The Siege of Krishnapur

I am not sure why, honestly, I decided to read The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell, but it was a happy coincidence that when I signed up for the Spotlight Series, which is currently featuring  New York Review Books, it was one of the selections, as I already had it on hold at the library. The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973, and one of Farrell’s other novels, Troubles, was shortlisted for the Lost Booker Prize, whose winner will be announced today (as I write this post, it has yet to be announced). UPDATE: He won!

The story takes place in India during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The British-occupied town of Krishnapur is attacked by rebel sepoys (Indians who served European armies) and held under siege for four months. During that time, most of the British in Krishnapur die, either from battle, starvation, or disease. Sounds cheerful, no?

But it is. Well, okay, not cheerful. But witty, and insightful. This is truly a novel of ideas, represented by Farrell’s cast of characters, concerning colonialism and the rights of humans in general. The Collector (who is basically a powerful governor, a highly ranked representative of British government in India), a man named Hopkins, is aptly titled, for he is obsessed with collecting objects he believes display the superiority of Western culture. Even amidst the disintegration of his own settlement, he continues to wax rhapsodic about the Great Exhibition of 1851. He believes invention is the key to progress, to elevating men above their station. The Collector’s main foil is the Magistrate, an embittered idealist who had championed social and political reform in England and represents a rational threat to the Collector’s rather romantic Victorian ideas about progress:

[The] Collector had merely been thinking of Prince Albert’s Model Houses for the Labouring Classes and of another argument he had had with the Magistrate about them…how shocked he had been at the Magistrate’s attitude to these model houses!

On his way to the Crystal Palace a small block of houses caught his eye not far from the south entrance to the Exhibition and a little to the west of the Barracks. He had paused, thinking how cheerful they were in their modest way. They had stood there, respectful and unabashed, without giving themselves airs amid the grander edifices round about. They were square and simple (like the British working man himself, as one of his colleagues of the Sculpture Jury had lyrically expressed it) with a large window upstairs and downstairs, and they were built in pairs with a modestly silhouetted coping stone above the entrance but no flamboyant decoration. They were not dour and sullen like so many of the houses in the populous districts; they were proud, but they knew their places. In short, they were so delightful that for a moment one even had to envy the working man his luck to be able to live in them as one passed on one’s way toward the Exhibition.

But when the Collector had grown eloquent about these charming little dwellings, for this was in the early days before he had realized that the Magistrate was impermeable to optimism where social improvements were concerned, the Magistrate had spoken with equal vehemence about the exploitation of the poorer classes, the appalling conditions in which they were expected to live, and so on, dismissing Prince Albert’s houses as a sop to the royal conscience. The Collector had protested that he was certain that the Prince’s houses had been prompted, in a genuine spirit of sympathy, by the reports published by the Board of Health’s inspectors about the wretched home accommodation of the poorer classes, the utter lack of drainage, of water supply and ventilation.

“What prompted trivial improvements, on the contrary,” the Magistrate had replied, “was a fear of a cholera epidemic among the wealthier classes!”

There is also Fleury, a young gentleman concerned with poetry and philosophy, and his opposite, Harry Dunstaple, a soldier interested only in battle. Fleury and Harry find themselves thrown together at the beginning of the siege, and Harry is determined to teach Fleury to be a soldier, mainly because there are so few able-bodied men available as the siege progresses. During one battle, Fleury and Harry pull the marble heads of Socrates and Plato from one of the buildings in the Residency to prop up a cannon:

Harry touched the portfire to the vent and in front of the rampart the advancing infantry, like the legs of a monstrous millipede whose body was hidden in the dust cloud above them, collapsed all together, writhed, and lay still. The men behind who were still on their feet hesitated, unable to see what lay ahead of them in the dust. All they could see was the looming shape of the banqueting hall and, startling in their clarity, two vast, white faces, calmly gazing towards them in with expressions of perfect wisdom, understanding, and compassion. The sepoys quailed at the sight of such invincible superiority.

