The Siege of Krishnapur – J G Farrell

20 February 2008
To part-way through Chapter 3…
… which, like the others, is a long chapter, and Farrell is using a deliberately Victorian style. It’s not like Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman: we don’t have a sense of invisible inverted commas, of a writer self-consciously signalling what he’s doing. Instead we find ourselves, at the beginning of the novel at least, inside 1857. The place is described as though from a slow-moving carriage: the leisurely focusing in from the wide expanse of the Indian landscape to a single room in a single building and, inevitably, the single consciousness; the confident authority of the narrator’s pronouncements…. It’s almost worrying: are we going to get a narrow 19th Century British viewpoint? Is this a determinedly pre-postmodern, ‘old-fashioned’ novel?

We soon find out. Definitely not: it’s clear within a few pages that the stately prose is part of a quite subtle satire. The authoritative narrator isn’t Farrell, and this rather overbearing bore – very like several of the male characters we meet in the first three chapters – turns out to be someone we can snigger at. Privately, of course: it wouldn’t do to be rude.

We’ve met a cast of characters, each with their memorable novelish tags. Hopkins, the Collector, with his cat-like whiskers, verbena scent – and an unfailing ability to misjudge other people, particularly his own kids. There’s the oversophisticated, overweight Fleury (what sort of a name is that?) fresh from Blighty and on the lookout for easy ideas and a straightforward marriage.

And around these two – whose points of view we follow most of the time – are other types: the self-important Magistrate with the cinnamon-coloured whiskers and permanently raised eyebrow; Fleury’s capable older sister Miriam, Harry the no-nonsense army captain…. Etc. etc. And in the first three chapters the scene is set. Hopkins comes across as a buffoon, mocked by the others for his worries about the natives. So there’s dramatic irony in spades: we know Hopkins is right and, as in all satires, we snigger at the cocky ones and all their sniffy prejudices.

21 February
The next three chapters
Everybody misunderstands everybody else. We know about the snooty Brits taking the piss out of Hopkins. This feels feasible because while we know he’s right we can also see him as a clown with his appalling mid-Victorian taste in art, his total inability to relate to his own family – there’s a comic scene of a croquet match with his long-suffering daughters – and his pomposity. Meanwhile everybody misunderstands the Indians, or only has the sketchiest grasp of anything to do with them. The sepoys’ concern about the unclean cartridges is dismissed, exactly as we knew it would be.

In fact, there’s something comic about nearly all the Brits: they’re all so smugly full of their own self-importance that they dismiss one another as quickly as they dismiss anything Indian. Nobody ever learns from anybody else, as when the Magistrate suggests the mosque near the Residency is in what could be a dangerous position. Hopkins dismisses the idea as simply religious prejudice – but, just this once, the appalling Magistrate is probably right.

In the middle of all the misreadings and misconstructions there’s an episode of pure comedy. Fleury has become a comic turn by the time he visits the local maharajah. Hari, the maharajah’s son – a comic cameo himself – wants to show off how modern he is. Bad move: Fleury’s current fad is anti-modernism – so Hari’s guided tour of mechanical wonders descends into polite boredom on one side and, eventually, seething umbrage on the other. As Hari enthusiastically clamps Fleury’s head in a vice it’s clearly not just to keep it still for a daguerreotype. After the exposure Hari leaves this ‘very backward man’ to fend for himself. The clamp and the smell of chemicals leave Fleury with a headache, of course they do – but it’s not just the comic moment that resonates. Fleury is in India, supposedly, to discover signs of civilisation. The mismatch between expectations on both sides causes a rift as wide as any in the novel so far.

28 February
Just over half-way through…
…and the siege is well under way. Farrell mixes blatant horrors with blatant comedy, like an 18th Century satirist. He does Warts and all…. So the first sepoy attack, including a shell that kills most of the Indian pensioners near Fleury and Harry, is very lightly touched on. I wasn’t sure about the airy treatment of the deaths – they are little more than an almost comic inconvenience for the Brits – and I wondered about changes in taste since the 1970s (think Life on Mars, for God’s sake)…. But I’m ok with it now: it’s part of Farrell’s quite complex game. The narrative voice is both faux naïf, in the way it takes 19th Century attitudes for granted, and knowingly modern. Farrell knows his 20th/21st Century audience is appalled, and our gasps are of the I can’t believe you just said that! variety as we’re shocked into a nervous near-giggle.

The siege is described, and the sepoys’ big attack early on, but Farrell (probably joining with the reader) isn’t that bothered about the nitty-gritty of how battles are conducted. In fact, some days in, we’d be entitled to question the plausibility of the garrison’s survival for so long. Instead, Farrell concentrates on people, mainly the idiotic British. Fleury hasn’t a clue what he’s doing, and his smoking-jacket and cap, which he’d hoped would keep him cooler than his ridiculous tweeds, are even more ludicrous. (His attempts to join in a metaphysical discussion between Hopkins and the Magistrate show how he is regarded – as a know-nothing idiot.) The Padre, especially as portrayed in the audiobook I’m listening to, is even more preposterous. One wonderful scene has him trying to prove to Fleury the case for the divinity of design in nature, while cannonballs and bullets whiz past, because he thinks Fleury’s disbelief is bringing down God’s wrath on everybody.

