Oh how I had hoped this would be so much more than it is.
I have to admit total confusion as to what Conrad hoped to achieve with this novel. What starts off as insight into how precarious and arbitrary life in Russia under the government was at the time of the novel, ends with the (almost) humiliation of the people who sought to revolt against it. Everyone comes out as a loser in the end. Was Conrad trying to say everything in Russia is bad, even the people trying to change Russia? Was he really that cynical?
Then again, seeing as how events turned out in the years after the novel was published (the rise of Communism) then maybe Conrad really was onto something. Yet the book never really attempts to address the broader issues of Russian social and political reform because its focus is only on a few characters, nearly all of whom are either misguided, manipulative, or are outright fools. I kept getting the impression Conrad wanted to damn all of Russia, past, present, and every possible future.
What I found most interesting, however, was the character of Haldin. Here was a young man who, though a terrorist (and murderer), understood whom he was fighting so well as to ruin the life of a perfectly innocent person long after he himself had been executed. He wanted to light a fire under the ass of the comfortable middle class who had gladly allowed themselves to be ruled over for just a few pieces of silver at a time. Haldin saw how it wasn’t those in power who were the most dangerous, but those complicit in keeping them in power. The same could be said of our own times in our capitalist society that gladly allows the business class to rule over the rest of us. We just want our creature comforts and give them all the power. Never does it occur to us to start throwing bombs around to enact real change even though the situation probably calls for it at this point.
And that’s the way I thought this novel was going to go. I assumed Razumov would wind up being forced into becoming a terrorist, too, that he would be ‘woken up’ and would defect from his comforts to fight a oppressive system. I assumed we would see the development of a character whose terrorist actions (like Haldin’s) would be explored and sympathized with. Haldin was a total mystery to us and so it’s easy to denounce him as a wicked terrorist, but to have followed Razumov’s path that would lead him down the same road as Haldin’s, to end the book where it began but with another character, would have been rather thrilling.
But where this book goes is instead to neutral Switzerland where Russian expats live comfortably and foolishly as they plot against the Russian government. These people are not heroic freedom fighters, but just a bunch of fools who will never change anything. Why Razumov would even be needed to spy on them seems like a total waste of time to me. In fact as the book went on I was not surprised Razumov grew more and more to dislike these people and that he was was glad to help out the Russian officials. But then we get another shift where he changes sides (too late) and winds up a cripple. I didn’t buy any of it, to be honest.
I have to admit I was thoroughly lost by the end of all this. I have no idea what Conrad was trying to really say and can only really recommended the book on the strength of the characters and the overall story it does wind up telling. Granted, it’s a cynical and depressing affair, but it feels realistic. The only thing going against it is that only a few years after the book was published another young man, Gavrilo Princip, managed to shake the entire world up with his own actions. I don’t believe Conrad would have thought it possible that so much could actually change at the hands of just one individual and so real history seems to work against the point the novel was trying to make about everyone being ineffectual.
So I’ll have to put this one down as my least favorite Conrad novel. I found half of it thrilling and well written, and the other half to be boring and limited of insight. Overall it is well written like all of Conrad’s work and the language is always a joy to tangle with, but I just never got the feeling that this was a book with a solid foundation or plan.