The Siege of Krishnapur

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!

 

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Troubles

by J G Farrell

This book gave me some ‘troubles’ to read.  I don’t know why exactly.  The writing style is quite dense but well-structured and beautifully phrased.  The physical format of the book (1970’s Penguin paperback, small print, yellowing pages, some of them falling out) made it a bit of struggle to read, but I don’t think this would have deterred me if I had become really engrossed.  (It does make me pause for thought, though, about the relative quality of paperbacks 40 years ago compared to now.  Modern books seem to be more robust, and also, in many cases, much more appealing on the outside.)

So, what was wrong?  Sometimes it is not the book itself, but the state of mind of the reader.  I have a pile of books – some bought, some borrowed – waiting for my attention, and I added to the pile with both new and secondhand volumes on my visit to Cornwall two weeks ago.  So maybe part of me was thinking “I’d rather be reading something else”.  The fragility of the physical book deterred me from packing it in a rucksack or reading it in the bath, so I interspersed my reading of it with other things.  In the end, though, I am forced to conclude that it was the book itself that was off-putting.

There is not much of a plot.  The central character, known throughout as “the Major” although we do learn his real name, travels to Ireland after the First World War to claim his fiancée Angela, whom he met whilst on leave and hardly knows except from her letters.  Much of the narrative is concerned with Angela’s family home, the Majestic Hotel near the town of Kilnalough, both of which have seen better days.  The decline of the Majestic appears to be metaphor for the decline of the established Anglo-Irish order, threatened by ‘he Troubles’ – the name given at the time to the conflict between the republican IRA and the British imperial forces, specifically the Black and Tans.  The ‘Troubles’ of the book’s title can be applied equally to the political situation, the decline facing the hotel and the family who run it, and the emotional life of the Major himself.

There are no likeable characters.  Humour there certainly is.  Edward is Angela’s father, somewhat  pathetic and totally out of control of the business and of his family.  He develops a fondness for the Major, who tries to iron out the most outrageous goings-on.  And yet the Major himself is a passive character, always seeking to retain the good opinion of others no matter how outrageously they behave, putting manners and ‘political correctness’ before honesty and compassion, and missing out on the chance of a happy relationship with Sarah, a Catholic girl for whom he develops an attraction from the start of his visit.

I struggled through to the end.  There are some vivid, haunting scenes (many of them imbued with dark humour – the invasion of cats and Edward and the Major’s attempts to get rid of them with a shotgun, for instance).  There is little superfluity in the writing, though elements of the plot do seem unnecessary, such as Viola O’Neill’s apparent pregnancy diagnosed by Dr Ryan a few pages before the end of the book – is this supposed to show us that the doctor is indeed senile, or that Viola’s innocence is not what it seemed – and if the latter, what possible relevance does this have to the main story, where this character appears no more than a couple of times on the sidelines?  That the wild behaviour of the twins ends up with the two of them in bed with the Major seems to show us a debauched side to his character – and yet he is portrayed as upright throughout, concerned only about how this will look to others.

I wonder whether this book really deserved the ‘lost’ Booker prize for 1970.  To be fair, I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted books, and perhaps I never will.

We are due to read The Siege of Krishnapur for a book group meeting in January.  I have read it before, and found it more appealing than Troubles.  I started The Singapore Grip shortly after the Siege of Krishnapur (four or five years ago) but gave up on that, possibly for largely the same reasons as I am not excited by Troubles.  I think I need a character to whom I can relate, or at least try to understand and perhaps feel a little sympathy for.