Title: The Secret Agent
Author: Joseph Conrad
Conrad, Joseph (1907, 2007). The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. New York: New American Library
- Royal Greenwich Observatory–Fiction.
- London (England)–Fiction.
- New introduction by E.L. Doctorow
PR6005.O4 S4 2007
Date Posted: March 9, 2015
Reviewed by Tom Miller
A collection of “marginal men” who hate modern capitalist society and seek to destroy it. A plot to target a central symbol of such a society. An act of “destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible …” A terrorist who wanders the streets of a modern city waiting for an opportunity to detonate himself and anyone nearby.
Sound familiar? Well, it was for turn-of-the-century London—the twentieth century, that is. For those who managed to avoid reading Joseph Conrad, this is the plot of The Secret Agent, which Conrad published in 1907. It was a sensation at the time because of its dark nature, and it’s been read and debated since—especially by scholars. In the wake of 9/11, however, The Secret Agent was dusted off and recommended to a larger audience again.
Here, in this century-old novel, perhaps are clues into the minds of those who would do such “incomprehensible” deeds. Conrad was celebrated as a “literary Nostrodomus” and “the first great novelist of the twenty-first century,” and The Secret Agent “as a prophetic text.” If too much perhaps has been made of Conrad recently, his psychological exploration into the minds of anarchists, revolutionists, and terrorists is well worth reading or re-reading today. The Secret Agent is a compelling read, and Conrad seems spot-on in many of his conclusions about terrorists. As journalist Robert Kaplan notes in an introduction to this 2004 edition, Conrad’s observation that “Terrorism is the little man’s revenge,” seems universal. And, as to the terrorist’s choice of methods (suicide bombers, for example) and targets (the World Trade Center), Conrad warned us long ago that “Madness alone is truly terrifying … “