Friday, June 14, 2013

J.G. Farrell's "The Singapore Grip" Book Review

As the Japanese invade, the British in the colony of Singapore cluster. "Between the pudding, which was prunes and custard, and the cheese, things continued to go wrong at a comfortable rate." So the colonists hear as their troops give way and the enemy advances.

J.G. Farrell follows "The Siege of Krishnapur" and "Troubles" with the last in what has been called his Empire Trilogy. Similar to Paul Scott's Raj Quartet composed around the same time, in the 1970s, Farrell shares a fascination with the intrigue of imperialism as felt and furthered by the middle management ranks--unlike Scott, there's less of an attempt to dramatize a native reaction to the overlords. Scott sifts in satirical touches, while Farrell delights in them. This suits Farrell fine, for his predilection remains to analyze the rationalizations of capitalists, here Walter heading a rubber firm, and do-gooder Matthew, the son of his recently deceased rival. They encounter enough difficulties as it is. Natives might only complicate matters more, as WWII breaks out.

As Matthew lands, he shrinks. "The heat was suddenly stifling: he was clad in it from head to toe, as if wrapped in steaming towels." (102) Farrell describes a place he knew first by study and the draft of his novel (works consulted are appended) before he visited there for confirming his research. Matthew will get used to what Walter has grown up with, "listening to the tropical night which like some great machine had begun its humming, whirring and clicking, steadily growing in volume as the darkness deepened." (51)

Matthew falls for Walter's daughter Joan, a wonderfully manipulative beauty whose sheer cynicism and calculation seems to her hapless set-up suitor (the Blacketts want to unite their firm with the one which Matthew Webb looks set to inherit) so unmatched. Her ministrations find competition with another enigmatic woman, Vera Chiang, whose verisimilitude, half-Russian "princess," half-Chinese, we never figure out, and out of such lacunae, Farrell places us within Matthew's confusion neatly.  Names are often suitable for characters, as two of the surnames above indicate.

This third installment has been downplayed by comparison with the Booker Prize-winning pair by Farrell preceding it, but I found it far more enjoyable than the dour even by (Anglo-)Irish standards Troubles. In its doomed verve and witty dialogue, it recalls Siege much more, to their mutual advantage. As disaster hits yet another outpost of the Crown, we see the same fate that befell India in the Sepoy Mutiny or Ireland in the War of Independence. "In front of the temple, like an offering, a dead man lay in the gutter under a buzzing, seething black shroud." (552)

Derek Mahon in his brief introduction alludes to Farrell's increasing adoption of a Buddhist pose of sorts before his sudden death (a polio victim early on, he was swept into Bantry Bay in 1979 while fishing on the rocks in a gust). The sentence above demonstrates such a stance, but most of the book throws off this attitude: as you read, you look forward to a dramatic climax.

Yet, it refuses to follow the conventional buildup to a big pay-off, and this veering away from the expected pattern of a narrative, heightened by the stance of its teller, may frustrate readers. It's more nuanced, and while I liked this decision to downplay the love-war genre, it may feel a limper ending for some. Similarly, Walter and Vera may succumb to resignation or a very subtle form of sensible endurance, as a too-short coda rushes past what befell the future of Farrell's characters, seen now and then by an omniscient, wry narrator.

A flying boat manages to escape just in time, "leaving the chaos and destruction of Singapore as nothing but a tiny smudge on the horizon , insignificant compared with the vast, shining sea below them." (522) Out of such wondrous scenes, the fruitless folly of Walter's attempt to profit from the wartime rubber demand, as it rots on the docks under Japanese bombardment, diminishes. What we find instead, closing this ambitious novel, becomes less fixed and more ambiguous, not to be clung to but to be let go of. Perhaps this is a Buddhist novel after all, Farrell's prematurely last fiction. (Amazon US, 10-23-12)

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