Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, we have all heard a lot about “the Professor,” the chilling anarchist in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” who walks around with a bomb strapped to himself and one hand on the detonator. Far more attention has been paid to this ruthless fanatic—unsuggestively reprised by Cormac McCarthy as Anton Chigurh, in “No Country for Old Men”—than to Verloc, the harried, soft, pithless entity who is the novel’s actual protagonist. But Verloc is more interesting than the Professor because he is so much less confident. The Professor is an arrow; Verloc is a target, helplessly bearing the gouges of the various assaults made on him. He works for the anarchists, but he also works against them, as a double agent; he is despised by his handler at the embassy, and feels bullied into following the diplomat’s order to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, a job that he fatally bungles; he is a minor London shopkeeper, who sells pornography under the table; he moves through his shabby domestic existence sluggishly, as if under water.
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