By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by: David Horovitch
The uni-bomber, Ted Kaczynski is said to have read The Secret Agent as a coda for his decision to murder and maim innocents. Kaczynski’s craziness and the atrocity of 9/11 are most often referred to in modern reviews of The Secret Agent.
The Secret Agent is about a middle-aged, over weight secret service agent named Adolph Verloc. Verloc lives in England and is a spy for an un-named country. Verloc is called into his employer country’s Embassy to tell him that he is going to be fired unless he provides some actionable service for his pay. Verloc is upset with the news because he is dependent on the income received from the foreign country.
Verloc lives with his wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law; none of which know that he is a spy. The brother-in-law is mentally challenged but idolizes Verloc. Despite Verloc’s ownership of a small business, his family depends on his income as a spy. Because this book is written by a good writer, one presumes Verloc is a cipher, a character that must mean more than he seems. He seems less than smart. He is selfish. He cares for others but only in proportion to what they can do for him. He has infiltrated an anarchist organization as a principal officer but seems frozen in place. As the story progresses, Conrad never dispels the feeling that this character is too dumb to be a spy.
The anarchist organization members are made up of nihilistic agents; in particular, a con man named Ossipon and a bomb maker called The Professor. Verloc asks The Professor to make a bomb for him based on a plan suggested by the Embassy that Verloc visited earlier. The plan is to blow up the Greenwich Observatory near London.
ROYAL OBSERVATORY, GREENWICH, ENGLAND, (This is where the first triangulation was made to establish a prime meridian to allow world synchronization of time.)
Verloc chooses to use his mentally challenged brother-in-law to carry the bomb. Once again a reader/listener is confronted with the feeling that Verloc is too dumb to be a spy.
What is to be made of re-publication of and public interest in The Secret Agent? After all, it was published over 100 years ago. Is it a satire that reveals the absurdity of secret service organizations? Is it a primer for terrorist wannabes? Is it a rejection of capitalism? Is it about the vacuity of me-ism (life is all about me)? Does it reveal the secrets of a terrorist’s philosophy? Is it about the aftermath of a terrorist event?
Having read how MI5 was formed (the spy agency created by England during WWII), there is an element of ridiculousness in the operations of clandestine organizations. Conrad’s book exposes the delusions of intelligence operations.
The philosophy of a terrorist is clearly seen in Conrad’s characterization of The Professor. Maybe, The Secret Agent is a primer, or warning for terrorist wannabes.
Conrad shows money is at the heart of the radical actions of Verloc and the duplicitous Ossipon. Conrad may be railing against capitalism.
The character of Verloc is reprehensible; i.e. everything bad is because of someone else’s fault; everything good is because of Verloc. Verloc is the story of a man who thinks life revolves around him, and only him.
It seems The Secret Agent is partly about all of the above. Conrad offers some insight to a terrorist’s demented beliefs. The consequence of a terrorist event is the devastation of those left behind.
However, the tale is too long; mystery, revelation, insight too meager, and characters too stereotypical. The Secret Agent is only marginally interesting because of Horovitch’s narration.