Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Siege of Krishnapur

The Siege of Krishnapur - J.G.Farrell

I haven't laughed out loud at a book so much for quite a while. What began as a series of low civilised chuckles to myself ended up with quite a few loud guffaws and extended periods where laughter bubbled up from my stomach like carbon dioxide through soda water. I then had to sheepishly mumble to my partner that I was laughing at some particularly gory scenes of dismemberment.

The novel tells the story of an uprising in an isolated province in India which leads to an extended siege of the residence of the Collector, the chief bureaucrat in the province.

I feel obliged at this point to say that this review contains some spoilers although I feel that they will not in any way spoil the enjoyment to be derived from the book.
Farrell has a keen eye for the absurd and lets his characters hang themselves. Although they are (deliberately) quite schematic, the characters are rounded out in various idiosyncratic ways that mean this is not a problem. You are aware early on that this will be more Cold Comfort Farm than The Plague but it does have elements of both.

As in Stella Gibbons book anyone who is not obsessed with country pursuits is suspect, particularly if they read too much (any reading is too much): "From the age of sixteen when he had first become interested in books, much to the distress of his father, he had paid little heed to physical or sporting matters." "

As in Camus' book we see how beliefs stand up to continuous shared horror. The main character is Hopkins, The Collector, who believes in the idea that progress in science and the arts raises the moral temperature of the ocean in which humanity swims. He has filled his residence with objects from The Great Exhibition at The Crystal Palace and his relationship to these possessions changes over the course of the novel. "Possessions are surely a physical high-water mark of the moral tide which has been flooding steadily for the past twenty years or so." He holds great hopes for electro magnetically plated ornaments - "Could anyone doubt...that this (electro-plating) was another invention which would rapidly make mankind sensitive to Beauty?"

Science, Religion, Medicine, The Arts, Commerce and most forcefully of all Colonialism are explored over the course of the novel. Many of the beliefs held by characters in the novel are held without them having any basis in fact, or probability. One of the subplots is the conflict between the two doctors, one of whom believes in vapours (Dr Dunstaple) and all sort of nebulous ideas while the other believes in recording everything and examining the statistics (Dr McNab). The level of support for either has as much to do with their tones of voice as what they are saying.

The novel is based almost totally in the world of the colonisers. The native Indians are almost invisible on the end of punkahs - "The ladies ..fought polite but ruthless battles for a place under those punkahs in the billiard room that were still moving (that is to say, those which still had a native attached to the other end)" or watching -  "What a wonderful time everyone was having....even the ragged natives watching from the edge of the clearing were probably enjoying the spectacle..." This undermines the argument that they are there for the advancement of India and indeed Mr Hopkins is increasingly aware of this as the novel progresses.

The progress they bring is seen to be intimately related to the wealth they extract, indeed both seem  to be one and the same: "one has to go no further to find progress exemplified. Opium, even more than salt, is a great source of revenue of our own creation and is now more productive than any except the land revenue. And who pays it? Why, John Chinaman ... who prefers our opium to any other. That's what I call progress."

The faith in progress is touching (or is that touched?) "Mrs Lang, we are raising ourselves, however painfully, so that mankind may enjoy in the future a superior life which we can now hardly conceive! The foundations on which the new men will build their lives are Faith, Science, Respectability, Geology, Mechanical Invention, Ventilation and Rotation of Crops!'

The insularity of the exiles is at times stretched to extreme lenghts. They have no doubt but that England is the centre of the world. "Yet at the same time he (the Padre) could not understand why the Bible should have had to be translated in the first place ... why it should have been written in Hebrew or Greek when English was the obvious language..." 

When the Collector notes the strange appearance of chapatis in paces where chapatis should not be he suspects that they are a sign, a communication and he tries to warn his peers and superiors, They, however ignore him and he becomes an object of ridicule. "'There goes Hopkins. I wonder who he's going to warn this time.'" The idea of the 'natives' threatening them in any way just seems absurd to them. Speculation that he has gone mad runs rife: "It was in the nature of things that sometimes a Roman emperor, or a Collector, would go mad, insist on promoting his horse to be a general, and would have to be humoured; such a danger exists in every rigid hierarchy."

However, the Collector is no longer ridiculed once the sepoys mutiny and the remaining british have to hole up in his residence. We know that something has happened when the General who had previously only been interested in cricket turns up somewhat the worse for wear. "The sowars were evidently trying to stop the flowing of blood by holding him first one way, then another, as someone eating toast and honey might try, by vigilance and dexterity, to prevent it dripping."

All the power and confidence of the British Empire seems to drain away like the magical powers of the Wizard of Oz and, unable to offer shelter to all who seek it they are reduced to giving  " the native Christians" "a certificate to say that they've been loyal to the government..."

I am going to stop after the next quote before I give away too much. I have already let it be known that there is gore so this doesn't give anything new away: "the scavengers of the district, both birds and animals, were already thoroughly bloated from the results of the first attack ... the birds were so heavy with meat that they could hardly launch themselves into the air, the jackals could hardly drag themselves back to their lairs."

There a a number of immensely quotable quotes that I had lined up but they are too revealing. Read the book and you'll find them yourself. One last thing which struck me about this book is how it fits amoung my ideas of how the second generation Irish have operated on British culture from within. Clearly, the myth of Empire is not something with which they are comfortable and it this book could be stood beside God Save The Queen as a gleeful evisceration of that myth. However the myths of 'superior cultures' that were, and are, the basis for military, economic and cultural imperialism, cannot be eviscerated enough. 


  1. Oh, I am so pleased to find your blog! Which I did because I finally took a look at who was following mine. Thank you.

    Because I am working my way through the Booker winners, this one has been on my radar for a long time. I haven't found a copy, but now that I read your terrific review, I am going to make an effort to do so.

    Glad to virtually meet you!

  2. Thanks for your comment. This is definitely one to look out for, funny and serious at the same time. A winning combination.

  3. I have a nice hardback copy for sale here: http://bookrescue.blogspot.com/2011/11/under-siege.html