The Siege of Krishnapur is the second of a trilogy of novels written about the British Empire by J.G. Farrell. I have a bad habit of reading books out of order, but I strongly suspect that these books stand alone quite well. It’s about the folly of empire; the masks that imperialism forces us to wear – masks that we grow into (apologies to George Orwell here).
It’s set in India under the rule of the East India, during the Great Mutiny of 1857. Sepoys – muslims, hindus, and sikhs trained in the western style of warfare revolted against the British, ostensibly because the grease used in the issued rifles were driven from cows. After a few months, the revolt was put down. But not before the whole thing entered the Victorian subconscious, and lent itself for any number of romantic novels.
Farrell adopts this basic conceit: a recently arrived British officer courts a beautiful lady, there is danger, but it all ends happily ever after. But what Farrell does is treat this episode with irony. Those of you who are familiar with the Bronte books or Kipling, or Sherlock Holmes will know what to expect.
“Civilisation” is a major topic of conversation in The Siege of Krishnapur; the characters or obsessed with it. They attempt to justify themselves and the rule of the East India Company by the rhetoric of “the white man’s burden”; the idea that their rule is more than military domination, it is genuinely beneficial. There is a typical cast of English characters: the chaplain, various jocular officers, young ladies obsessed with marriage, the romantic poet – a deliberately typical Victorian cast. It’s Kipling turned on its head.
Farrell is a master – a minor deity even – of everyday human psychology. He perfectly captures the way people feel and think through the course of the little ups and downs of their daily lives. What are you thinking about while you wait in line at Starbucks? J.G. Farrell knows, and can describe it brilliantly. Each character is a little bit of stereotype, yet is treated so humanely, that each character seems aware of their own stereotypical-ness. I know that this sounds tough to pull off, but I promise that Farrell does it perfectly.
Farrell is also quite able with his symbolism. His is a light touch here – mostly taking the form of irony (which is rarely pointed out and is therefore up to you to find). For example, during the siege, the two of the major characters are firing a cannon in defence of the little British enclave. To protect themselves and their cannon (which is killing hundreds of sepoys) they have removed giant busts of Plato and Socrates from the top of a nearby building. The effect is thus that the purity of and wisdom of the philosophers is also a death dealing gaze; the busts become pock-marked with bullet holes and thus take on a diseased aspect. Brilliant.
Lastly…this book made me laugh out loud. It’s quite humours. Even at it’s darkest, it’s funny. It’s hard to describe. Passages or jokes which maybe deserved a small smile left me chuckling for minuets on end – much to my wife’s displeasure.
I would not say that this is one of the best books that I have ever read, but I would say that it is one of a handful that I wish to reread (along side The Road to Oxiana and The Quiet American).
Highly recommended – but only to those who enjoy and appreciate the Victorians.