J.G Farrell is a writer whose work I was completely oblivious to until I started on my project to read all the past winners of the Booker Prize.
The Siege of Krishnapur is part of a series of novels known as the Empire Trilogy (the two other titles are Troubles and The Singapore Grip), which deal with the political and human consequences of British colonial rule. The Siege of Krishnapur is based on the real experience of British subjects during the Indian rebellion of 1857 (what has become known as “the Indian Mutiny“).
At first the remote British colonial outpost at Krishnapur is blissfully unaware of what lies ahead so they continue with their rounds of soirees and discussions about pseudo scientific concepts like phrenology. By the time news comes of an impending attack it’s too late to flee so these representatives of the British Raj stiffen their sinews, batten down the hatches and wait for relief. Surrounded by beautiful furniture and artwork, and confident in the ability of the Empire to prevail, the idiots have no idea what it really means to be under siege and the level of deprivation they will endure. For a time they are able to preserve their Victorian stiff upper lips, the women strive to maintain the social hierarchy and the men posture and preen, joshing about the best way to fire at the Indian attackers – someone has the bizarre idea when ammunition runs out for their cannons, they should fill them with cooking implements and fire those instead.
But as the weeks turn into months with no relief in sight, the old standards crack in the face of flying musket balls and insects, dwindling supplies of food and dirty water, disease and death, Religious beliefs are questioned, valuable items of furniture have to be burned; old ideals are challenged. The deterioration is vividly portrayed – the latter stages of the novel are permeated with the smell of rotting bodies (human and animal) and the image of emaciated people. The atmosphere is one of impending doom.
Most of the characters are condescending and racists but Farrell gives us the ability to sympathise with them, particularly with the character of the Collector. He’s a man who is initially presented as a pompous eccentric, a believer in progress who is often found daydreaming of the the Great Exhibition when he is not admiring his Louis XVI table and books.
What an advantage that knowledge can be stored in books! The knowledge lies there like hermetically sealed provisions waiting for the day when you may need a meal. Surely what the Collector was doing as he pored over his military manuals, was proving the superiority of the European way of doing things, of European culture itself. This was a culture so flexible that whatever he needed was there in a book at his elbow. An ordinary sort of man, he could, with the help of an oil-lamp, turn himself into a great military engineer, a bishop, an explorer or a General overnight, if the fancy took him.
By the end he has risen above banalities to become a leader capable of bravery and the common sense lacking in those around him. His eyes have been opened to the true significance of his beloved Exhibition and what it really represented:
He, too, [had] suffered from an occasionally enlightening vision which came to him from the dim past and which he must have suppressed at the time . . . The extraordinary array of chains and fetters, manacles and shackles exhibited by Birmingham for export to America’s slave states, for instance . . . Why had he not thought more about such exhibits? Well, he had never pretended that science and industry were good in themselves, of course . . . They still had to be used correctly. All the same he should have thought a great deal more about what lay behind the exhibits.
Farrell of course is poking fun at the colonial concept with its pretensions and supreme confidence in the Empire’s military and moral superiority. Few of these characters emerge with any dignity yet Farrell makes us feel sympathetic towards them. Much of the novel is witty and funny – hard to achieve given the subject matter but he makes it work.
A well-deserved winner of the Booker Prize in 1973 and one of the best winners I’ve read.
The Book: The Siege of Krishnapur is book number 2 in the Empire Trilogy by J.G Farrell
Published: 1973. My version is a 1993 edition published by Phoenix
Length: 314 pages
The Author: J.G Farrell was born in Liverpool of Irish parents. He was a teacher for many years, combining this with his writing. In 1979, he left London to live in southwestern Ireland. A few months later he was drowned after being swept from the rocks by a rogue wave while angling. He is one of the few authors to have scored a double with the Booker. In 2010 Troubles, which is set against the background of the Irish War of Independence ,was named as the first (to date the only) winner of the Lost Booker title – this was a title awarded by a public vote when, because of a change in the award rules, books published in 1970 had not been eligible.
Why I read this: It is part of my Booker Prize project.