Saturday, October 25, 2008

J.G. Farrell's "The Siege of Krishnapur": Book Review

This 1973 Booker Prize winner explores British India through a microcosm: colonials and their loyal natives under assault by bombardment, starvation, cholera during the 1857 mutiny. It has both an old-fashioned flavor in its editorial asides by the omniscient and urbane narrator, and a modern wryness in its detached observations about the Anglo-Indian attitudes towards what they perceived as their civilizing mission. Less famous than E. M. Forster's "A Passage to India," nevertheless it may, for its rousing battle scenes full of a "carnal barricade," carrion dogs, ingenious uses for electro-metal plated heads of Keats, the Bard, and Voltaire, and artillery-fueled mayhem, excite readers more. If you've been wanting a philosophical reflection on Victorian progress, secularism vs. faith, imperial expansion vs. native resistance, and how medicine gradually advances over superstition: all these topics integrate entertainingly and instructively into a novel that also recalls a near-contemporary, John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman."

Farrell's distinction in delineating the Age of Doubt from Forster before him, Fowles next to him, and Michel Faber's fine novel "The Crimson Petal and the White" after him? While all these are favorite novels of mine, the Anglo-Irish Farrell manages to offer a sympathetic first-person indirect narration that reflects his near-countryman, Joyce. Farrell plays the reactions of the Collector, the main character here, against the atheistic and bitter (if often mordantly funny) Magistrate, the dueling doctors Dunstaple and McNab, a woefully earnest Padre, and the poetaster aesthete, Fleury. All these, as in more somnolent novels of ideas, speak their set-pieces intelligently. The difference: Farrell enlivens their thoughts. It's as if Thomas Love Peacock moved his Romantic-era figures into the colonial dust of faraway India and left dreamers, lovesick swains, practical company men, and an array of capable and hapless womenfolk to survive amidst plagues and grapeshot.

Examples abound of the verve of much of this intricate, yet direct fictional exposure of ideals as they blunder under fire. "But the Collector admired pretty women and could not feel hostile to them for very long. If they were pretty he swiftly found other virtues in them which he would not have noticed had they been ugly." (27) Fleury finds by mid-century that the sensitive type of male's out of style with the young ladies: "The effect, or lack of it, that you have on the opposite sex is important because it tells you whether or not you are in touch with the spirit of the times, of which the opposite sex is invariably the custodian." (33)

An amazing episode recounts how Fleury and a young native scion, Hari, clash over the advantages of inventions. Hari speaks in a fluent Indian English, struggling to articulate his love of the wares of such emporia as the Great Exhibition of 1851 at London's Crystal Palace, a theme that underlies the conversations of many of the British men in the novel. Fleury insists that the railroad will only bring to India what it brought to Britain: soulless bustle. Hari counters that easing labor, manufacturing food, or taking a daguerrotype is progress, and as worthy of praise as Plato. A flustered Fleury must tell Hari that he's not been able to find a bride yet: "Hari's brow puckered at this, for it was evident that Fleury was impeded from choosing a bride by being unable to find one suited to some special requirements of his own, beyond the usual ones of birth and dowry ...but what these might possibly be he had not the faintest idea; in this matter Hari's incomprehension was shared by Fleury's own relations in Norfolk and Devon." (78)

Mutual incomprehension dominates. As the novel goes on, the native revolt spreads. The local treasury's looted by traitorous sepoys: "They wore dhotis instead of uniforms and carried heavy, oddly-shaped burdens on their shoulders and around their necks; they had broached a cart-load of silver rupees and filled the legs of their breeches with them. Now it seemed that they were staggering away with heavy, trunkless men on their shoulders." (127) As this excerpt illustrates, Farrell favors the point-of-view of the besieged as they peer out upon an unrecognizable realm they no longer rule. For, soon the British and their retinue must retreat to first the Residency and then the redoubt of the Banqueting Hall. What had graced their plush exile as stuffed owls, divans, leather books, busts of intellectuals, and heaps of correspondence bound in red tape all serve as sandbags and barricades and improvised canisters to stuff cannons against the enemy.

Most of the book takes place within the makeshift fortress. The attack comes memorably:
"the rim of darkness beneath the horizon began to sparkle like a firework and immediately the air about them began to sing and howl with flying metal and chips of masonry ... then in a wave came the sound. Daubs of orange hopped at regular intervals from one end of the darkness to the other. Suddenly, a shrapnel shell landed on the corner of the verandah and all was chaos."(144)
The remainder of the story needs to be encountered directly. The tone darkens as inexorably the inhabitants of the Residency find themselves diminished by hunger, disease, and death by many kinds of assailants. I think that the register of the prose alters, and there may be too much anonymity given the cast of supporting characters; the central cast already introduced seem to live and talk in a vacuum as the plot continues, although Farrell may deliberately dampen the mood to reflect the bitter or desperate reactions of those under constant terror of sudden or lingering death. I do think Hari deserved more follow-through, and the novel does suffer slightly from an uneven focus on characters who are introduced and then forgotten about for long stretches as the siege grinds on. Also, the closing pages seem to depart with a whimper more than a bang, after the long march to the climax.

Still, despite uneven stretches, it towers above most any fiction these recent decades. It's quite an achievement, this submersion into the mental and physical despair of those about to die. When you emerge along with those who endure to find the approach of the Gilbert & Sullivanish "Relief of Krishnapur," you may hardly recognize the bedraggled survivors as those who started the novel a few months before, some who had then arrived in India so lightheartedly and naively.

P.S.: I agree with other (Amazon US-- site of this post today) reviewers: Lucy and the cockchafer infestation stands out as one of the most remarkable scenes I've ever found. It's Ch. 22. "The Hill Station" follows two characters here, Dr. McNab and Miriam, after they marry; this sequel was incomplete at the author's early death when fishing off the Irish coast in 1979.

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