* Contains spoilers galore!
The Secret Agent begins with an introduction to Mr. Verloc’s shop of junk and “shady wares”, an establishment as square and odd as Mr. And Mrs. Verloc. We learn Verloc met his wife, Winnie, at a boarding house she managed. When they married, Winnie’s mother and younger brother also came under his care. The boarding house is given up in exchange for the naughty shop because it conflicts with Verloc’s “other business”.
Maybe it’s due to a heavy diet of James Bond, but somehow Verloc fails to bring excitement to his brand of secret agent. He lies around in bed and doesn’t get up until lunch. He is overweight and walks with a cane. He sells pornography. I’m not quite sure what to make of him as a main character, he seems humourless and dry as toast. Even his marriage to Winnie feels less like a romance and more like a good business decision. I guess there will be no chase scenes and death-defying acts in this book.
Verloc is in a very cheery mood until he pays a visit to Mr. Vladamir, the new First Secretary of an unnamed embassy. Vladamir is a bureaucrat with nice teeth and a very nasty attitude. He picks apart Verloc’s character, career and politics with one ferocious snarl. He orders him to create chaos for Britain’s own good by blowing up Greenwich Observatory to bring attention to the anarchist element in society.
It wasn’t completely shocking to learn Verloc is not a very good secret agent. How can you be hanging out so much with revolutionists and mastering the art of being idle? Does Vladamir choose Verloc for the task because of his political connections or to test Verloc or to give him a good kick in the butt? Verloc is thoroughly annoyed with his orders, but agrees out of fear he won’t get paid that week. No greater motivator than money. Always works for me.
Verloc has a meeting at home with his grim little band of the Future of the Proletariat members, Michaelis, Comrade Ossipon and Karl Yundt. The men heatedly discuss politics and society, and in their posturing are overheard by Stevie, Mrs. Verloc’s simple-minded and sensitive brother. He is greatly disturbed by the violent imagery used in the statements of the anarchist, Michaelis. Verloc is mostly mute during the discussion, still burning over the Vladamir tongue-lashing. When he sees something is wrong with Stevie, he offers help but mostly keeps his distance.
Maybe it will be revealed as the story continues, but it’s not clear to me why Verloc chooses to be an anarchist. With some research, I understand why Joseph Conrad was interested in anarchists and revolutionaries having grown up during the intense political climates of Russia and Poland in the late 1800s, and as an adult with terrorist activity rising in Europe.
I don’t actually know what the difference is between an anarchist and a revolutionist. According to Wikipedia (yes, it always comes back to the Wiki):
Anarchists are those who consider the state to be unnecessary, harmful, or otherwise undesirable, and favour instead a stateless society.
A revolutionary is a person who either actively participates in, or advocates revolution. (Revolution being) … a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time.
Um, perfectly clear?
Joseph Conrad describes each member of the Future of the Proletariat, but when I read this part they all blend together and are indistinguishable in my mind. I also can’t shake the image they are all really grungy and need to take bath. I will need to read on to learn more about these characters and separate them in my head.
To be continued.