Where I read it: sitting under a thick-canopied tree in Kensington Gardens, waiting out the rain
The Siege of Krishnapur is the first in a series of three books that J.G. Farrell wrote, loosely bound by the theme of the end of the British Empire. (His second, Troubles, is set in Ireland, while the third, The Singapore Grip, is–unsurprisingly–set in Singapore.) It’s set in 1857 (though written in 1973) and takes as its premise the Indian Rebellion of that year, which until recently was still taught in schools as “the Sepoy Mutiny”. It won the Booker Prize the year it was published, and it serves as a fantastic reminder of the practicalities of siege: diminishing food, increased prices, hysteria, the growing issue of sanitation and health. One of the subplots concerns a feud between the cantonment’s two British doctors on how to treat cholera. The one whom most people seem to trust is, perhaps also unsurprisingly, wrong; the fact that so many frightened citizens adhere to his ideas says a lot about group psychology, another of this novel’s preoccupations.
So it is in many ways a sincere and realistic book; what no one seems to say about it, though, is that it’s also a satire of nearly absurdist proportions. The scene in which one of our protagonists, an official primarily known as the Collector, sits calmly through a barrage of musket fire, drinking his tea, while other soldiers drop below the table, reminded me of nothing so strongly as the battle scene from Carry On Up the Khyber. (You know, the one where the English dinner party keeps on tidily using its fish forks as plaster from the ceiling rains down upon them.) In the Carry On scene, the cheery demeanour of the characters borders on the psychotic, something the audience is allowed to realize because one of the characters is having the “appropriate” reaction (terror). In Siege, the calmness is also psychotic, but the narrating voice remains blandly oblivious to it, which is doubly terrifying.
Scott Esposito, an American book blogger and critic, wrote about this in 2008, pointing out how the Collector observes with detached interest that his hand is shaking too hard to put the sugar in his tea: “He’s trying to be dignified and British”, Esposito writes, “but he’s also resigned to the fact that he’s not quite pulling it off.” Yes, exactly, but there’s something amazingly nihilistic about that. It’s interesting that mainstream criticism about The Siege of Krishnapur doesn’t appear to talk about it. (For similar reasons, the book also reminded me, in parts, of Catch-22, another novel about how violent conflict brings out the emotional hypocrisy of humans, makes our attempts to be brave seem pathetic.)
The reason this sneaks up on you—this darkly comical flavour—is because the book itself is written in a style that really could not be called anything but “conservative realism”. It looks like a good old-fashioned un-self-conscious novel, with heroes and heroines and bonnets and a linear plot. There’s nothing particularly self-aggrandizing about the narrating voice. It’s not doing cartwheels in front of you. It doesn’t taste postmodern at first; it barely even tastes regular modern. Farrell’s sentences, with their long meandering rhythm, could have been lifted from the 1857 about which he writes, although they’re not pastiche or parody: another instance of how this book presents itself as a very sincere piece of storytelling.
I won’t deny that it’s hard to get into this book; the prose is oddly dense for such a thin volume, and initially, very little happens. By the halfway point, though, you’re completely invested in the incremental destruction of the certainties these characters have held dear–certainties about the rightness of their God, their country, their use of science, the value of progress. It’s worth reading for that alone: how necessary Farrell makes it for the reader to confront her own certainties as she reads, to admit that she might be wrong.
The Siege of Krishnapur, J.G. Farrell (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973)