on 3 August 2009
What a brilliant read. Set during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, a time when the country was still administered by the British East India Company, the novel juxtaposes Victorian ideas of progress and civilisation with the horror and inhumanity of an extended siege on a fictional cantonment, Krishnapur. Set in the years after the Great Exhibiton, it contrasts the high-minded pretensions of the town's inhabitants with the reality of humanity at its most desperate to absurd and hilarious effect. With a brilliant cast of characters - from the zealous, heckling Padre to the grim, cynical Magistrate; from the ineffectual romantic Fleury to the stolid, misunderstood Dr McNab - I enjoyed it thoroughly from beginning to end.
While the 'serious' setting might suggest otherwise, the book is extraordinarily gripping, and riddled with grim humour, believable, interesting characters and an admirable insight into the contemporary science and medicine (subjects diverse as the treatment of cholera, phrenology and military tactics are discussed at length, without ever detouring into tedious longeurs). It's cliche, but I genuinely couldn't put the book down; at parts I found myself laughing out loud and shaking my head in disbelief. So realistically is the siege brought to life that you can almost smell the rotting flesh of its victims and hear the crash of the defending cannons. It's easy to see why this was nominated for the Best of Bookers and is held in such high esteem thirty-odd years after its publication, yet I'd recommend it heartily to readers of all levels and abilities.
on 30 July 2007
The Great Mutiny in 1857 has been a major inspiration for writers of fiction (and non-fiction too off course). Some of those fictional books I've read, though by far not all (has anyone read them all?), but never have I been as impressed by one as by `The siege of Krishnapur'.
This is really a most extraordinary book. I may perhaps not read it as people born and bred in England (to them Krishnapur is probably a household-name and a legendary part of their national history) but in fact this matters little. `The siege of Krishnapur' is much much more than a book about the siege of that particular place. The entire story is told from the point of view of a number of the English residents, while the sepoys are merely present as a part of the setting (almost as the summer heat, the monsoon rains, the bugs, ...). And it is in the description of these characters and their thoughts and feelings that this book surpasses all others I've read. Mr. Hopkins (the Collector), Mr. Willoughby (the Magistrate), George Fleury, Harry Dunstable, the Padre, and many more, will impress themselves upon you as if you know them in the flesh.
Their near-sighted views of most everything (the `civilizing' influence of British rule over India and science's progress, the roles of men versus women), their stubborn adherence to `proper' conduct and society's rules and regulations ever after 3 months of siege, the proverbial British phlegm in the face of desperate odds, it is all described with such an incomparable style and vocabulary to make these people both tragic, heroic, and - oddest perhaps of all - at times extremely humorous.
One of the best books I've read in years.
on 4 December 2008
There was much here to enjoy: the imaginative recreation of the British in India, their ways of thinking and behavior. The thrill of the action, which began picking up appreciably one-quarter of the way into the book. The author's skilled use of detail, to the extent that the reader could see, smell and hear what went on. The varied cast of characters with their individual voices and concerns. The impact of the siege on customs and proprieties. The ironies throughout, both subtle and unsubtle. The blindness of so many of the characters, hemmed in by narrow-minded conventions. And one character's progression from a firm belief in the superiority of European civilization and the perfection of science and morality toward skepticism and tolerance, after a loss of certitude.
The author was trying in part to show that a nation "does not create itself according to its best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge." But surely the best ideas also help shape a nation as it evolves, and some progress has been achieved after all? And why should a belief in the best of what European civilization has contributed be thrown over because of what was done in India? Still, there was much in this novel to enjoy.
The Cassandra-like 'Collector' has been predicting the Indian Mutiny and the novel guides you through the events surrounding one military encounter at this isolated outpost of the Empire.
Played against this narrative is the emergence of 'the scientific way of looking at things' exemplified by the Collector's 'bible', his book 'The Spirit of Science Conquers Ignorance and Prejudice'. This is combined with his love of the 'new' output from the 1851 Great Exhibition with items ranging from the wonderfully named 'gorse bruiser' to the more widely-known daguerreotype.
This aspect is developed by the protracted feud between the two medical men who are dealing with the proliferation of wounded and ill defenders. One favours 'ignorance and prejudice' to treat cholera victims, the other 'science and reason', loosely based on Dr John Snow's research in 1854 Soho.
The main narrative features the transformation of the lead character from poetic langour to man of action. Very well-researched, very well written, very laudable but never grabbed me by the throat.
One of those rare novels that is both very funny and very poignant, both insightful and a gripping read. Set in India, 1857, 'the Siege of Krishnapur' is the story of a beleagured British colonial settlement during the Sepoy mutiny. Although the story and the town are fictious, much is based on actual events that took place in Lucknow and other real besieged towns.
