- Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad (1911)
- Demo by Richard Allen (New England Library, 1970)
So, I am guiding my reading a bit, because I am Writing A Paper. These two are both
- about Russian secret intelligence operations overseas.
- about the infiltration and attempted disruption of dissident social movements.
- pretty tough to read (for different reasons).
There ends the similarity.
Under Western Eyes (UWE) is a late novel from Joseph “Heart of Darkness” Conrad, and apparently almost broke him in the writing (and me in the reading – not to War and Peace levels, but in the same ballpark). It’s about a young student, Razumov, in Moscow who gets caught up – against his will – in an assassination plot and its aftermath. The majority of UWE takes place in Geneva, where he is attempting to infiltrate/spy on some expat Russians. My god it goes on. This is Conrad, so obvs there is an Unreliable Narrator, an elderly Brit trying to keep his lechery under control. It is, apparently, a Novel of Ideas. Yes, well, Conrad sure does stint on the car chases and explosions…
People say things like this-
“I’ll tell you what you think,” he said explosively, but not raising his voice. “You think that you are dealing with a secret accomplice of that unhappy man. No, I do not know that he was unhappy. He did not tell me. He was a wretch from my point of view, because to keep alive a false idea is a greater crime than to kill a man. I suppose you will not deny that? I hated him! Visionaries work everlasting evil on earth. Their Utopias inspire in the mass of mediocre minds a disgust of reality and a contempt for the secular logic of human development.”
(Conrad, 1911: 95)
This is Conrad, of course, so there are plenty of acid observations to be going along with
“No!” Razumov interrupted without heat. “Indeed, I don’t want to cast aspersions, but it’s just as well to have no illusions.”
Peter Ivanovitch gave him an inscrutable glance of his dark spectacles, accompanied by a faint smile.
“The man who says that he has no illusions has at least that one,” he said, in a very friendly tone. “But I see how it is, Kirylo Sidorovitch. You aim at stoicism.”
(Conrad, 1911: 207)
and, if you like it really really over-wrought
Then, looking hard at me with her brilliant black eyes—
“There are evil moments in every life. A false suggestion enters one’s brain, and then fear is born—fear of oneself, fear for oneself. Or else a false courage—who knows? Well, call it what you like; but tell me, how many of them would deliver themselves up deliberately to perdition (as he himself says in that book) rather than go on living, secretly debased in their own eyes? How many?… And please mark this—he was safe when he did it. It was just when he believed himself safe and more—infinitely more—when the possibility of being loved by that admirable girl first dawned upon him, that he discovered that his bitterest railings, the worst wickedness, the devil work of his hate and pride, could never cover up the ignominy of the existence before him. There’s character in such a discovery.”
(Conrad, 1911: 379)
But tbh, I would not have finished it but for the Paper (see below) (And yes, this is almost certainly a reflection on my shallowness rather than the book’s worth!)
Meanwhile, Demo is a 1970 offering from the New England Library (men of certain age will know that this means violence, sex, sexual violence and Social Darwinism that would have Herbert Spencer saying “steady on old chap”). This book is the kind of trash that gives enjoyable trash a bad name. The racism, sexism, classism, unabashed madness of it all makes it a very hard read. Plot? Well, if you can call it that – some old farts from a thinly veiled Special Operations Executive get it in their heads that all the demos around the world are being orchestrated by Moscow.
Here’s a flavour of the writing (warning, there are pages and pages of this-
The colonel felt pride wash over him as Mai Bedford lifted her glass high. It was a distinctive appelation (sic) – like Flying Tigers and Desert Rats. But for sheer guts and courage none of those others could begin to match a Hartsman or Hartswoman as they had fondly been called in those final days of Europe’s torment. These were the backbone Britain and the Free World had needed when dark clouds clouded the horizon> They had been a strange mixture of bravery, nervelessness, patriotic neurotic so vital in that ancient game called espionage.
(Allen, 1970: 19)
And they are right – there is a baby-faced KGB agent inciting and pulling the strings, while getting laid a lot (who knew that Bolsheviks could be so, well, horizontal).
So these codgers get their mostly willing kids to do counter-espionage. Most of this seems to be done by shagging hippies (always with huge tits, obvs) who have relevant info-
““They’re avid protesters. Anything goes for that Cy, Tim. He’s part Panther, part anti-pollutionist, part anti-Vietnam. You name it, he’s in there pitching against established order. He hates pigs, too,” and she laughed uproariously.
(Allen, 1970: 45)
There’s a grotesque faux-apologia for My Lai and by the end……. ah, look, I can’t go on. It’s repetitive, lurid, gratuitous, with plot holes you could stage a march of millions through. … I would not have finished it but for the Paper (see below). This is not a book that should be tossed aside lightly. It should be… blow-torched.
Weirdly it makes zero reference to the Angry Brigade shit that was going down at the same time. It should be read against the slightly- later “Leftwing Terrorism in Britain literature” that has been so well-explored by Joseph Dartington.
I am writing an article for an upcoming conference, organised by the State Violence Research network with the title “Spies Like Us: Of the usefulness to activists of fictional representations of the agent provocateur and the spy.”
IF YOU KNOW OF ANY BOOKS, FILMS, PLAYS, TV shows that have a representation of the penetration of a social movement organisation (ideally an environmental one), ideally by a member of the police (but corporate spy will do), ESPECIALLY if it set in the recent past (i.e. since, oh, 2000), then please let me know!
At the moment the A-list includes
Vida by Marge Piercy (an all-time favourite, which I look forward to reading with my all-time favourite wife in a few weeks)
My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru
The Invisible Circus by Jenny Egan
Invisible Armies by Jon Evans
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
The meh list
Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad
The Under NO circumstances attempt to read list
Demo by Richard Allen
(I will do a separate review for some non-fiction that I read – Under Cover, Deep Cover etc)
The I don’t know yet list
The Weatherman Guy by Jon Burmeister