by J G Farrell
I first read this book five or six years ago, when it was recommended by my friend Pat. She subsequently also lent me Farrell’s novel Troubles, which I also enjoyed, and The Singapore Grip, which I did not.
Why is Farrell’s writing so good? I think it is the juxtaposition of serious insights and ridiculous human behaviours. The author seems to be telling the reader: “Look, we are all like this, trying to make sense of our world and our relationships with others, and, to a very great extent, failing to do so”.
That said, I have not been sufficiently motivated to finish reading this book for the second time for our book group. I have not yet got to the part where the siege starts. I recall how the author highlights the absurdity of the ‘possessions’ people collect about them, as he describes the countless jars of ferns, stuffed animals and other items that the Victorians were so keen to collect and display. By drawing attention to the things the English in India might have seen as precious, Farrell is also making us examine the things we might have in our own homes and feel that we can’t bear to be parted from, even in an emergency. Are we still far to attached to ‘possessions’ (what today we might call ‘stuff’)? The way the documents and papers are first treasured, then used in the siege, and finally discarded, also shows how the people holed up in the Residency gradually come to realise what’s important. The Collector is, in many ways, the voice of sanity in this novel. He assesses the obsession with things by citing a proverb: “The world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build a house on it.”
Farrell apparently said that he wanted to show “yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness”. This allows him also to make us examine our values in today’s world. Do the things that we hold dear actually have any greater or more lasting value than the social manners of these nineteenth-century colonialists? And would we cling to them in the face of adversity?
Farrell show in a very illuminating way the clash of ideas, and how people even in extreme circumstances will cling to their beliefs. For instance in the passage where Drs Dunstable and McNab discuss the transmission of cholera, most of the people around are prepared to support the former in his view that the disease is airborne, even though Dr McNab can cite very convincing studies to show that it is carried by contaminated water.
The characters are very well drawn, and I particularly like the way the Collector maintains a calm exterior and manages to hold himself together as well as making some sound decisions under extreme circumstances. The characters seem to fall into two camps: those who adapt to and cope with the situation, and those who do not.
I plan to continue reading this novel, and just wish I had started it earlier in order to have a more useful review for our book group meeting tomorrow!