Written with intelligence and wit, the novel pokes fun at the pompous Victorian colonists, whilst still conveying the desperation of the situation they find themselves in. It is a brilliant study of human nature and behaviour, and though the Victorian beliefs and attitudes make it funnier, much of the underlying motivations are just as relevant today. A particularly good example is the rivalry between the two doctors over how to treat cholera, and the way the public sways between the two based not on the logic of the arguments, but emotive factors.
'The Siege of Krishnapur' is full of wonderfully rendered characters; the 'fallen woman' who so horrifies the other ladies; the gung-ho young soldier and his self-absorbed poetic friend; the Collector, who finds himself an unlikely military commander; the padre who struggles to root out sin from the enclave. Despite the humour surrounding many of the situations, the characters are elevated above being mere figures of fun.
Farrell describes the horrors of warfare and siege particularly well; the heat, the flies, the smell, the indiscriminate death, the hunger. He explores complex themes of 'progress' and 'civilisation' whilst retaining the narrative pace. Rarely does such a gripping book also make you think so much. It will certainly stay with me.
In summary, a true classic which is genuinely funny and yet carries a serious message, all wrapped up in a page-turningly good yarn. Fantastic.
on 15 February 2009
In THE SIEGE OF KRISHNAPUR, the principal interests of J.G. Farrell are the culture, self-image, and attitudes of Victorian Brits. To explore these subjects, Farrell shows English culture in all its glory in India in the 1850s, which is the subject of Part One of this four-part novel. Then, he shows his Brits besieged in the minor outpost of Krishnapur. There, amid a grinding and deadly Sepoy siege, the social assumptions and practices of his Brits gradually disintegrate. Eventually, his Victorians become crazed, starved, desperate, and stinking.
SEIGE is a very well made book, with Parts Two, Three, and Four showing the siege inexorably stripping the English of their customs and illusions, finally leaving stupidity, greed, and the habit of survival as the most powerful forces in their community. Surely, this renders as narrative highpoints the auction of food (technically the property of the dead), the debates on the causes of cholera, and the irrelevancy of the Padre, a minister of the Church of England whose spiritual message has no traction during the bestial experience of the siege.
Farrell shows great compassion to his characters in Part Four. (Stop here to avoid SPOILERS!) In particular, he allows his females to find suitable mates. Further, he allows three of his male characters to resume their life paths, with the least mature becoming a fat and opinionated Londoner. But the siege causes one character to renounce his Victorian ideals. With this character, Farrell conveys the bleak outlook of this book, which is that progress and culture is a smug sham that disappears in parlous times.
SEIGE also features some first-rate action writing. Recommended.
on 24 February 2015
JG Farrell was a hugely gifted writer who died in a fishing accident in Ireland, thus depriving us of a first-rate literary talent. Witness that ability in this exciting tale, where the eponymous siege is handled with a perfect blend of horror and humour, and at just the right pace to prevent interest flagging. Swarming insects before a storm are conjured with visceral power, while firing the stone heads of statues from cannons at the attacking sepoys is a master-stroke of symbolic humour, Shakespeare proving the most lethal projectile, Keats and Voltaire useless. Is there a tad too much of Boy's Own gung-hoery in the account? Maybe. Are some of the religious-cultural debates too obtrusively inserted in the narrative? Perhaps. Are the female characters smudgily drawn? Undoubtedly. But for all its flaws the novel is a riveting read and had me hurrying to historical accounts of the Indian mutiny and the potent reasons a sub-continent grew sick of its well-meaning oppressors, that misguided sense of moral worth being one of their worst qualities.
… is one of the themes of JG Farrell’s Booker Prize winning novel, as indicated by Pankaj Mishra in the introduction. But there were numerous other themes that also resonated. I knew of the Indian rebellion against British rule which occurred in 1857, but knew virtually no details, and felt I was long overdue to decrease the width of that lacunae. Farrell’s novel, which was written in 1973 is modeled to a large degree on the siege of Lucknow. This work is part of a trilogy which take a jaundiced view of the British Empire, with the other two being The Singapore Grip and "Troubles".
The novel is set in India, but there are virtually no Indians in Farrell’s account. They are simply “the other,” with a common designation being that of “sepoy.” And they are “howling at the gates,” trying to upset a comfortable lifestyle. Their reasons are never explicitly stated, but can be deduced from the attitudes of their white English rulers, now besieged. The sole Indian that is developed as a character, at least to some degree, is Hari, the son of the local Maharaja. He is trying to straddle both cultures, both for cultural and political reasons.
