Sunday, January 03, 2021

the last book I read

The Siege Of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell.

We're in India, in 1857. Nice enough country, India, if it wasn't for the bally natives, what? I mean, the civilising influence of the Empire has made it a nice enough place to live, although the bally heat is a bit trying, especially for the ladies, bless 'em, but there are always elements who, instead of accepting a perfectly reasonable offer of several years of gainful work as a reliable punkah-wallah, get ideas about ejecting the British altogether and running their own affairs. Dashed disrespectful, frankly.

Here is the town of Krishnapur, populated with a fairly typical crew of British people from all strata of society - the Collector, Mr. Hopkins, the Dunstaple family - soldier Harry, daughter Louise, just mooning around waiting for a suitable proposal of marriage from a suitable chap, and their father, a doctor - and George Fleury, recently arrived in India, a vague acquaintance of the Dunstaple family and already with an eye on Louise.

Rumours of unrest filter through from nearby towns, but it seems to be only the Collector who thinks that something major is afoot, until the bloodied survivors of a rebellion in a nearby garrison arrive and everyone retreats inside the Residency and attempts are made to fortify it against an imminent attack.

And an attack is indeed imminent, as the local sepoys start peppering the Residency and its occupants with musket and mortar fire. While the Residency has a reasonable supply of ammunition and weaponry, not everyone inside is trained or cut out for siege warfare. Obviously there are a lot of women and children, but anyone else of fighting age - Fleury, for instance - is pressed into service to man a cannon and shovel some grapeshot. Fleury actually acquits himself pretty well, but there are inevitably casualties which diminish the fighting force still further, and the ammo and food supplies can't hold out forever. 

As the siege wears on, the trappings of mid-19th-century civilisation begin to slip away. After giving corpses a proper burial becomes too tiring and hazardous they are simply tossed down a well, and as food stores dwindle and hunger takes hold there is an unseemly scrabble for the remaining goodies with tins of peaches being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Those without the resources to acquire this stuff have to make do with whatever they can scavenge: horses, dogs, insects.

Gradually it becomes clear that the entire Residency cannot be defended any more and the occupants retreat into the most easily-defended section to make their final stand in the dwindling hope of rescue. Just at the last moment, though, rescue does arrive in the form of a battalion of British soldiers, allowing most of the principal characters - Fleury, Harry, Louise, the Collector - to escape with their lives.

The Siege Of Krishnapur was one of the early winners of the Booker Prize in 1973 - between G. in 1972 and The Conservationist in 1974, both previously featured on this blog - and seems to be one of the few Booker winners whose critical regard has gradually risen over the years. While I wouldn't make the sort of hyperbolic Best Book Ever claim that this piece makes, I think I can see why that is. I very much enjoyed the skewering of absurd colonial attitudes, the unthinking racism and the lack of curiosity about how the natives might feel about having their country occupied by a bunch of port-swilling toffs (it's heavily inspired by the real events of the siege of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857). One thing the general tone of comic satire does is clash slightly jarringly with the sections of the book which deal unflinchingly with the disposal of the dead and the appallingly primitive medical treatment of the (just about) living, who are variously depicted as dying in childbirth, losing body parts to gangrene or, in the later stages of the siege, succumbing to cholera and scurvy. I'm not completely sure there is a smooth transition between the comic bits and the rotting-corpses bits, which just emphasises the point I've made before that black comedy is a wickedly tricky thing to bring off successfully. Similarly, the sections where the two doctors Dunstaple and McNab argue publicly and at length over their competing theories regarding the origin and transmission of cholera have the feel of passages Farrell wrote and felt were too good to throw away, even though they slow the narrative down. 

None of which should imply that I didn't enjoy this, because I certainly did. There's no chance of Farrell joining the list of authors who have been victims of the Curse of Electric Halibut, as he died at the early age of 44 near his home in Ireland after falling off a rock while fishing in the sea. In addition to the 1973 Booker, Farrell was retrospectively awarded the Lost Man Booker Prize for Troubles, published in 1970 and ineligible at the time (along with all other novels published in 1970) because of some amendments to the eligibility criteria. The Siege Of Krishnapur was also shortlisted for The Best Of The Booker in 2008 (if you have sharp eyes you can see a reference to this on the cover of my edition), one of a few Champion Of Champions awards the Booker has rather self-indulgently cooked up over the years, most of which end up giving an award to Midnight's Children, for reasons I cannot imagine.

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