Shaped by other forces

This is my review of The Siege Of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell.

At first, this 1973 Booker winner seems too much of a conventionally structured "good yarn", a kind of Somerset Maugham with humour, to gain the prize today, but as the plot darkens and becomes more bizarre, I revised this initial view.

Inspired by the 1857 Indian Mutiny, the novel covers the siege of the "Residency" of "the Collector", a senior representative of the East India Company at the fictional although authentic-sounding Krishnapur. The Collector is the only person to foresee the rebellion, but his insistence on constructing security walls is dismissed as evidence of eccentricity, even madness. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a range of distinctive characters, members of the British expatriate community, in the main complacent, ignorant and contemptuous of Indian religion and culture, casually exploiting the locals as a source of cheap labour to support a luxurious lifestyle. There are moments of droll comedy, as when Lieutenant Cutter gallops on horseback onto a friend's verandah, spearing feather cushions to alarm and delight the ladies. Similarly, the culture clash is shown with amusing irony when the self-absorbed Fleury, obsessed with poetry, fails to grasp the bitter sarcasm of the local Maharajah's son, who finds himself frustrated in the attempt to discuss technical inventions with a westerner. Throughout this scene-setting, the reader anticipates that the peace is about to be brutally shattered.

With the siege in progress, I felt the book started to lose its way. A major flaw is that it seems utterly implausible that such an inexperienced and inadequate bunch of defenders could possibly hold out against a band of determined sepoys for more than a day. Also, the callous, facetious tone used to describe brutality begins to grate after a while, and certainly inures one to shocking and poignant events. I was unconvinced by the contrived nature of some of the philosophical debates which Fleury, or the doctors, or the padre are prone to launch into despite the pressing ongoing need to fight off the enemy.

The story begins to rally, ironically, as we see the characters reduced to starving skeletons, stripped of many of their former prejudices and worldly preoccupations. This is one of those books peppered with arresting insights as applicable to us today as to the Victorians, and with striking descriptions, such as the Collector's admiration for vultures for which he had grown fond: "by their diligent eating of carcases they had probably spared the garrison an epidemic" whilst, in flight "they ascended into limitless blue until they became lost to sight…. They more resembled fish than birds, sliding in gentle circles in a clear pool of infinite depth".

Tension is aroused in the final pages, since the eventual outcome is unclear. One senses Farrell is all too capable of wiping out at the end every character who has survived against the odds. He was a daring risktaker of a writer. Some passages are brilliantly original and quirky, others miss the mark with an element of Boys' Own fantasy. And underlying all the thud and blunder, there are perceptive comments on the meaning of life.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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