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February 6, 2005 - "There were no rules for dealing with anarchists."

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Book Wrangler

Sunday, February 6, 2005

By Bob Patterson


Many moons ago, we stumbled across an opinion that The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad was the best novel ever written about anarchists.  We bought a copy and tried to read it, but failed in our attempt.


Recently, we saw a damaged copy for a buck and snapped it up.  In the interim we had read Heart of Darkness, which we greatly enjoyed for the quality of the writing; so we were approaching The Secret Agent with more enthusiasm this time.


The conservative talk shows talk about folks who like to “throw bombs” and they aren’t referring to a football playing quarterback.  The anarchists really did specialize in bombs, so, in this post 9-11 atmosphere, the curiosity factor about this book was much greater.


The particular copy I found had an introduction and notes provided by Martin Seymour-Smith.  He indicated it was regarded by many as Conrad’s best novel and that the characters were humorous exaggerations.  Perhaps society’s current obsession with terrorists was a factor in the assessment, but to this reviewer, at this point in time, no chuckles were part of the reading experience.


It was extremely well written, engrossing, and noticeably melodramatic, but for anyone who has been prompted by 9-11 to read more than just one book about the complex issues and the topic of terrorism, this will be a valuable addition to the list of books for background information.


Who were the bad guys in this novel that was published in 1906?  Conrad plays coy and doesn’t say directly, but he does drop in one particular word, paynim, that hints that the more things change, the more they remain the same.


Fans of Joseph Conrad will most likely already own a copy of this book.  The curious will probably find a copy of this available at their local library and we strongly recommend a visit to that community resource and some literary reconnaissance.  For pundits looking for eloquent quotes relevant to anarchists and terrorism, a reading of this novel is highly recommended. 


Here are just a few of the many quotable passages we noted in this one hundred year old novel that seems to be “ripped from today’s headlines:”  (Our copy was a Penguin Books of England paperback printed in 1980, which, among the credit information carried this ironic information:  “Filmset in 9/11 Monophoto Sabon by Norhumberland Press.”)


In a commercial transaction of the retail order much depends on the seller’s engaging and amiable aspect.  (page 46)  Donald Trump couldn’t have said it better.


But there was also about him an indescribable air which no mechanic could have acquired in the practice of his handicraft however dishonestly exercised: the air common to men who live on the vices, the follies, or the baser fears of mankind; the air of moral nihilism common to keepers of gambling hells, and disorderly houses; to private detectives and inquiry agents, to drink sellers and, I should say, to the sellers of invigorating electric belts and to the inventors of patent medicines.  (page 52)  Isn’t that a perfect description of Rick in Casablanca?


The proper business of an agent provocateur is to provoke.  (page 61)


The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches.  (page 64)


A given anarchist may be watched inch-by-inch and minute by minute, but a moment always comes when somehow all sight and touch of him are lost for a few hours, during which something (generally an explosion) more or less deplorable does happen.  (page 105)


“There were no rules for dealing with anarchists…  It was all foolishness, but that foolishness excited the public mind, affected persons in high places, and touched upon international relations.”  (page 114)


As this column was being written, we noticed a fine article by Margo Jefferson in the New York Times on Friday, February 4, 2005, titled “The New Noir, Not Always by Men or by Americans.”  We made a mental note to call our favorite Mystery Book Store (in the Westwood section of Los Angeles) and recommend that they get a copy and post it in their noir novel section.




Here are some new books that caught our attention:


Some Writers Deserve To Starve: 31 Brutal Truths about the Publishing Industry by Elaura Niles ($14.99 paperback Writers Digest Book) - OK which one of you just said: “Shouldn’t Bob read that book?”  That’s funny, real funny, but isn’t saying that to me, kinda mean?


Slouching Toward Nirvana: New Poems by Charles Bukowski ($27.50 Ecco) - Is this another new book from a prolific author who died about 10 years ago?  Ain’t that somethin’?


The Manhattan Beach Project: A Novel by Peter Lefcourt  ($24 Simon & Schuster) - Are they making fun of life in Southern California again?  Gees, if LA and Hollywood didn’t exist, sarcastic writers would have to invent it, then, wouldn’t they?  If LA is so bad, why does every author want to come here to research a book that will ridicule the City of Angels?


Autopia: Cars and Culture by Peter Wollen (Editor), Joe Kerr (Editor) ($39.95 paperback Reaktion Books) - We found this book in the UCLA bookstore in the section set aside for books from members of the faculty.  Cars just happen to be one of our favorite subjects. 


As Luck Would Have It: Incredible Stories from Lottery Wins to Lightning Strikes by Joshua Piven  ($17.95 Villard) - Unfortunately for the author of this book, we didn’t have enough money in our pocket when we discovered this book, so unless we win the lottery or they get it at the Santa Monica Public Library, it may take awhile for us to get to do a review of this book. 


Murder Can Mess Up Your Mascara by Selma Eichler ($6.50 paperback) - Can’t it though?


The Independent Writers of Southern California have a February schedule that offers a smorgasbord of literary events.  It’s easier for us to link to their website’s calendar page than to do all the typing necessary to list those events of interest here.


Have a week chock full of rewarding leisure reading and come back again next week when the Book Wrangler will attempt to restart your Christmas gift giving spending.




Copyright 2005 – Robert Patterson


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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