Monday, August 27, 2007

The Siege of Krishnapur

My friend Paddy tells me that if a book doesn't get him interested within the first 50 pages or so he lays it aside and moves on to something else. Now Paddy is the most voracious reader I know so he has to do something to limit his intake. But if I had applied his recommended practice to a book he actually loaned me recently, namely J. G. Farrell's Booker Prize-winning The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), I would have missed out on something very special. Frankly the first part of the book just didn't capture me - the courting intrigues of a bunch of British gentlemen and prissy English ladies prancing around courting in British India in the 1840s wasn't exactly my cup of tea. The tension builds however as the inevitable uprising of the Sepoys and the consequent siege approaches and you begin to see that Farrell has gone into painstaking detail developing these self assured characters because he plans to pull the rug out from underneath them as their civilization comes crashing down around them and they are reduced to the most primitive of survival instincts. The humour in the midst of the horror serves to unmask the pretensions of the British class system and all its racist assumptions as they are played out in the colonial setting.

The novel has been meticulously researched to gain historical detail and accuracy, including consulting the diaries of the actual participants. Depending on Owen Chadwick's magisterial two volume work The Victorian Church cannot be faulted. Yet for all this Farrell's "padre" does seem to be a mere caricature. I'm sure there were such pathologically obsessed clergymen in the Victorian era but I doubt if they could be said to be typical. Since he serves as a metaphor for a bankrupt Christianity in the novel I assume he embodies everything about the faith that the author dismisses as puerile and ridiculous.

There is also a deep sadness and cynicism at the heart of the book, given shape and form in the person of The Collector. He begins the novel as a man with an overwhelming sense of the fitness of all things, and an (admittedly displaced) confidence in the rightness of the "civilising" project in India. He serves as the moral centre of the book as, after surviving an attack of cholera, throughout the darkest days of the siege he is a pillar of strength to the survivors and the only person whose head remains well and truly screwed on. Yet the horrors of the siege leave him something of a nihilist. Neither science nor technology nor religion nor British culture nor anything else could overcome the invincible stupidity of humanity. In the situation of violent death, desperate privation, and gradual starvation all that seemed previously to give the world meaning is stripped back to the most base of survival instincts. Human beings prove after all to be no more than a fortuitous course of atoms thrown out on a dung heap of rotting corpses for pariah dogs to scavenge. Since the Collector's portrait is the most sympathetic given in the book, one wonders whether the character doesn't embody the author's own viewpoint.

In some ways the book is typical of novels of the 1970s with its post-colonial empire bashing. It is hilariously funny and horrifically ghastly at one and the same time. Thanks Paddy for a great recommendation. The obsessive compulsive behaviour that drives me to finish every book I start even if it seems a chore stood me in good stead on this occasion.

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