From the first page of Troubles, we’re thrust into a rather bizarre world of a once-grand but now dilapidated hotel on the western edge of Southern Ireland. The Majestic Hotel is inhabited by guests who are similarly frayed around the edges. They get to share the accommodation with an army of feral cats that takes up residence in the hotel’s once grand Imperial Bar, the tendrils of rubber plants and creepers which engulf the Palm Court and tree roots that burst through floors. Little of this seems to disturb the equilibrium of the few remaining inhabitants. As they play whist and gossip, their main concern is when – or if – afternoon tea will materialise. They seem equally impervious to the forces of change gathering momentum in the world outside the hotel.
What happens to the Majestic and its disintegrating occupants is a metaphor for the story of Ireland between 1919 and 1921, a period which saw a violent battle for independence from British rule. If the hotel cannot maintain the very fabric of its existence or the way of life it represents, neither can the old order of the privileged Anglo-Irish in Ireland maintain control against the larger and increasingly hostile group of Nationalists and Republicans.
All of which makes it sound as if Troubles is a book in which the story is secondary to the message the author wants to push at us. In other word that this is a book that screams “serious message”.
That would however be doing O’Farrell a great disservice.
Troubles is the first part of his Empire trilogy (the two other novels are The Seige of Krishnapur which is set in India and Singapore). Although the political upheaval in Ireland and the challenge to the imperial order is the background to Troubles, he doesn’t often refer to it directly or get his characters to indulge in long discussions about the merits or otherwise of the varying factions. The outside world only intrudes upon the Majestic in an oblique way, via occasional newspaper cuttings or chance remarks by the characters in the story. The reader is really left to recognise the inferences and to interpret the multiple metaphors for themselves.
We see the events through the eyes of Major Brendan Archer – an ex Army Officer who has come home from World War 1 and now wants to be re-united with the girl he thinks (but is not absolutely sure about) is his fiancee, Angela Spencer. Angela and her father own the Majestic but are not particularly good at hotel management — when the Major arrives, he is astounded that there is no-one at reception, he’s left to his own devices to choose a bedroom; the whole place is covered in dust and there is a funny smell in his room…
The ‘engagement’ doesn’t last long but the major finds himself unable to leave and so becomes a witness to the downward spiral of the hotel and the country.
Farrell tells this story with the same mix of comic and elegaic style that I discovered when reading The Seige of Krishnapur. There are times it borders on the preposterous and times when it’s simply bizarrely funny. I loved the picture he paints early in the book when the Major has his first encounter with the ageing inhabitants. He finds them in the Palm Court, slowly being overtaken by the foliage.
[it]….was really amazingly thick; there were creepers not only dangling rom above but also running in profusion over the floor, leaping out to seize any unwary object that remained in one place for too long. A standard lamp at his elbow, for instance had been throttled by a snake of greenery that had circled up its slender metal stem as far as the black bulb that crowned it like a bulging eyeball.
It was also rather fun trying to work out the nature of some of the allusions. For example, who or what is represented by a massive marmalade cat that prowls the corridors and then squats in the ample lap of one of the most aristocratic female guests, glowering with acid green eyes at everything and everyone around it.
In short Troubles was a fantastic read. Its value was recognised in 2010 when it was was awarded the Lost Man Booker Prize, a one-time award chosen among books published in 1970 which had not been considered for the Man Booker Prize at the time. Sadly, there are not many other novels by O’Farrell for me to explore because his career came to an abrupt end when he was drowned in a storm in 1979 at the age of 44.