When Martial Bourdin moved through the streets of London on February 15, 1894, he planned to strike a blow against the order of the world — or so it would seem, judging from his decision to bomb the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park. The truth is that nobody knows exactly what the 26-year-old Frenchman intended. Rather than blowing up his apparent target, Bourdin managed only to blow up himself. Investigators collected his bone fragments from a path that led to the famous hilltop building, which was unharmed.
A dozen years later, Joseph Conrad used the incident as an inspiration for his book The Secret Agent. Just as Bourdin had become the sole casualty in what may have been the first act of international terrorism on British soil, Conrad wrote what may be the first great novel of global terrorism, in a genre that today clogs the bestseller lists with titles by the likes of Daniel Silva and Brad Thor. Although The Secret Agent focuses on the ideas and activities of anarchists and says nothing at all about Islam or Muslims, fascination with it has surged in our new age of violent extremism, as readers look for literature that might help explain the madness of the modern world — and its story reached American televisions in September, when Acorn TV began streaming a BBC production that debuted in the United Kingdom earlier this year.
Joseph Conrad was a remarkable man: Born of Polish ancestry under Russian rule in what is now Ukraine, he worked for French shipping companies and traveled the world aboard British steamers before finally settling down in England, where he became a literary giant. Today, Conrad is perhaps best known for Heart of Darkness, a short novel about a riverboat journey up the Congo and an ivory trader called Kurtz. (Francis Ford Coppola retold it as a Vietnam War story in his 1979 movie Apocalypse Now.) Toward the end of the 20th century, the Modern Library polled its editorial board on the best English-language novels of the previous hundred years. Several authors landed on the list twice, and six, including William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Evelyn Waugh, accounted for three entries. Only Conrad made it four times, for Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), and The Secret Agent (1907). That’s a pretty good run for a chap who spoke English as a third language.
Critics often call Conrad a conservative, and Russell Kirk once placed him on a list of “ten exemplary conservatives” who shaped his own thinking. As Kirk well knew, forcing today’s political labels onto figures from the past is a tricky business. Yet he was clearly on to something with Conrad, who throughout his books demonstrated a conservative skepticism of ideologies and their notions of “progress.” In The Secret Agent, he skewers anarchists, authoritarians, and socialists and also defends old-fashioned British liberalism, which believed in political liberty, bourgeois values, and prudential statesmanship. Conrad even invented a character who would be at home in Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s 1970 send-up of rich liberals who try to cultivate a certain image by mixing with left-wing militants.
Oddly, one of the book’s great fans is Ted Kaczynski, the domestic terrorist known as the Unabomber. As he murdered three people and maimed more across nearly two decades, he used Conrad’s name as a pseudonym and apparently read The Secret Agent over and over. Even before his capture in 1996, FBI agents were drawing connections between Kaczynski’s views and those expressed by one of Conrad’s memorable characters, known only by his nickname: “the Professor.” A frustrated scientist, the Professor always carries a bomb beneath his coat and a detonator in his hand and expresses contempt for just about everybody. Kaczynski must have been drawn to the Professor’s deadly rhetoric but also blind to Conrad’s satiric purpose.
The Secret Agent tells the story of Adolf Verloc, a London shopkeeper who sells “shady wares” (i.e., pornography). He lives with his much younger wife, Winnie, and her adult brother, Stevie, a gentle but confused soul who nowadays probably would be diagnosed as autistic. Verloc also associates with a band of anarchists and informs upon their activities to Mr. Vladimir, an official at the Russian embassy.
At the time Conrad wrote, the international anarchist movement included peaceful strains embodied by the likes of Leo Tolstoy, but also became notorious for its violence. In the United States, the lone-wolf anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. Meanwhile, Russia’s czarist government saw anarchists as proto-Communists and sought to suppress them. In The Secret Agent, Vladimir, Moscow’s man in London, orders Verloc to become an agent provocateur who pushes the anarchists to commit an act of terrorism that will give the public “a jolly good scare” and compel the British government into a repressive crackdown on political radicals and refugees. “This country is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty,” he says. Then he proposes a bombing of the Royal Observatory.
This makes for one of the best scenes in the BBC’s three-hour miniseries, as Verloc — his first name switched to “Anton,” possibly because “Adolf” is forever ruined — reports to his handler Vladimir, who lays out the rationale for the attack as they ride through 19th-century London. Much of the dialogue comes straight from Conrad’s pages, even as it compresses an important chapter into just a few moments of screen time. In the book, Vladimir says that the anarchist terror “need not be especially sanguinary.” He adds that royalty and religion no longer hold the public’s esteem. “The sacrosanct fetish of today is science,” he says. “What do you think of having a go at astronomy?”
Just as Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers attacked the World Trade Center because they saw it as an emblem of American capitalism, Vladimir offers the Royal Observatory as a symbol of civilization — the source of the prime meridian, the standard reference point for maps and clocks everywhere. In selecting this target, Conrad has several purposes. The first is to lampoon the act itself. In 1920, he described how he came to write The Secret Agent and recalled Bourdin’s 1894 mishap in Greenwich, calling it “a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.” In the novel, however, Conrad also recognizes the rising power of science and how its influence has started to displace palaces and churches as sources of authority. Finally, of course, is the simple fact that Vladimir doesn’t really care about any of this: He just wants to sponsor an outrage that will provoke a backlash against freedom, much as civil libertarians say that the political responses to 9/11, such as the Patriot Act, eroded American liberties.
The scholar Frederick R. Karl credited Conrad with having invented “the political detective novel.” In other words, Conrad took the example of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories had found a massive audience just a few years earlier, and seasoned it with political commentary. There is some truth to this, though it would be wrong to regard The Secret Agent as merely a subspecies of the whodunit. The book’s real mystery lies not in its clever plotting but rather in its domestic drama — and especially in the characters of Winnie and Stevie, who suffer dearly from Vladimir’s machinations and Verloc’s choices. The mainsprings of evil, Conrad seems to say, are not foreign embassies or social forces but rather individual acts of personal cruelty. And although we may never defeat this permanent feature of human nature, people everywhere have the power to prevent it within their small spheres.
The BBC version of The Secret Agent is a reasonably faithful adaptation. Its major deviation involves a scene of torture that the writers probably added because they mistakenly thought that their show needed an extra helping of 21st-century relevance. (“If you torture him, he wins. We become him,” says one character, in a line taken not from Conrad but from the earnest platitudes of today’s hand-wringing liberals.) Yet this is a small annoyance in a production with plenty of strengths. Toby Jones plays Anton Verloc as a bumbling, amoral manipulator, and Vicky McClure as Winnie Verloc shows that good actresses can do great work even in motionless silence.
Behind it all sits Conrad’s perceptive and prophetic novel, written for his times but with lessons for ours.