The Booker Prize

Reading the Booker Prize winners (6): The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell

Title: The Siege of Krishnapur

Author: J.G. Farrell

Genre: Historical Fiction

Year: 1973

India 1857 – George Fleury is in Krishnapur to find a suitable match and hopefully be cured of his Romantic inclinations, in a period when the British empire is slowly losing its grip on the colonies.
What begins as just news of general unrest in areas far away becomes a troubling reality when the rebellion reaches Krishnapur and Fleury finds himself trapped in a besieged compound together with his fellow English citizens, hoping to hold out long enough for reinforcements to come to the rescue.

A closer look

The Siege of Krishnapur is the second instalment in J.G. Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, three books depicting the decline of the British Empire in different times and places. The first book in the series was Troubles (even though it’s technically set way after the events of this one), but there’s no connection between the stories aside from Farrell’s analysis of Britain’s declining power.

The book starts pretty simple: we follow the Collector, a British political figure living close to Krishnapur who is just about to send his wife back to England because Indian air is not agreeing with her health. We soon realise the kind of man he is: assured of his country’s power and moral superiority, he spends most of his time collecting knickknacks and art pieces to admire in the comfort of his own home.

Fast forward a couple of days, and here comes our real protagonist, George Fleury. He has been sent to India in the hopes of setting him on the right path and, why not, find a suitable match in one of the British families out in the colony. He is also accompanied by his sister Miriam, who is still recovering from the death of her husband.

He starts navigating the society with the help of Harry Dunstaple (who just happens to be the brother of his new crush, Louise), but after only a short period the worst happens: the Muslims in the Indian subcontinent are rebelling, and the British citizen are forced to retreat to the Collector’s home, the only defendable place for them. We then follow our characters as they suffer through the attacks, learn to fight back, and try to make do with what little food and space they have.

Men defend the walls during the day and spend the night burying the dead, while the compound is swept by disease, surrounded by feral dogs looking for an easy meal, and slowly the situation starts to affect Fleury mentally as well as proving physically challenging.

It’s kind of sad but also understandable how he turns from a true Romantic soul to a more concrete kind of person.
One of the first things we are told about him is that “he did not seem very normal” because he was playing the violin in a remote pagoda in the garden, at night, in the rain.

Although he generally liked sad things, such as autumn, death, ruins and unhappy love affairs, Fleury was nevertheless dismayed by the morbid turn the conversation had taken.

Besides, as you might expect, he was fond of graveyards; he enjoyed brooding in them and letting his heart respond to the abbreviated biographies he found engraved in their stones… so eloquent, so succinct! All the same, once he had spent an hour or two pondering by his mother’s grave he decided to call it a day because, after all, one does not want do overdo the lurking in graveyards.

His attitude starts changing first when he realises that Louise is not interested in his love for poetry after all, but even more during the time he spends with Harry Dunstaple, a personality as different from his own as anyone could find.

Fleury paused, guiltily aware that he was indulging “feelings” once more.

What his father was unable to drive out of him, his friendship with Harry and the gruesome reality of the siege finally manage: they push him to consider his material reality with more interest and attention, if only to survive, and set aside his “feelings”.

On the other hand, the Collector suffers the opposite transformation: materialistic and a stern defender of Britain’s superiority, he becomes more and more disillusioned about the actual power of his country and even about the possibility of getting any help before it’s too late. The change manifests itself clearly after a sickness forces him to bed during the siege, and when he finally gets back on his feet he does not care about organizing the defence of the compound as he did before, but rather lingers on thoughts like:

We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us… but what if we’re only an after-glow of them?

Even his crush on Fleury’s sister Miriam, which seems to represent everything he wants in a woman, slowly fades as his mentality shifts.

Talking about Miriam, it’s a pity that she didn’t have more space during the story. She has some pretty modern views about being a woman, and was especially tired of having to rely on a man in order to live her life to any kind of satisfaction.

Miriam was tired of womanhood. She wanted simply to experience life as an anonymous human being of flesh and blood. She was tired of having to adjust to other people’s ideas of what a woman should be. And nothing condemned a woman so swiftly to womanhood as grappling with a man.

I’ll have to say, the plot itself didn’t do much for me. Some parts were enjoyable and interesting, but a lot of time was spent exploring the musing of different characters and just watching them changing and adjusting to their new situation. A few threads of the plot were wrapped up rather quickly or simply abandoned – like the whole section with the son of the Maharajah. What was that supposed to accomplish?

Despite this, the author’s prose was just so easy to read that it never ended up feeling like a chore. Just like in Troubles, one of his best assets is the humour that permeates a good amount of the story. While the topic can be extremely serious, Farrell manages to lighten it up with the characters’ naïve or simply ridiculous thoughts.
One example of this is the competitiveness between the two doctors when cholera starts spreading in the compound. A potentially deadly disease is never funny, but the way the doctors discuss their remedies, and how the people in the compound kept changing their minds about them reached a level of absurdity that managed to take off some of the edge of a really grim situation and turn it into something else. It got to a point were the healthy people were moving around the compound with little notes in their pockets, detailing which doctor they wished to be brought to in case they fell ill.

This is only one example of what Farrell disseminated throughout the novel, and these are the kind of little gems I enjoy his work for. Personally, I didn’t find this one as enjoyable as Troubles, but it was still a pretty good read by Booker Prize standard – in my top three, at least so far.
I’ve heard the next one on the list is not great, so I’m a bit wary of starting it, but hopefully I’ll find my courage after a short break.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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