Thursday, 4 July 2013
Troubles - J.G. Farrell
(Winner of the "Lost Booker' awarded in 2010 to novels from 1970 that had been denied a shot at the award because of changes in the dates for eligibility.)
This is the second book from J.G. Farrell's "Empire Trilogy' that I have read after The Siege of Krishnapur. It is just as impressive and I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for the third book in this trilogy, The Singapore Grip (or anything else by Farrell). Rather than follow each other in any plot driven way the books cohere thematically around the crumbling of English colonialism.
In Troubles we follow the journey of Major Brendan Archer from London to a massive old hotel on the coast of County Wexford, in Ireland. He is badly shaken by his experiences in the trenches during World War One and goes to Wexford to see Angela Spencer whom he met during a break from the war and believes that they became engaged. He is familiar with elements of the hotel and the life within from the stream of letters he received from Angela but is surprised to find that some things have been left out of the letters and that Angela is very serious and withdrawn. This is not what he expected. In fact so withdrawn is she that his decision to break off the engagement can't be carried out as he never sees her after the first couple of days. Her father Edward is a man being consumed from within by rage. He sees English rule as being responsible for whatever civilisation there is in Ireland and the rebellion as a damned impertinence.
The Major's arrival at the Majestic Hotel is like the entrance into one of those valleys that time forgot, and brontosauri roam. It does not seem like a 'living' place but rather something in a painfully slow process of collapsing, or perhaps the palace in Sleeping Beauty. Is the Major the Prince who will awaken the palace from its slumber? "Not far away the two massive, weatherworn gateposts of the Majestic rose out of the impenetrable foliage that lined the sea side of the road. As they passed between them (the gates themselves had vanished, leaving only the skeletons of the enormous hinges that had once held them) the Major took a closer look: each one was surmounted by a great stone ball on which a rain-polished stone-crown was perched slightly askew...)"
The overwhelming plants are not just outside the Majestic. Nature is running riot inside as well: "The foliage, the Major continued to notice as he took his seat, was really amazingly thick; there were creepers not only dangling from 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 stems far as the black bulb that crowned it like a bulging eyeball. It had no shade and the bulb he assumed to be dead until, to his astonishment, Angela fumbled among the the dusty leaves and switched it on.." This is a world not far from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, a feeling which is only exaggerated by the presence of the haggard Murphy, one of the hotel's staff who seems to be part of the fabric of the building: "'Ah, more tea,' exclaimed Angela as Murphy once more appeared out of the jungle like some weary, breathless gorilla, pushing the tea-trolley.'" It is as if the hotel and the culture it represents is unnatural, and nature is reclaiming it.
Another book which I am reminded of is Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm. The characters seem to be the result of a collision between identity, cliche and history. The relationships between the English, the Irish and the Anglo-Irish are The Major has expectations of what it is to be Irish - "'How incredibly Irish it all is!' thought the Major wonderingly. 'The family seems to be completely mad.'" Troubles is set during the Irish War of Independence, the last days of British rule in Ireland (or at least in the 26 counties that make the Republic). There is something antediluvian about the residents of the Majestic Hotel, most of whom are old ladies who have become permanent residents. They are adrift, their presence only serving to emphasise the emptiness and decrepitude of the building. "In the farthest shadowy reaches of the dining-room a handful of guests dotted here and there at small tables occasionally revealed their presence by a cleared throat or a rattle of silver. But silence collected between the tables in layers like drifts of snow."
The Major seems in danger of being sucked in to this purgatory, unable to bring his 'engagement' to a head when Angela seems to just disappear into the vast warren of rooms. "For this was the Major's first night in Ireland and, like a man struggling to retain his consciousness as he inhales the first fumes of chloroform, he had not yet allowed himself to surrender to the country's vast and narcotic inertia."
Farrell has a great deal of fun with this material. The Major, suffering from PTSD just drifts through the book without any great urgency or ambition. He makes a nest in a laundry room which is heated by the kitchen chimneys and withdraws to this sub tropical womb where he drifts on the gentle tide of his imagination. When Angela fails to appear he becomes friends with her wheelchair bound catholic friend from the nearby village of Kilnalough. He is fascinated by her sparkling frivolity and it turns out that he is not alone in being thus fascinated.
As well as old ladies the hotel is full of cats for whom things turn catastrophic late in the novel. They pop up in the most unexpected places although the third floor is their territory. The Major is generally a big hit with the old ladies and finds himself generally well disposed towards them. Our sympathy, too, is engaged on their behalf. They are not the authors of their own fate but victims of a culture which expected them to be wives and mothers but then failed to find them marriages. They prove to be proper troopers, putting up with whatever new discomforts the hotel's steep decline presents. The Major finds that "there is not so very much difference between an old lady and a young girl, only a few years diluting the exuberance with weariness, sadness, and a great sensitivity to draughts."
It is tempting to read the whole book as a metaphor for the last days of English rule in Ireland but it has its own vitality as a story and is too complex to be simply mapped onto the historical facts. It also includes faux (or possibly real) newspaper reports of atrocities (and minor incidents) from Ireland and other colonies. "The last three days have produced an appalling orgy of blood-stained lawlessness. In different parts of the country policemen have been assassinated and soldiers killed in ambush; every Irish newspaper has been turned into a catalogue of horror." This use of 'real' history also works against a metaphorical reading. It's more like Farrell is playing with history, showing us angles that we haven't seen before. This game he created is anarchic and exhilarating, ridiculous and tragic, claustrophobic and farsighted, pointed and loose. To take a phrase from the book itself, "It sounds more like the last act of an opera composed by a drunken Italian librettist."
If you haven't guessed by now I loved this book. Farrell wields language with a ferocious intensity leavened by a matchless comic touch. You find yourself laughing at the characters while feeling sympathy for their plight. This is a bloody, infernal parody of a bloody, infernal period of Ireland's history. It's funny, funny with an edge: "The restrained laughter bulged like an abscess in the room."
I'll exit with some more quotes:
"Some strange insect had taken up residence in the will-power of which he had always been so proud, eating away at it unobserved like a slug in an apple."
"And this horse face - the Major's disabused eye noted"...""was the face of Anglo-Ireland, the inbred Protestant aristocracy, the face, progressively refining itself into a separate, luxurious species, which had ruled Ireland for almost five hundred years: the wispy fair hair, the eyes too close together, the long nose and protruding teeth."
"Had there been one, even one, honest-to-God battle during the whole course of the rebellion? not a single trench had been dug, except perhaps for seed potatoes, in the whole of Ireland."
"all the windows in the Majestic were rattling in torment, while the chimneys groaned and whined like unmilked cows, half threatening and half pleading, and draughts sighed gently under doors like lovelorn girls."