Joseph Conrad is considered one of the most important writers in the 20th century. He was Born in 1857 in Berdichev, a region of Poland which today belongs to Ukraine. He became a British national at the age of 29, using English as his writing language.
Conrad is a prolific author who wrote dozens of short stories, novels, and travel journals. He excelled at the subject of adventures, including colonial undertakings in Africa. He is less known for his prophetical novels on the political intrigues and conflicts in Europe which reveal his profound knowledge and insight of these complicated issues.
Some situations portrayed in his political novels Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent could still be easily identified in the present time. Even if these extraordinary novels are fictional, both contain rich descriptions of certain terrorist plots or activities of the “agent provocateurs” and spies paid by foreign governments.
The main purpose of hiring these kind of agents is to warn their recruiting governments about the potentially dangerous activities of the radical groups. Governments that pay for this kind of “dark agents” also attempt to spread their influences in other countries.
The Secret Agent, written in 1907, is the story of Mr. Verloc, an agent employed by the French Government to report about the activities and plans of socialists, anarchists and other underground political figures living in London. These type of personalities would gather late in the evening in Mr. Verloc’s small shop which, on the surface, sells “obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like ‘The Torch’,‘The Gong’—rousing titles” with windows displaying “photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls”. Mr. Verloc was also one of the Vice-Presidents of an organization named “The Future of the Proletariat”
Despite all these links, Mr. Verloc enjoys a comfortable bourgeois double life with his family until he receives a “peremptory letter” summoning him to the French Embassy in the daytime, an unprecedented and unpleasant situation that can damage his image with his comrades.
He is received with some contempt by a new First Secretary, who says “I have here some of your reports” mocking Verloc’s accounts as useless and expensive. “In the time of Baron Stott-Wartenheim (the previous French Ambassador) we had a lot of soft-headed people running this Embassy.” And he continues, “What is required at present is not writing.. now we want facts…”
To convey what he means by “facts” and what Mr. Verloc is required to do to continue getting paid, the French diplomat explains that his government considers it “dangerous” that England has an absurd “sentimental regard for individual liberty position” opposing to tougher measures to combat political dissidents, soon to be discussed in an international meeting on security issues. “What we want is to administer a tonic to the Conference in Milan,” he says, “..its deliberations upon international action for the suppression of political crime don’t seem to get anywhere. England lags.“, the bureaucrat claims.
The First Secretary carries on his monologue outlining his plan to “induce” England to accept new repressive policies. He orders Mr. Verloc to organise a series of terrorist acts to be “executed here in this country; not only planned here”. That will shock and scare the middle class, turning them in favour of measures to make them feel secure. These acts, he says “…must be sufficiently startling—effective. Let them be directed against buildings…the fetish of the hour that all the bourgeoisie recognise…”.
Almost as an anticipated ominous warning, 94 years after this novel was published, the U.S. suffered a series of well-planned terrorist attacks in 2001, mainly targeted at buildings, killing more that 3,000 people and destroying the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, one of the most famous Manhatan landmarks.
In this classical novel, Joseph Conrad demonstrates his deep understanding of the radical minds of his time behind convulsive political intrigues that created tensions and serious conflicts, ending with the First World War.
It is clear that Conrad was aware of the destructive nature of radical ideologies that tended to justify violence and terrorism, disregarding innocent human lives for the sake of an abstract cause. In The Secret Agent and Under the Western Eyes he explores the so-called “Heart of Darkness”, a metaphor of dark spirit, as used in the book title of one of his most famous novels.
These two works, written more than 100 years ago, are not the only classic novels that deal with these current complex political and social topics. Dostoyevsky, some 30 years before Conrad, wrote The Possessed, a.k.a. Devils or Demons, which also tackles terrorism, a topic that regrettably continues to be very much alive today.