I’m halfway through The Siege of Krishnapur and loving J G Farrell’s wry humour as he traces the decline of British colonial power in a fictional Indian outpost. Farrell’s novel – the second in the Empire trilogy – won him the Man Booker prize for fiction in 1973.
The story is based on the real experiences of British subjects during the Indian rebellion of 1857 so it has a serious intention yet at times it is hilarious. Hardly any of the garrison members have escaped ridicule so far; from the Collector who daydreams about the Great Exhibition as a manifestation of the superiority of European culture while musket balls land all around him; to the doctors who feud about the best way to treat cholera and the British women who despair at having to wash their own clothes. Under attack on all sides by mutineering native sepoys, the Padre gives a running commentary on the multiple manifestations in nature of his God’s creativity as those around him desperately try to keep the cannon loaded and firing. Somewhat predictably we also have the naive new arrival in the form of Fleury, a young man of poetical inclination whose notions of a new society are either ignored or ridiculed by the other men.
One of the funniest scenes occurs as Fleury’s new friend Harry races against time to get defences in place against the enemy he can see advancing through the melon fields….
Fleury had not been paying attention when the cannon was loaded; the beginnings of an epic poem had been simmering in his brain.
“Fleury, for God’s sake!” shouted Harry, who knew how desperate the situation was. Fleury did not know; he was in a daze from the noise and smoke which had tears streaming down his face, and the haze of dust which hung everywhere, very fine, lending the scene a “historical” quality because everything appeared faintly blurred, as in a Crimean daguerrotype. Fleury found himself appending captions to himself for the Illustrated London News. “This was the Banqueting Hall Redoubt in the Battle of Krishnapur. On the left, Mr. Fleury, the poet, who conducted himself so gallantly throughout; on the right, Lieutenant Dunstaple, who commanded the Battery, and a faithful native, Ram.”
Farrell seems to take great delight in showing how the beliefs and values held by each of his characters gradually crumble under the pressure of the siege. It’s evident that he was a man unafraid to challenge the status quo – at his acceptance speech for the 1973 Booker prize, he criticised the sponsors for their business involvement in the agricultural sector in the Third World. It’s a testament to Farrell’s skill however, that the judges went onto award him a further accolade in 1980 when they named Troubles as the winner of The Lost Man Booker Prize (a one-off prize to honour the books which missed out on the opportunity to win the Booker Prize in 1970.). Farrell however had died the year previously in an accident off the Irish coast so lost the opportunity to take a further pop at the Establishment.
Want to know more?
There is an excellent commentary on The Siege on the Guardian book blog