Title:                      Under Western Eyes

Author:                 Joseph Conrad

Conrad, Joseph (1911, 1025). Under Western Eyes. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, Page & Co.

LCCN:    26026988

PZ3.C764 Un4


Date Posted:      November 30, 2016

From a book review by Bob Trube[1]

Betrayal. It’s an ugly idea that someone you trust would behind your back act against you. What Dostoevsky does with the idea, act and subsequent guilt of murder in Crime and Punishment, Conrad explores here around the idea of betrayal.

Razumov, the main character, is an orphan sponsored silently by Prince K___, of the Russian nobility, as a student. Dark, quiet, studious, and a listener, he finds himself entrusted with the safety and escape plans of a fellow student, Victor Haldin, who has just assassinated a Russian official. He shares none of Haldin’s revolutionary presentiments, and sees his hope of a successful career vanishing to be replaced with a prison sentence in Siberia. Failing to arouse the peasant worker Ziemianitch to transport Haldin out of Russia, he decides to go to the authorities and betray the location where Ziemianitch was to pick up Haldin. Haldin is arrested, and executed. It would seem that Razumov can resume his life.

Conrad reveals how betrayal comes at a cost. For one thing, there is the “phantom” of Haldin that dogs Razumov’s steps throughout the story and the repeated effort to “step on” the phantom, to obliterate him. Then, because Razumov was never identified as the betrayer (and the remorseful death by hanging of Zemianitch suggests that it was he), Razumov is recruited to infiltrate the revolutionary circles abroad because he is assumed by them to be a friend and revolutionary associate of Haldin’s, indeed the last to see him living. He succeeds in insinuating himself into their circles, but as he does so he comes in contact with Haldin’s sister Nathalia under whose “gray, trustful eyes” he falls, and those of her mother, shattered by the loss of her son. He also comes under the eyes of the English (hence Western) narrator who is Nathalia’s English teacher.

The plot tension surrounds whether Razumov will be able to keep up the ruse, and betray yet more of these revolutionaries to the Russian authorities (betrayal leading to yet more betrayal) or whether the knowledge of what he is done and the duplicity he is practicing will become too great for him.

The device of the western observer who tells this story seems awkward and somewhat extraneous to the plot movement. Otherwise, this is a fascinating study of the psychology of betrayal. It also chronicles tsarist Russia’s corrosive abuses of power that led to the Marxist revolution. In the variety of characters in the revolutionary circle Conrad also gives us a portrait of the mix of the noble, venal and violent qualities of the regime that took its place.

Reviewed by Rachel Donadio[2]

At a recent conference on faith and reason organized by the PEN American Center, Martin Amis introduced a passage by Joseph Conrad about religious belief. “Or faith,” as Amis qualified it in his gravelly voice, “faith, recently and rather endearingly defined as ‘the desire for the approval of supernatural beings.’ Terribly sweet, that.” At this, the packed audience at Town Hall in Manhattan issued a knowing and slightly complicit laugh, as if to suggest there was a stark choice between faith or reason—and it would take reason.

A century ago, Conrad wrote about terrorism in The Secret Agent[3] and Under Western Eyes, novels that drew on European political turmoil to address deeper moral questions. Today, some of our most ambitious novelists are struggling to do the same thing—only a vast cultural and linguistic divide separates them from their chosen subjects, men like those who attacked the World Trade Center. In John Updike’s new novel, Terrorist[4], published this month, Ahmad Mulloy, an Irish-Egyptian high school student from New Jersey, falls under the sway of a radical imam who encourages him to become a suicide terrorist. In April, The New Yorker published an excerpt from Amis’s fictional reckoning with terrorism, which focused on Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian tactical leader of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The two accounts raise questions about how far the Western literary imagination can take us into the minds and motivations of Islamic terrorists. For a writer with no Arabic and a limited understanding of Islam, is literary skill enough? What kind of research is needed? What’s the best way in: focusing on the mind of the terrorist, or the society from which he emerges?

For his part, Updike approached the subject with an awareness of his limitations. “I thought that I could present a sympathetic view of a terrorist, or dramatize or animate the terrorist’s point of view,” he said in a recent telephone interview. But the character “had to be an American. . . . With so many journalists and other novelists on the job, there was no need to try to understand the Saudi or Syrian or Palestinian terrorist. Others can do that better.” To prepare, he consulted the Koran, The 9/11 Commission Report[5], a few books on suicide terrorism and Islam, and New Jersey Day Trips. (Ahmad becomes a truck driver there.) “I even bought something called ‘The Koran for Dummies,’” Updike said. “I tried to acquaint myself with Arabic and the Arabic of the Koran as it might be handled in lessons, probably not very realistically rendered lessons.” (Ahmad studies Arabic at his local mosque.)

As in Hanif Kureishi’s prescient short story from the mid-90’s, My Son the Fanatic, Updike’s Ahmad sees Islam as an alternative to a sex-crazed culture. Other characters sympathize with him, albeit in complicated ways. “The crazy Arabs are right,” Ahmad’s high school guidance counselor says while in bed with Ahmad’s mother, with whom he’s having an affair. “Hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer. Listen to the lyrics of these rock and rap stars.”

