The voting is done, the tallies are in, and the super/meta/ultimate-Booker–or whatever you call it–has not gone to J.G. Farrell’s novel of imperial decay, The Siege of Krishnapur. (Predictably, some guy with a cleric problem has taken the honor.)
Let us pause momentarily to appreciate the coincidence that an Indian-British novelist’s book about postcolonial India, a book that captures the essence of postmodern play and hystericism, has beat out a British novelist’s book about colonial India, a book that, though published in 1973, looks back to the realist conventions of an earlier style of crafting a novel. And how strange that though Midnight’s Children remains one of Britain’s most popular novels, J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, as reported in an earlier story on the Booker website, has largely fallen off the map of the British literary landscape.
It’s ridiculous to think that a largely unknown novel could win a popularity contest over a just-knighted titian of British letters, and that means what I’m about to write is a catch-22, but what a favor the British reading public would have done itself had it voted The Siege to win, thereby giving British publishers a good reason to bring this novel back into wide circulation. (In the U.S. we’re fortunate that NYRB has done just that for us.)
I chanced on and read this novel just over three years ago, quickly losing no time in recording my breathless appreciation in this blog. It is a book that, though superficially similar to novels of an earlier era, nonetheless makes subtle use of the irony and historical perspective at the disposal of an author well into the 20th century. In my post I called it E.M. Forster meets Ernest Hemingway, and this gets at what is so satisfying about the book: it twins excellent character studies, abetted by a thorough portrayal of British manners among the upper classes living in the colonies, with a driving narrative that’s every bit as brutal and gripping as Hemingway at his best.
The Siege of Krishnapur details exactly what the title says it will: a British outpost in Krishnapur, India, is laid siege to, and the novel draws out the drama as upper-crust types, generally accustomed to every luxury available in a British colony, are subjected to inexorable bodily degradation and forced to figure out how to defend themselves. Farrell expertly forges the souls of his characters in the smithy of the siege: as you are reading it, you become dreadfully aware that this is the trial that will define the lives of all who leave this siege alive. Farrell is unsparing, but never gratuitous or unfair, in forcing his colonists to let drop all of the routines and rules they cling to as defenses.
Here, for example, is what I wrote about a character named the Collector, and how he tries to force back the reality of what is happening to him:
All the major characters feel spot-on, and Farrell conveys so much
with so little. To-wit, here’s the Collector, the sort of head
bureaucrat during the siege:
he was drinking tea at the table in his bedroom with three young
subalterns from Captainganj a succession of musket balls came through
the winder, attracted by the oil-lamp . . . one, two, three and then a
fourth, one after another. The officers dived smartly under the table,
leaving the Collector to drink his tea alone. After a while they
re-emerged smiling sheepishly, deeply impressed by the Collector’s
sang-froid. Realizing that he had forgotten to sweeten his tea, the
Collector dipped a teaspoon into the sugar-bowl. But then he found that
he was unable to keep the sugar on the spoon: as quickly as he scooped
it up, it danced off again. It was clear that he would never get it
from the sugar-bowl to the cup without scattering it over the table, so
in the end he was obliged to push the sugar away and drink his tea
There’s something that just
gets me about that passage. The Collector resigned to his sugarless
tea, enduring the siege with a straight face, almost bored with the
musket balls except that he can’t keep his body from the fear of
evisceration. He’s trying to be diginified and British, but he’s also
resigned to the fact that he’s not quite pulling it off, but he’s still
trying to create the appearance of it. It’s so the Collector. All of
Farrell’s characters are like this.
Farrell died tragically young, the victim of a freak wave during a fishing expedition. Before his death, however, he did leave us with what is known as the Empire Trilogy, an epic work examining the British empire and of which The Siege of Krishnapur is the middle title. The first, Troubles, and the last, The Singapore Grip, have also been brought back into print in the U.S. by NYRB and are well worth reading.
A piece over at The Guardian blog (which ran before that site lost its groove) captures why Farrell wrote this trilogy, that is, why he would want to consider the British empire from the vantage point of the 1970s; in doing so, the piece also offers compelling evidence why this book should still be read, both as literature and as a novel of ideas:
Farrell said that he wanted to show "yesterday reflected in today’s
consciousness", but by association, of course, he also holds a glass up
to the modern world. His comically detailed descriptions of various
residents’ losses of faith – coupled with their outlandish religious
beliefs and the way they adhere to now discredited theories like
phrenology – forces us into a hard look at the accepted wisdom of the
modern world (say, the immediacy of global warming, or the need to
worship Radiohead). I for one felt a shudder of new uncertainty.
Then, there is colonialism. When the audiobook of the Siege Of
Krishnapur came out in 2005, a writer in the Sunday Times said: "A
novel set in India in 1857, the year of the Mutiny, in which the points
of view of the Indians are almost nonexistent, would be unlikely to win
the Man Booker prize these days." That’s perhaps worthy of a debate in
itself, but it’s the accusation against Farrell that interests me: the
idea that, as the reviewer went on, he was guilty of "cultural
imbalance". I don’t buy this line at all. The fact that Indians (with
the rule-proving exception of a westernised maharajah’s son) are so
peripheral to the action speaks volumes about the attitude of the
British colonialists squirming and struggling under Farrell’s
microscope, not to mention the way colonialism dehumanises and
brutalises the oppressor and the oppressed.
It also provokes an uncomfortable recognition about the way we still
think about our colonial past. It’s the fact that The Siege of
Krishanpur provokes such edgy, unsettling ideas that makes me think it
would be unlikely to triumph in the Booker Prize in "these days" of
safe and stodgy winners, rather than any misdirected political
The British are fortunate to have a writer like Rushdie, who, when he’s on his game, can illuminate the realities of the British immigrant experience and capture the feel of life and the questions animating it in one of the postcolonial societies it left behind; but our trans-Atlantic cousins are perhaps letting drop a precious opportunity when they don’t take the opportunity to read Farrell alongside Rushdie. And as to us Americans, as I noted in my earlier post, there are a few lessons to be learned over here from Farrell as well.
Speaking of, reading Farrell’s trilogy on the British empire tends to make me wonder: Who is our Farrell? To be sure, an American writing today isn’t in the same position vis a vis empire as a Brit writing the ’70s, but there is nonetheless a lot of American imperial history to consider. Off the top of my head, I would say that Don DeLillo in Libra and Underworld makes our best stand-in. But perhaps we’ll have found our Farrell when someone updates for the 21st century what probably is America’s best last imperial trilogy: USA by John Dos Passos.