The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

First published in 1907

I received another invitation for the Happy Reader (real life) book club, and after a short consideration, decided to join again as I really enjoyed the last time with Treasure Island. They again sent me a copy of the book – which I really appreciated, but wish they had organised everything a bit earlier. The reading period was two weeks, and I didn’t quite finish it in time (probably about two third). Luckily I got to the point that mattered.

I never read Joseph Conrad’s, so this is my first. I knew he was the author of Heard of Darkness, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The Secret Agent just came to my attention with this event. A quick read of the summary showed that it’s a London book, Soho specifically, with Greenwich as an important setting. I’m a big fan of Greenwich area so it was almost enough as a hook in itself, and I work in Soho! From Penguin introduction:

“The Secret Agent is as much a Soho novel as a London one. Loosely bordered to the south by Leicester Square’s theatres to the east by Covent Garden’s fruit and vegetable markets, to the north by Oxford Street’s busy shops and to the west by Regent Street’s wanky stores, Soho, home to the Verlocs, was the apotheosis of Bohemian London, a bolthole for refugees, prostitutes and Anarchists. In Charles Booth’s analysis of the district in 1898, what most characterized it was the starkly heterogenous mix of its denizens, from the well-to-do to the nearly destitute. While the East End housed the recent influx of Eastern European immigrants, Soho was home to an established immigrant population, though it was no more reputable. Adolphe Smith writing of the district in 1909 states: ‘For centuries England, but more specifically London, has been the asylum of the defeated.’ … Soho was thus a natural home for Conrad’s Anarchist misfits. … To Conrad and his readership, therefore, the district represented the alien in the home, at home even; … Soho, in reality and in Conrad’s imagination, was terra incognita, a locale of political conspiracy and sexual deviance, a zone where ‘foreigners’ circulated.”

Amazing to think how Soho was a century ago, now that it is one of the most expensive place on earth, the rent per square foot is astronomical. (So much that visual effects studios are being pushed out of Soho. But that’s story for another day.)

Conrad got his ideas from a real event. In 1894, a 26-year-old Frenchman named Martial Bourdin accidentally got himself blown up near Greenwich Observatory. His purpose and plans were not clear. That and a bunch of other incidents terrorised Britain and Europe in that period, known as the Anarchist movement. Anarchism was not simple or monolithic. They’re “unified only by their impassioned rejection of government and authority” (Penguin Introduction, an excellent read.)

In a way the book felt timely, what with the terror attacks that have been happening in recent years. It reminded us that there have always been attempts to disrupt society and break peace, by different group of people, under different movement names, throughout different times. Sadly nothing is new nor unique, and history probably repeats itself again in the future, even after we’ve passed through this particular period.

People mentioned the book as dense, which I agree with. I went through it with audio book to keep my reading pace constant and ensure my reading to move forward, as I’m the type of reader that often gets stuck on a paragraph that I can’t get into for a while, just repeatedly reading without getting anything into my head. Audio book forces me to keep going. The Secret Agent does need a bit of dedication to read, but I think it pays off at the end.

Conrad himself had a very interesting life. Born in (what is now) Ukraine, he moved around Europe with his family before moving to England. English is his third language. (Reminded me of Nabokov.) He’d also been a sailor traveling to Australia, south east Asia (now Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand), and Africa (Congo). What a life! The feeling of ‘foreign-ness’ I can relate with, and it comes up in The Secret Agent with almost all the characters being from ‘somewhere else’, half-descents, live outside of ‘place of origin’, and identify as one thing or the other. I’m interested to read more of his works to see how the themes play out.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Born: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski
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