May 26, 2008
J.G. Farrell: The Siege of Krishnapur
I read J.G. Farrell’s novel Troubles last year and enjoyed it with reservations: or it might be more accurate to say that I enjoyed each of the pages individually, but just not so many of them one after another. Of course, as is my usual habit, I didn’t wait to read Troubles before picking up more of his stuff (well, those new covers were very seductive): namely his most famous novel, The Siege of Krishnapur. So I had it on my shelves already when it was named recently as one of the six Best of the Booker titles, and my piqued interest could be sated easily.
The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973. Maybe it’s because the 1970s seem neither recent nor long ago – or maybe it’s because 1973 was the year of my birth – but as a decade, I can’t think of many titles that spring to mind as classics or even favourites. (As always, I’m happy to be enlightened or reminded.) Maybe that’s why Farrell has fallen out of fashion. There’s nothing in the writing which explains it: if Louis de Bernieres can sell shedloads from a blend of historical fiction, black humour and crushing detail, then why not Farrell? But then de Bernieres has the inestimable advantage of being alive. While Gore Vidal described Truman Capote’s death as a “great career move,” more often once an author stops producing regular work, he is quickly forgotten. Farrell stopped more suddenly than most, dying in a boating accident at the age of 44.
The first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis, made of coarse flour and about the size and thickness of a biscuit; towards the end of February 1857, they swept the countryside like an epidemic.
The Siege of Krishnapur definitely seemed to me a more accomplished work than Troubles, and not just because, at 300 pages, it’s one third shorter. It has a more unified feel and greater direction, though the plot overall is similar and could be summed up as ‘motley bunch of Brits holed up in symbolically crumbling edifice while the natives get rebellious around them’.
These characters make The Siege of Krishnapur special. They may not get far beyond two dimensions, but their comic qualities are well defined. There’s the Magistrate (“Not everyone is improved by the job he does in life; some people are visibly disimproved”), who chairs a regular poetry group where he excoriates the local wives’ artistic efforts. There’s Dr McNab, “who was known to be in favour of some of the most alarmingly direct methods known to civilized medicine.” There is the Padre, an early proponent of Intelligent Design who pops up like Leonard Zelig at inopportune moments at the side of combatants in the siege (“Think how apt fins are to water, wings to air, how well the earth suits its inhabitants!”); and sundry racist, wastrel British officers:
When the bearer returned with a glass of champagne for Fleury, Rayne said loudly: ‘We call this lad “Ram”. That’s not his real name. His real name is Akbar or Mohammed or something like that. We call him Ram because he looks like one. And this is Monkey,’ he added as another bearer came in carrying a plate of biscuits. […]
Presently another servant came in bearing a box of cheroots; he was elderly and dignified, but exceedingly small, almost a midget.
‘What d’you call this blighter?’ asked Burlton.
‘Ant,’ said Rayne.
Burlton slapped his knee and abandoned himself to laughter.
The thematic focus of the book is the battle of ideas between two central characters: the Collector, who discovers the first wave of sinister chapatis and is (rightly) paranoid that they foretell bad tidings; and George Fleury, a young man as ineffectual as his name. The Collector is a rationalist (“The foundations on which the new men will build their lives are Faith, Science, Respectability, Geology, Mechanical Invention, Ventilation and Rotation of Crops!”) and Fleury a relativist (“The only real progress would be to make a man’s heart sensitive to love, to Nature, to his fellow man, to the spiritual world”). Farrell’s wit and irony are consistently in evidence, and every page seems to contain something worth stopping for.
As the old pensioner listened to the song, which was now accompanied by the ringing of bells, Fleury saw an expression of tender devotion come over his lined face, and he, too, thought, as the Collector had thought some weeks earlier in the tiger house, what a lot of Indian life was unavailable to the Englishman who came equipped with his own religion and habits. But of course, this was no time to start worrying about that sort of thing.
So with all these qualities, why didn’t I love The Siege of Krishnapur? I think it was, perhaps perversely, too much of a good thing. As with Troubles, the density is relentless, and largely delivered in the style almost of a summary. Normally I have little time for the creative writing class rule that writers should show not tell – if the writing’s good, who cares? – but that was a feeling I had throughout the book. There was too much detail and not enough immersion; and, because the tone was the same throughout – of an overview rather than a living, breathing story – the whole thing as a result felt like all build-up and not enough consummation. At times the book felt longer than the siege itself.
On the basis of Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur, I can only say that Farrell is a maddening writer who delights me and frustrates me in equal measure; others no doubt will find a different balance, not least the Best of Booker judges who consider it one of the finest books to win the award. The other thing I can say is that it’ll be some time before I try the third in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, The Singapore Grip; all 600 pages of it. Troubles are one thing; bringing them on yourself is quite another.