§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell

This book is the second of a trilogy about the failure of empire: Troubles (about April 1916), and The Singapore Grip (about the fall of Singapore in WWII) are the others. It’s a fast-moving historical novel, set in a mythical place but based on histories, letters and memoirs from the Indian Mutiny period. The time is the summer 1857. Mr. Hopkins, the Collector—primary British official in Krishnapur (isolated on the vast and dusty northern Indian plain)—worries that the chapattis that appear mysteriously around the British settlement, even inside his dispatch case, presage some coming troubles. He’s already been erecting earthworks—laughed at by most of his compatriots pursuing their usual occupations (horses and artillery for the military men—and pursuing the women, pampered creatures with little to do but survive in the heat, fanned by native servants, and preen for the men).

The subsequent revolt at the nearby military base where most of the British officers are killed and the sepoys take over causes Mr. Hopkins to gather his flock into the Residency. In addition to the British, military and civilian, and their dependents, there are the Maharaja’s son Hari and the “Prime Minister” who accompanies him, all the Eurasians of the town, the Sikhs from the military (a religious minority) and the Indian servants of many of the richer people, white and Eurasian. Following social morality of the time, a “ruined” young woman remains in the village. When a couple of the Englishmen go to rescue her, she refuses to come believing that her life is over. Only when one of the Englishwomen writes her a letter does she come to the Residency—in the nick of time because her cottage is burned almost immediately—but even then the Englishwomen living in the billiard room don’t want to associate with her and even, Louise, whose compassion made her write the letter, doesn’t want Lucy too close to her brother.

Farrell obviously did significant research on Victorian attitudes, especially the belief in progress (through science and technology but also in manners and morality). Britain believes it shines above all other societies and will endow the rest of the world with the benefit of its goods, inventions and ideas. The Collector holds up Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851 (with the Crystal Palace) as the apogee of British superiority; he has numerous souvenirs from his visit on display in the Residency. But the mutiny causes him to revise his opinions, to question what Britain can do for India.

The novel is comic which is probably the last thing you expect in a novel about people who endure a 4 months siege in which they battle not only the revolting sepoys, but weather (deadly heat followed by monsoons which threaten to carry away their fortifications), battle wounds, cholera and all manner of lesser diseases, insects, lack of food and water. Their clothes fall apart. The furniture is used to reinforce the earthworks. They are forced periodically to give up territory and retreat to smaller and more primitive conditions. Burying the dead is a nightly event. Powder runs low. Cannons are used so much they warp and won’t accept round cannon balls.

The sources of the humor are the pretensions of Empire, the padre’s increasingly frantic attempts to account for why God is punishing them, the “objects” that the Collector associates with British civilization that get buried in the earthworks or wrapped in ladies stockings to be hurled out of the cannon after it’s warped from constant use—things like silver spoons and false teeth.

Read it! I’m looking for Farrell’s two other anti-empire novels right now.


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