Western observation

23 07 2016

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

 

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First published in 1911, Under Western Eyes traces the experiences of Razumov, a young Russian student of philosophy who is uninvolved in politics or protest. Against his will he finds himself caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing directed against the Tsarist authorities. He is pulled in different directions – by his conscience and his ambitions, by powerful opposed political forces, but most of all by personal emotions he is unable to suppress. Set in St Petersburg and Geneva, the novel is in part a critical response to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment but it is also a startlingly modern book. Viewed through the ‘Western eyes’ of Conrad’s English narrator, Razumov’s story forces the reader to confront the same moral issues: the defensibility of terrorist resistance to tyranny, the loss of individual privacy in a surveillance society, and the demands thrown up by the interplay of power and knowledge.

With a new BBC adaptation of The Secret Agent screening it looks like Conrad might be coming back into fashion. Maybe, maybe not but Under Western Eyes is an outstanding book whichever way you look at it. Certainly as good as The Secret Agent it feels surprisingly fresh and modern and, as the blurb above notes, addresses some big issues which are as relevant today as they were a century ago. Recommended.

 

four stars

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