There are the doctors, Dunstaple and McNab, who argue over the best way to treat the cholera epidemic overtaking the colonials who remain after the siege. There is the Padre, the Anglican priest, who firmly believes that God loves the British above all others, and who fights to preserve their way of life.

To be honest, my head is still spinning a bit from this one. The number of flags I used to mark pages is astounding to me: the book looks like it has ruffles. Last night I was thinking about colonialism and cultural dominance. This might seem like a strange comparison, but we have been watching Battlestar Galactica again, and I was thinking about some of the similarities there, the way the Cylons develop and attack the humans, how they advance using the same tools humans used to dominate them, driving the humans into a desperate isolation where they struggle to find a way to survive. The siege causes a similar reaction among the British colonials in Krishnapur, and in fact, even though this is technically an historical novel based around an actual event, the book has the feel of well-wrought science fiction. Any occupying force is an alien force, no matter how it sets up its microcosm of civilization, and it will find its ideals and its very existence challenged at every turn, because it is, if you will, experiencing the reaction of an equal and opposite force, which is the occupied.

I feel I need to read this again to get the full gist, not because it confused me but because it is so chock-full of ideas I might have missed because I was busy laughing. Farrell has a caustic wit, but at the same time the reader gets the feeling that he still has sympathy for these people: the truth of the matter is, they are ridiculous, but it cannot be helped. They are pure products of their environment, as victim to grand ideals in their own way as the sepoys and the Indian citizens are to the colonials’.

I highly recommend this book. I can see why it won the Booker, and I imagine (or maybe I should say I hope–how I hope!) that it will become a classic, because its story is timeless. I think now about American forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, and while this is not a political blog and I certainly believe that the men and women over there have an incredibly tough job, and while we aren’t there to colonize those places or make them part of an empire (ahem, well, let’s pretend big oil isn’t an empire), truly the idea is the same: that one culture must set another culture to right. And always, it turns.

More favorite passages (there are too many to share, I tell you):

Chloe, overcome by the heat, had thrown herself panting on Fleury’s lap and had fallen asleep there. He tried to shove her away, but a dog that does not want to be moved can make herself very heavy indeed, and so he was obliged to let her stay. Fleury did not particularly care for dogs, but he knew that young ladies did, as a rule. He had bought Chloe, whose golden tresses had reminded him of Louise, from a young officer who had ruined himself at the race-course. At the time he had thought of Chloe as a subtle gift; the golden tresses had blended in his mind with the idea of canine fidelity and devotion. He would use Chloe as a first salvo aimed at Louise’s affections. But in the meantime he found her only a nuisance.

Yet at the time [the Padre] could not understand why the Bible should have to be translated at all, even in the first place…why it should have been written in Hebrew and Greek when English was the obvious language, for outside one remote corner of the world hardly anyone could understand Hebrew, whereas English was spoken in every corner of every continent. The Almighty had, it was true, subsequently permitted a magnificent translation, as if realizing His error…but, of course, the Almighty could not be in error, such as idea was an absurdity. Here the Padre was aware of intruding on matters of extraordinary theological complexity which blinded his brain. It was so hot and one must not allow oneself to get caught like a ram in a thicket of sophistry.

Fleury had not been paying attention when the cannon was loaded; the beginnings of an epic poem had been simmering in his brain.

“Fleury, for God’s sake!” shouted Harry, who knew how desperate the situation was. Fleury did not know; he was in a daze from the noise and smoke which had tears streaming down his face, and the haze of dust which hung everywhere, very fine, lending the scene a “historical” quality because everything appeared faintly blurred, as in a Crimean daguerrotype. Fleury found himself appending captions to himself for the Illustrated London News. “This was the Banqueting Hall Redoubt in the Battle of Krishnapur. On the left, Mr. Fleury, the poet, who conducted himself so gallantly throughout; on the right, Lieutenant Dunstaple, who commanded the Battery, and a faithful native, Ram.”

