that I couldn’t help but think of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series) and Conrad uses a ridiculous number of adverbs. But, you can’t be too critical of his over-use of adverbs because did I mention that English was Conrad’s THIRD FREAKING LANGUAGE?!? Yep, that’s right. His first language was Polish, then came French, and then at the age of twenty-one, Conrad finally learned English. And he writes better than the vast majority of native speakers. Unfair.
Anyway, I highly highly highly recommend this book, especially if you’re a fan of political satires. Or even if you’re not. Just read it.
Have you read The Secret Agent? Or any of Joseph Conrad’s other works? What did you think? Would love to hear from you.