Monday, December 18, 2006

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad (1911)

I completely forgot that I had already read this when packing it to bring with me, but as soon as I started reading, it came flooding back. It was nice to be reacquainted with Razumov and a forgotten literary crush, Nathalie Haldin. I think I gained a bit more traction on the views of the revolutionists this time round, although I remain confused at the stance taken by the book to revolution. After all, as it soon becomes clear, we are reading the record of Razumov after his stand against a certain revolutionist leads to such a degree of remorse that he effectively dies of it (how dramatic!). My tentative conclusion is that all the talk of revolutionists is just to provide a framework for what Conrad really wants to look at, with perhaps some satire for good measure.

The setting is Russia under the Tsarist's autocracy: it is not clear exactly when, but the revolutionists are starting to make their views heard and to take action to bring about an overthrow of the current poltical apparatus, because the true destroyers are "they who destroy the spirit of progress and truth, not the avengers who merely kill the bodies of the persecutors of human dignity". The action is necessary so the "real" Russians escape from under the thumb of the oppressor.

Razumov is no revolutionist: if he has any political views at all, they are to support the status quo. He has no family, no close friends, no-one except himself - a state of profound aloneness is his defining feature, one which is said to make him entirely Russian as he has no other allegiances. He does have some sort of mysterious benefactor, one who provides him an income without it ever being disclosed why. His sole desire is to do well at his studies, win a Government prize even, in order to establish his name and place.

This desire is brought to a dramatic end when Viktor Haldin enters his life and states (rather than confesses) that he "removed" Mr de P (by throwing a bomb at him). This was a necessary act, because Mr de P "served the monarchy by imprisoning, exiling or sending to the gallows men and women, young and old, with an equable unwearied industry", bent on extirpating anything that resembled freedom. Viktor has been impressed by Razumov's taciturnity, thinking his silence makes him "profound", saying that he has a "solidity of character which cannot exist without courage". Importantly, in a letter to his sister Nathalie, Viktor describes Razumov as leading an "unstained, lofty and solitary existence", which is taken as both being the highest form of praise and an indication that the two men were co-conspirators. Of course, they had never exchanged a word.

And so the novel is largely about the impact of these events on Razumov: they force him to two successive moral quandaries. He immediately decides that this will be the ruin of him, but he is faced with choices. He is asked to help Viktor escape: is this the right choice? Or should he turn him in to the Police? In the ordinary case of murder this would be the right-thinking person's choice, but if the State is truly poison, is it still the right choice? Is it even murder? I'm glad not to have to make such choices, but ultimately I think he did right - his benefactor was someone with a lot of pull, and was able to help him make a secret denunciation. It is an important plot point that Razumov's part in all of this is never known by the revolutionists. Viktor is arrested and hanged. But what is one to do then? Can the State be trusted to keep his secret? He buys its silence by agreeing to masquerade as an actual co-conspirator of Viktor, and using his network to get to the heart of the revolutionist organisation, safely out of Russia in Geneva.

Here, he faces a second quandary. He meets Nathalie, who is presented as innocence personified:
I became aware, notwithstanding my years, how attractive physically her
personality could be to a man capable of appreciating in a woman something else
than the mere grace of femininity. Her glance was as direct and trustful as that
of a young man yet unspoiled by life's wise lessons. And it was intrepid,
but in this interpidity there was nothing aggressive. A naive but thoughtful
assurance is a better definition. She had reflected already ... but she had
never known deception as yet, because obviously she had never fallen under the
sway of passion.
Interesting the qualities that make up the ideal woman, for this narrator. But the point of her innocence is that it makes it very difficult for Razumov to play his part as co-conspirator with her brother, when he effectively killed him. She is so grateful to him for being a friend to her brother, and for helping his cause; although it is not necessarily her own, she believes in its necessity. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that despite the fact that revolutions "fall into the hands of narrow minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrits", then "all the pretentious intellectual failures", the true progress comes after that, when the "right man" will come forward. She, of course, has Razumov in mind. So, this is at the heart of the novel: in light of this belief in him, what will Razumov do? Can his conscience be mastered?

One last word about the revolutionists, and why I think there is a hearty dose of satire being directed at them. Their leader is one Peter Ivanovitch, who is generally referred to as the "burly feminist" or the "great feminist", who ahd written an autobiography in which he claimed to have been imprisoned and beaten by the powers that be, but was able to make a rather dramatic escape - thanks to, he says, to a woman. And so he proclaims the greatness of the Russian woman, saying "the greatest part of our hopes rests on women". But he comes across as a fake; worse, a charlatan. The one Russian woman of the people we see him have any dealings with, he treats like dirt.

I wonder if he was ever imprisoned or any of the things he claims to have happened to him ever did. I wonder this because of the narrator, a teacher of English language (who provides the Western eyes of the title). His opening thought is that words are the great foes of reality, that there "comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot". I like the line, but dont think it means very much: more important is the idea that through use of words, alternate realities can be constructed, and this book explores that - through Razumov using words to create a false reputation, through terrorist rhetoric (which is so often so abstract as to mean little), through Peter's self-aggrandisment and, indeed, through the claims of the narrator himself not to be inventing anything at all but instead to be passing on Razumov's record and his own observations from meetings with some of the people involved, particularly the Haldins.



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Anonymous Muzahid Islam said...

Excellent review. I find the similarities between this book and the psychological types noted in Hoffer's true believer to be fascinating.
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