Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Under Western Eyes and "The Theatre of the Real"

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Under Western Eyes and "The Theatre of the Real"

Article excerpt

Under Western Eyes and "The Theatre of the Real"

GRAHAM Greene DIVIDES his fiction into "Serious Novels" and "Entertainments." This essay in Greene's terms will be "an entertainment." Rather than, say, offer a detailed contextual reading of Conrad's Under Western Eyes (something already done by a number scholars) or develop an analysis of the text filtered through a specific interpretive framework (something increasingly being attempted by critics), this essay will present a relatively free-wheeling set of variations on the theme of espionage in the novel in relation to what I call "the theatre of the real," a phrase borrowed from John Le Carré (1983: 204). While Greene and Le Carré entertain us with their skilfully constructed narratives, they also engage to some degree our moral, ideological, and political sense. In an analogous way, as I spin my tales of espionage, I intend to illustrate Conrad's uncanny understanding of the world and psychology of informers, collaborators, double agents, and spies, even though, unlike Greene and Le Carré, he was never professionally involved in intelligence work.

Let me begin with an anecdote. In the late seventies, when the Polish dissident movement (which eventually grew into "Solidarity") was gathering strength, a young student defector from Poland contacted my friend and fellow poet, the late Bogdan Czaykowski, and offered to act as an intermediary between us and the London-based magazine Index on Censorship. The magazine wanted to publish in translation texts by young Polish poets with a dissident slant. Czaykowski and I had done a fair amount of translating together and, naturally, we agreed. In due course, our translations of poems by Zbigniew Herbert, Stanislaw Baranczak, and Jacek Bierezin appeared in the magazine. But the story of the student defector is more to the point here. The young man, a gregarious and malleable individual, had been marginally involved in the student demonstrations of March 1968. During one demonstration he was arrested and imprisoned by the security forces. In prison, where he was kept some six weeks, he was alternately mistreated and given cordial treatment. The interrogators had quickly hit upon his weak spot: he abhorred being disliked. And so to oblige them he agreed to collaborate and became an informer. He was sent abroad to spy on Polish émigré circles in the guise of a defector and made his rounds of all the major émigré institutions. I am sure he must have visited the Bibliothèque Polonaise in Paris; I know that he found his way to the Institut Littéraire at Maisons-Laffitte (a much more serious and influential Cold War analogue of Château Borel, although also hosting its complement of colourful figures); he must have hung around the bar at POSK; and I would be surprised if he didn't pay at least one visit to the cafeteria of Radio Free Europe in Munich.

His status as a defector appears to have been somewhat ambiguous. He undoubtedly sent reports to his controllers in Warsaw, but at one stage began to have doubts about returning home. (After all, life in the West was rather comfortable.) Once news of his wavering disposition reached Poland, he was summarily recalled. He hesitated. But his Polish handlers knew well how to play him. Appropriate pressure was put on a girlfriend, and she helped to reel him in. The last news I had of him (this was before 1989) was that someone apparently had seen him on a staircase in the Mostowski Palace in Warsaw (the headquarters of the municipal police).

This is not exactly a late-twentieth century version of Razumov's story, but the two narratives show a certain family resemblance. They overlap in that area of social life where entities with a rationalized function (in this case political control of society) operate. Here, in part owing to the unchangeable core of human reality (Conrad writes about this memorably in his Preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'), and in part the consequence of the process of the transmission of experience, patterns of activity will tend to repeat themselves. …

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