“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” — Ray Bradbury
In Europe in recent years we seem to have suffered a number of terrorist attacks without precedent, along with reports of covert interference in the internal politics of several nations by foreign powers. It’s easy, I’d imagine, to believe that things are worse than they have ever been but history shows that international espionage, anarchist acts (“the propaganda of the deed”), political assassinations and terrorist atrocities are nothing new.
In fact it’s not just history text books that reflect on attempts to upset the established order, benign or malign as it may be. So does fiction, and it’s interesting to look at novels that come out of a particular period, such as fin-de-siècle London and the years before the Great War, to see how past generations of writers reacted to acts of aggression in times of perceived peace.
Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands: a Record of Secret Service (1903) — which I reviewed here — describes how secret preparations for the invasion of Britain by the Kaiser were foiled by the alertness of two men sailing along the North Sea coast of Germany and keeping their eyes and ears open. Detailed descriptions and realistic plotting make this seem a very credible scenario, and apparently the novel was instrumental in affecting the government’s response to rising German militarism.
Less than half a dozen years later another novel appeared, ostensibly concerning an anarchist conspiracy, hatched in Britain, to cause disruption by assassinating the Russian Tsar in Paris. However, G K Chesterton’s 1908 tale, The Man Who Was Thursday: a Nightmare (reviewed here) for me disappointingly then veered off to become what has been characterised as a metaphysical thriller, merely using concerns about anarchist plotters as background for a Christian allegory.
Published in between these two contrasting titles was Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale (1907). As with the other two novels (and in common with much fiction of the time and earlier) its subtitle is supposed to hint at the content or tone contained within its pages, but in this case the plotline is anything but simple, as my review — to be posted soon — may indicate. Conrad does, however, purport to look fictively at some of the philosophy, motivations and modus operandi of those who espoused anarchism at the turn of the century, and there the subject is indeed complicated by the varied undercurrents, situations, organisations and of course individuals involved.
Generally favourable reviews of Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents (2010) support this fictional impression of the complex nature of anarchism in the late Victorian period, as the study’s informative subtitle indicates. Idealists, troublemakers, sociopaths and psychopaths: this list includes not just theorists and terrorists but also policeman and agents provocateurs among its cast list, and we will see these all sketched in throughout Conrad’s thriller.
But you may by now see one of the points I’m making: to help us better understand the how and why as well as the when, where, who and what of modern terrorism and its adherents, whether suicide bombers or cyberterrorists, we have to have some notion of similar movements in the past. After all, terrorism has never gone away in the last hundred years (think Zionism in the establishment of the state of Israel, for example, or the Baader-Meinhof gang in the 60s and the Provisional IRA campaigns in the latter half of the century, up to and including the Islamist outrages in the beginning part of the 21st century). Reading in fiction and non-fiction about how such groups operated in less recent history helps give us a longer perspective, and reminds us that there is no conclusive ‘solution’ to this appalling war of attrition, only temporary ceasefires.
And here is where I return to the late Ray Bradbury and his passionate and lifelong support of libraries and books. If we have no idea of the lessons that the past can teach us (and texts of all types are the preeminent way to learn about them) then we are forced to live in a kind of continuous present, existing from moment to moment, reacting anew to the same old external provocations. Knee-jerks are never a good way to deal with threats to a peaceable way of life.
You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. — Ray Bradbury