Saturday, 22 March 2008

'The Horror. the Horror'

Perhaps it’s the encroaching senility one starts to suspect as the memory finds it hard to drag up once familiar words; perhaps it’s the memento-mori of a deforming, never to be straightened, finger on an increasingly inefficient hand: Maybe it is just excessive experience and a corrupted world.

Whatever it is, my recent re-reading of Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ has left me a little stunned.

Leopards might not change their spots – but works of literature can certainly change their meaning.

Once this was a stylish novel of superior language use, playing with the genre of spies and flooring the ‘le Carrés’ of the future before they even put pen to paper.

Well defined major characters and good descriptions – Dickensian almost but nodding to the modern.

This time it was a vicious (as only humour can be vicious) satire on certainties and politics.

In a world of ocean sized deceit, where atrocities and terrorism originate in ones friends and where one does not really know ‘the enemy’, small lives are wrecked leaving little flotsam to wash ashore.

Winnie, whose story this is, is as tragic a figure as you will find in any ‘Bodice Ripper’ – she marries, for the sake of her family, the safe middle class man who lodged with her mother; her mother leaves in order to safeguard the prospects of an idiot son; the son, brother to Winnie, is hardly noticed by Verloc, double agent for a seedy government, until he is pressured to breaking point by an enthusiastic know-nothing (young, First Secretary, Mr Vladimir).

No one is to blame – next to nothing happens, but a devastating hole is cut out in the reader’s faith in the essential goodness of the universe.

The terror comes with the realisation this is our world – this is the manipulation of modern governments and those agencies set up to protect us – Nothing has changed: If anything, it is more like this than it was at the time of writing.

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