I had written earlier that i have been trying to trim my book shelf ! In this process, i had put aside books that “were to be read and discarded”. Of these an old paperback edition of Joseph Conrad’s “The secret agent” struck me – partly because Conrad was an author I had enjoyed reading oh-so-long-ago in my teen years and it also brought to mind images of the handsome Peter O’Toole in dashing white uniform in the film “Lord Jim” based on another Conrad novel.
The copy of ‘The Secret Agent’ that I found is a browning Pan Classic, a 1975 edition, probably bought by a ‘Meliwali Itiazi’ – as this is what the signature on the first page in pencil looks like. But on page 3, my daughter’s signature is clearly present with the inscription ‘Sunday market, Delhi, 10th January, 1999′. I wonder if Pan even exists today! The book itself was originally published more than a century ago, in 1907 and is dedicated to H G Wells. Joseph Conrad was Polish, who started a seafaring life at a young age and is best known for his stories set around the far East and South Seas.
Conrad’s “Secret Agent’ is of a completely different genre from his seafaring tales and maybe termed a ‘thriller’. But it is much more than that. It describes events around an actual aborted attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. So blowing up things is not as new as we seem to think. Only the scale has changed. Late 19th century London was a haven for political exiles of all sorts – refugees, partisans, anarchists. Verloc, the protagonist made his living by spying for the Russian government, while simultaneously passing on information to the London police, specifically Chief Inspector Heat. In response to the demands of a new Russian ambassador that he prove his worth or lose his salary, Verloc sets off a tragic chain of events. These involve his pretty young wife Winnie and her retarded brother Stevie, and ‘ Professor’, who has a fascination for explosives and destruction and thus the person who Verloc contacts when makes when needs to make a bomb.
Conrad writes with a wonderful feel for the language and the characters he sketches have so much flesh and blood to them. You feel that you may run into one of them down the street. The emotional trap that each is hiding in, their the day to day interactions and relationships all go to make this a gripping tale. And of course the description of London, the dark streets, the foggy days are all evocative. For us, reading it in the present, the tools of espionage and policing are interesting – for instance the communication across London (and this London of 1894!!) is by runners!! THe story has an interesting climax – justifying the thriller tag to a point.
But what kept me arrested to the book was how the moralistic questions raised by Conrad in an understated and ironic way are as relevant today as it was then. Is not the world we live in now is much filled with perceived enemies, groups that think they have the ‘right’ way to solve the problems of the world, that every one should be converted even if by ‘hook’ or ‘crook’ and the host of those in the periphery who get drawn in for reasons that have little to do with these philosophies as it was then? So, really terrorism is not so new at all!