Having just completed reading The Seige of Krishnapur, I am finding it difficult to concentrate on my next book as my thoughts keep drifting back to J. G. Farrell's captivating tale of the Indian Mutiny. That, for me, is testament enough to the subtle power of Farrell's seeping characterisation and boys-own story-telling that delivers a very human story.
The history of the Indian Mutiny is well-enough known that Farrell does not waste our time explaining it, or the extent of it, other than by passing reference to mutiny-related events unfolding generally, rather he focusses straightway on his principal characters to be, who are they and what is the essence of their lives pre-Mutiny. In this way Farrell prepares the ground for his in-depth examination of how those characters initally respond to, and subsequently deal with, the tortuous, drawn out experience of the seige.
Farrell's story-telling is anything but tortuous and drawn out, however, as he skilfully compresses a period of months into a series of episodes that portray the inexorable passage to physical starvation, the abandonment of Victorian sensibilities, graphically portrayed in the lost cause of personal hygeine, and explore what individuals will, when pushed to confront impending death, consider to be their own bottom line.
Farrell deconstructs, piece by piece, the edifice of Victorian life in India, built around a social class structure to rival any caste system. Some recognise early the reality that eveyone is in the same boat, others find it impossible to accept and fight to the end to preserve some element of a completely redundant distinction.
Our guide through this collapse is Mr Hopkins, The Collector, the administrative head of this district, who immediately accepts his responsibility to show leadership and takes charge of the developing situation as he invites the ex-pat and at-risk communities into the relative safety of the Residency, from where he will offer all the protection he can and see out the seige. At first the incumbents are defending a small campus, but this is slowly reduced by attack after attack until the survivors are penned into the last-remaining defendable building. Circumstances and beliefs alike are reduced to a core, there is nowhere else to retreat to.
Remarkably, Farrell manages to inject pace, heroism and humour into the story as well as asking some serious moral questions, which all helps to explain why I am still thinking of it.