Farrell develops a fair and representative sampling of characters that reflected the attitude of the British ruling class. The ultimate cynic is the Magistrate, a retired judge. The leader of the besieged British community is the “Collector,” Mr. Hopkins, so called due to his vast collection of European and Indian items. Both are “old Indian hands.” “Youth” is represented by Fleury, who had just arrived in India the previous winter, and Harry, the son of Dr. Dunstaple. There is the “padre,” interpreting “God’s Will” in the continued developments of the siege. There are three memorable women: Louise Dunstaple, daughter of the doctor, and a wonderful “catch” that Fleury has his eyes on. There is Fleury’s sister, Miriam, who arrives in India with him, a young widow due to the loss of her husband in the Crimean War. And there is Lucy Hughes, a “fallen woman” for having had one sexual relationship, ever so briefly (this was the Victorian era!), and how she is shunned by her fellow women for “breaking ranks” (?)
Hubris takes many forms, and certainly a dominant theme is that British rule was justified by the amount of “good” they were bringing to the natives, often called a “civilizing mission.” In part, that civilizing mission involved the production of opium, and its export to China, which was the matter of a couple of wars. But one of the sub-themes I found most interesting was the conflict between the community’s only two doctors, culminating in very different theories about what caused cholera. Men of medicine, and therefore men of science? Hardly. Their egos become wrapped around certain hunches, and no amount of “objective facts” will change their minds. Ancient history? More than a 150 years later, though the cause and treatment of cholera is well-known, hubris was a contributing factor to the death of 7,500 Haitians from cholera in 2010.
In terms of memorable scenes, it would be hard to beat the “attack” of the black bugs, the cockchafers, which occurred in conjunction with the on-set of the monsoons. I sensed much research on Farrell’s part, over a wide range of topics, from the flora and fauna of India at the time, to military tactics and weapons, as well as the psychology of individuals in besieged settings. Bon mots? In speaking of The Collector, the author writes: “At the same time he realized with a shock how much his own faith in the Church’s authority, or in the Christians’ view of the world in which he had hitherto lived his life, had diminished since he had last inspected them. From the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens, every night of the siege, one or two were carried off in the jaws of rationalism and despair.”
Ancient history? I think not. In fact, it seems to have only become worse. In terms of isolation from the natives one is ruling, it would be hard to beat the “Emerald City” of the Green Zone inside Iraq. Padres no longer carry the gospel, it is the economists of the International Monetary Fund who know that the natives will be much happier with a flat-rate income tax. Plus ca change… As for Farrell’s excellent historical reconstruction of an uprising on the plains of northern India more than a century and a half ago, when India’s population was less than half that of the United States today, 5-stars, plus.
on 23 February 2009
This book won the Booker prize in 1973 and has recently been shortlisted on the 'Best of Booker' - i..e. one of the 6 'best' books to ever win the prize. Whilst it did not take the title (that went to Midnight's children), being in the top 6 is not a bad place to be.
This book concerns the Siege of Krishnapur during the Indian mutiny in 1857. It lasted for more than three months during the summer period with Cholera, starvation, poor medical care and reducing resources having a disasterous effect.
In witty detail, Farrell describes the way life is enacted in British communities within India during this period. The issues of Class and Status are all important. The main focus of the people who live there is to ensure one is given the correct respect according to ones status - defering to those above you but looking down and patronising those below. And as for the native Indians - there is a complete lack of understanding and arrogance on the part of the entire British community.
Farrell uses a dark humour as he illustrates the arrogance and stupidity of this social construct as it continues into the siege - and in many ways it is more important than the risk of death. There are arguments between people - both academic and real - that border on the ridiculous, and yet remain believable. Judgements are passed on those that do not meet the artificial high standards demanded within the community. Even as the situation in the residence grows more desperate, these trappings are only very slowly shed. Bigotry and the ridiculous are cleverly blended with a story of a disaster.
Farrell has created a story that is serious, dark and witty - full of characters you can understand and, to some small measure, identify with - Doctors who disagree over diagnosis, a Padre who wishes to enlighten and correct, a girl concerned with her appearance etc.
on 2 February 2004
This novel takes a mocked up incident during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and uses it to put forward deep questions about human motivation and the meaning of life, but with so subtle a touch that you don't know you how deeply you have been drawn in until the book ends, leaving you feeling bereft.
Loosely based around the siege of the Residency at Lucknow, whose shot-up buildings can still be viewed today, Farrell describes the events as seen through the eyes of various characters who wound up in the living hell of the siege. Whilst the squalor is described, this is not the chief focus of the novel. Instead, he demonstrates how each character's philosophy of life, by which they lived until they came under siege, gradually unravels: for one it is Christianity that falls, for another the belief in progress, for another still it is faith in science. In some cases, it simply can't be put back together, even after the siege, and the goals of the British, spreading civilisation and the arts, are shown up to be hollow.
And this is where the book transcends being an account, however gripping, of a siege and moves towards something much more potent, which challenges you now and your own views about what you spend your life doing.
Despite everything I have said above about how deeply challenging this book is, it's also a really easy read, full of humour: perhaps that's what makes the final challenge so disarmingly potent.
This is a brilliant book, but it's not the one you want if you want a straight account of the Mutiny: for that try Christopher Hill's "The Great Mutiny".