This was a design for a new weapon which would, he believed, create a revolution in the cavalry charge. Now, the great difficulty in the cavalry charge, as Fleury saw it, is that you very often have to deal with two of the enemy at once, with the result that while you are cutting the head off one of your assailants his companion is doing the same for you. The weapon which Fleury had designed and made for himself in order to overcome this difficulty resembled a giant pitchfork with prongs roughly at the distance of a man’s outstretched arms; it also had a wide tail, like that of a magnified bishop’s crozier which, reversed, could be used for dragging people off horses; on the shaft, for psychological reasons, there fluttered a small Union Jack. His only problem was to find a place to attach the weapon to his saddle. For the time being the prongs of the instrument (which he had christened the Fleury Cavalry Eradicator) sprouted over his horse’s head like a pair of weird antlers.

So poor Louise, who loved her father very dearly, could only turn to Harry for help. Harry listened to her in frank disbelief. Girls had a habit, he knew, of distressing themselves over things that did not exist. It was something to do with their wombs, so a fellow-officer had once told him. No doubt Louise was suffering from this womb-anxiety, then. He explained that if father had started calling Dr. McNab “the Gravedigger” it was only from a robust sense of professional rivalry and nothing to worry about. Besides, McNab probably deserved it from all one heard.

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11 comments

  1. I’ve had a copy of this in my TBR stack for several years. I keep meaning to get around to it. Maybe soon.

    Great review. I like to comparison to Battlestar. I’ve long argued that science fiction and historical fiction are moral equivalents. Both can provide windows into our own time and make it possible to see our own world much more clearly.

  2. I am so glad you did such a thorough and thoughtful review of this book! I have always kind of lingered over it on bookshelves but never picked it up because I wasn’t sure how the whole battle would be dealt with. And, for whatever reason, I thought this book was written way earlier than it was, and so I thought it would be a much more Victorian look at colonialism. I’m glad to hear it’s not!

  3. I never heard of it but I loved your review! You picked amazing passages form the book- I love novels of ideas and strong characters so I think I’ll be adding this to my list 🙂

  4. I loved this review, Priscilla. This sounds like an absolutely amazing book, and I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of Farrell until the Lost Booker.

    You’re right, those ideas are timeless and still apply to today’s world in so many ways.

  5. CB, it’s such a good book, I cannot stop thinking about it. The conditions they are reduced to during the siege, even as they try to uphold all of their Victorian rules and ideals, do give the book that science-fiction feel. I am curious to see what you would think of it. I warn you, though: you will laugh. Out loud.

    Aarti, thanks for the opportunity to sign up for the Series. For the record, Farrell is Irish, so I don’t think he would have had much sympathy for the Brits either way. This is actually part of a trilogy, and the last book, Troubles, just won the Lost Booker. I plan to read it next.

    Iliana, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I only heard of it very recently. It was just one of those happy accidents.

    Lua, I wish I could have shared more passages, but I might have ended up typing out the whole book.

    Nymeth, it is amazing. I seriously cannot stop thinking about it. I think I thought of BSG not because the stories are similar, but because it has the same effect: Farrell has created a completely convincing world, something so specific and well done down to the last detail that you are immersed in the story, but when you step back, you see how it applies to so many things, how it is considering the big picture, universal questions. And given your love of things Victorian, I think you will get a kick out of it. And it’s funny, too!

  6. Thank you, Priscilla. I have been looking at this one on the NYRB Classics site and your review has convinced me that I must add it to my TBR list.

  7. I’ve been wanting to read this since forever. And based on your review, I mustn’t wait any longer. I also want to read the other two books. Troubles (it won??? Yay! I was rooting for it!) and The Singapore Grip.

  8. Gavin, you won’t regret it, I promise. 🙂

    Claire, I did not actually know this was a trilogy until I started to write my thoughts. Luckily, it’s a thematic trilogy, so the books can be read in any order. I’m definitely looking forward to the other two. If the other two are half as good as this was, I’ll be happy. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts when you read it.

  9. I think colonialism is fascinating, and this sounds wonderful! Even when a book deals with colonialism in a way that I find offensive personally (which this clearly doesn’t!), it’s interesting to see the attitudes between the different cultures. I am intrigued by power dynamics – which is why I find Battlestar Galactica really interesting as well.

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