Hailed as one of Joseph Conrad's finest literary achievements, Under Western Eyes tells the story of a young man unwittingly caught in the political turmoil of pre-revolutionary czarist Russia. It begins with a bomb that kills its intended target, a hated Russian minister of police, along with several innocent bystanders. A young student named Razumov hides the perpetrator, who questions his moral strength and integrity.
Set in St. Petersburg amid intrigue and espionage, this novel hauntingly speaks to the broader, timeless question of human responsibility and honor. Conrad said that his intent was to render "the psychology of Russia," a country being driven to anarchy by misguided revolutionaries. This masterwork, published six years before the Russian Revolution, is a chillingly accurate prophecy of what was to come.
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"The title refers to the setting/milieu for 4/5 of this great, all but unknown today, Joseph Conrad novel: i.e. Geneva, Switzerland, in 1907. There, Russian conspirators and Russian secret agents are all gathered to either infiltrate and bring down the repressive Tsarist government or infiltrate and bring to grief the conspirators movement. It's one of the ongoing great stupidities of how literature is taught in American universities that people will graduate with honors having read two of Conrad's dopiest and least characteristic stories: Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, thereby missing most of his great writing, i.e the novels Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Victory, and especially Under Western Eyes. But no one since Conrad has done this subject or kind of story better--John LeCarre coming closest. A young Russian student in Moscow has his flat invaded by another student who has just assassinated the head of the secret police with a bomb and is hiding out. Drawn into the ridiculous situation, the student balks at the role he is being forced to play. He goes to his unacknowledged nobleman father and they meet with a dignitary who arranges for the killer to be captured while attempting to escape. Even though the government knows our student was on its side, still he is put under enough surveillance that his prospects for a career are ruined. We meet him six months later in Geneva among the Russian emigre community. The student is now deemed a Hero of the Revolution, despite his true role. He meets with a rich woman funding the revolt and her protege, who wishes to become what Lenin will eventually be. Also various hangers on, including a slob of an assassin who our hero figures out is a double agent. And the betrayed student's beautiful, intelligent sister and grieving mother. All try to draw the student into their plots and the sister into her life, forever. Their machinations and ideas and ideals are wonderfully done, and each character is gorgeously laid out and developed. I'm only amazed this story hasn't been turned into a play or film, as the inner and outer drama is intense and real. Some critic called this the greatest Russian novel written by someone not Russian and I would agree. It's a masterpiece. Read it."
Felice (5 out of 5 stars)