10 March
The last chapter in Part 2 and the whole of Part 3…
…i.e. there’s only about a tenth of the novel yet to go. For a while in Part 3 we hardly leave Hopkins the Collector. Farrell has a lot to get through and one point of view is enough, I suppose. Weeks pass and begin to turn into months – and as British phlegm and know-how inevitably decline into exhaustion, disease and cynicism the Collector’s faith in religion and in the Imperial project is gradually eaten away. So is his health, but at first nobody recognises his nostalgic exclamations (‘There will be tea on the lawn!’) for the signs of delirium. He becomes terribly ill, so the point of view moves around for a time, and when he finally recovers he is no longer the pompous fool of the early chapters. He looks older, and he’s far less concerned about appearances. He’s had some common sense knocked into him.

Farrell is always giving us little signs like this: physical or visual versions of other developments. So we have the shrinking of the area that the British are trying to defend; the disintegration of all the Company’s paperwork in an exploding snowstorm that confuses the enemy – the first time anything useful has come out of all that bureaucracy, the Magistrate muses; the destruction of all the furniture and overblown works of art for fuel or for shoring up the defences. At the end of Part 3 the pretty little dog Fleury bought as a gift for Louise, the woman he wanted to impress, has become a monstrous parody of itself. When it begins to eat the face of a sepoy who has just been killed Fleury has it shot. These symbols, and plenty of god-like matching of mood and meteorology, are part of the novel’s Victorian style. But the 20th Century licence implicit in the detail about the dog chewing the face of someone it had been playing with a minute before is typical of how Farrell keeps engaging us with a different perspective at the same time. He wants to give an impression of Victorian style whilst subverting it.

The comedy still comes. Part 2 ends (I think) in the cemetery, as the Collector witnesses the Padre, so intent on trying to convert Fleury that he buries a corpse with its feet sticking out; an invasion of swarming cockchafers leads to Fleury and Harry gallantly scooping them off the naked form of Lucy the Fallen Woman, as though they are sculptors (Fleury muses) revealing the marble-like whiteness – until they come to the pubic hair. But it’s not always laugh-out-loud: Fleury’s dog got the sepoy killed by imagining he wanted to play; a different dog looks at Fleury with great love, but only because it wants to eat him; the Brits’ misunderstanding of the medical row between the two doctors is risible – but potentially lethal as well….

Krishnapur, of course, is The Empire – in the same way that the island of boys in Lord of the Flies is Mankind. As the Residency is reduced to a shell and the Collector’s faith drains away we see the continuing stupidity of the British, shown not only in their responses to the doctors’ quarrel but to the depletion of food stocks. Perhaps the auction scene is a bit too neat: in a parody of laissez-faire capitalism people offer huge amounts of money they don’t have for little luxuries – until the Collector realises what’s going on and stops it. There are dark mutterings about his communistic leanings – and he himself had been heard to mutter about the people being in chains – but, but…. They’re not dead yet. They’ve got minimum rations enough for two weeks, gunpowder and ammunition left (just) for two weeks. Who knows what might happen? And, with not many chapters left, will it be within two weeks?

11 March
To the end
By the time relief arrives there’s nothing left – to eat, to shoot, to burn…. The trim company that turns up just in time are like the naval officer and his trim cruiser in Lord of the Flies – and the soldiers are just as shocked as he is by the way British people have let themselves go. This time, of course, we’re scornful of their disapproval: this is a satire, after all, and we can see right through this kind of nonsense. And in some ways, Farrell’s taken the satire as far as he can already.

Victorian-style things happen at the end. Fleury, who has learned a bit, gets the girl – while the man she’s originally fancied, who wasn’t in the siege and hasn’t learned a thing, doesn’t. (But when Hopkins briefly meets Fleury about 20 years later he’s a middle-aged bore… rather as Hopkins was, I suppose.) Someone else who gets the girl is Harry: he’s married Lucy, the Fallen Woman. Ok, so we know it wouldn’t have really happened like that, but we’re happy to accept what Farrell’s happy to give us.

In England, of course, nothing has changed. But Hopkins has, and although he’s now well regarded as the Hero of Krishnapur, he lives in a different world from his peers now. Farrell doesn’t say so, but Hopkins would be better off in our own time, when Britain has finally come to understand what Hopkins realised a century earlier.

There’s only one serious gap in this novel: the Indian perspective. Like Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird a decade earlier, Farrell describes the atrocities of the Whites from only their (our?) point of view…. So I suppose it wouldn’t win the Booker in the 21st Century. But Farrell wouldn’t have written this particular book in the 21st Century. It was written less than 25 years after Independence (just as Mockingbird was written 25 years after the events it describes) and you don’t get that kind of perception-shift in a single generation. In the context of 1973 it’s a masterpiece.

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