The suburban adulterers in the bedroom are characteristic Updike, just as Amis’s fictional portrait of Mohamed Atta comes off as pure Amis. The New Yorker excerpt opens with a quotation from The 9/11 Commission Report: “No physical, documentary or analytical evidence provides a convincing explanation of why Atta and [Abdulaziz] Omari drove to Portland, Me., from Boston on the morning of Sept. 10, only to return to Logan on Flight 5930 on the morning of Sept. 11.” Amis finds the explanation in the repression of various appetites. He imagines Atta as constipated, his digestive system a stand-in for a deeper existential blockage. “Atta was not religious; he was not even especially political. He had allied himself with the militants because jihad was, by many magnitudes, the most charismatic idea of his generation. To unite ferocity and rectitude in a single word: nothing could compete with that,” Amis writes. “If you took away all the rubbish about faith, then fundamentalism suited his character, and with an almost sinister precision. For example, the attitude toward women: the blend of extreme hostility and extreme wariness he found highly congenial.”

Some writers in the Islamic world say they’re wary of Western fictional treatments of Islamic terrorism. “I find them speculative, sometimes dangerous,” the Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra wrote in an e-mail message. “It’s hard for a Westerner to get to the bottom of things. He’s forced to dwell on the networks, the operations and motivations of terrorist organizations and to ignore the essential: the mentality, the fundamentalist philosophy.” Khadra’s new novel, The Attack, is the story of an Israeli-Arab doctor trying to understand how his wife became a suicide terrorist. Khadra is the nom de plume of Mohammed Moulesshoul, a former Algerian Army officer. He said he spent eight years fighting against Algeria’s Islamist opposition and sees fundamentalism as “an extremely violent way of expressing one’s identity, one’s ferocious need to exist. Hatred against the West is only a catalyzing pretext, a way of rallying the kamikazes around a utopian ideal”—establishing a caliphate from Indonesia to Morocco.

Islamism can feed on a broader malaise. “It’s more a general oppressiveness of the culture,” the Iranian-American novelist Nahid Rachlin said in a recent interview. Angry young men in Islamic countries are contending not just with sexual repression, she said, but with oppressive governments, a bleak economy, “the general frustrations of daily life.” In her novels Foreigner (1979) and the just published Jumping Over Fire, Rachlin, who has lived in the United States since the 70s, writes about people caught between two cultures. In Foreigner, set in Iran on the brink of the Islamic revolution, an Iranian woman who has been living somewhat joylessly in Boston with her American husband returns to Tehran for a visit and decides to stay. In spare prose, Rachlin explores the unresolved tensions between the familiar cultural and religious restrictions of Iran and the anxious-making freedom of the West.

For the most part, “Arab writers are dealing with the conditions and situations that lead young people to consider violent reactions,” according to Marilyn Booth, a translator of Arabic and professor of comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She cited the Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat’s Disciples of Passion (1993), a novel about the Lebanese Civil War, in which a brief cameo of a suicide bomber “helps to fill in the alienation and utter craziness of the war,” and the Iraqi novelist Muhsin al-Ramli’s Scattered Crumbs (2000), set in an Iraqi village during the Iran-Iraq war. Such novels “are not so likely to focus on the end result”—a terrorist attack—“that is perhaps more of interest to Western audiences,” Booth said. “Arab authors (and audiences) are more likely to focus on process, and the resulting picture isn’t going to resemble a front-page news story in an American newspaper.”

Newspaper reporting, however, forms the basis for a notable recent American novel about Islamic terrorism, Lorraine Adams’s Harbor (2004), about a group of Algerian illegal immigrants in Boston who become somewhat unwittingly enmeshed in a possible terrorist plot. A former investigative reporter for The Washington Post, Adams covered the federal investigation into a group of Algerians accused of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport in 1999, and had access to hours of phone calls recorded by the F.B.I. “I got to hear the conversations that these men had with one another when no one’s listening, when they’re not talking to infidel white woman Lorraine Adams,” she said. In Harbor, the main factor in the young men’s lives is economic hardship and hopelessness, not religion. Adams conducted extensive interviews with a jailed suspect. “He was a believer in certain ways,” she said, but his beliefs “started to waver” when she questioned him.

It may take some time for the novelistic accounts to eclipse the journalistic ones. “We’re all a little slow maybe to wrap our minds around this fundamental new factor in American life, and in Western life really,” Updike said. “These are deep waters that have us all kind of puzzling.”

[1] Bob Trube Book Review: “Under Western Eyes” (Jul 8, 2014), downloaded April 30, 2015

[2] Rachel Donadio, in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (June 11, 2006). Downloaded November 30, 2016. Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.

[3] Conrad, Joseph (1907, 2007). The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. New York: New American Library

[4] Updike, John (2006). Terrorist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

[5] Kean, Thomas H. (2004) and Lee Hamilton, compliers. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. Also includes recommendations designed to guard against future attacks. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office


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