J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur

The Siege of Krishnapur is the second in Farrell’s ‘Empire trilogy’ – the first is Troubles, which I read last summer. Because I had read Troubles, I wasn’t as taken by surprise by The Siege of Krishnapur as I might have been: I anticipated going in that it would be both horrifying and funny, and it was. Siege is set during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, and it tells the story of one particular British garrison town, “the center of administration for a large district.” As if hindsight isn’t enough for us to know that this center cannot hold, the novel begins by walking us through what a contemporary traveler would see – the deserted town “merely a melancholy cluster of white domes and planes,” only “the creaking of loose shutters and the sighing of the wind in the tall grass.” This Krishnapur is a ghost town, so when we meet its inhabitants in 1857 they already have the surreal quality of animated corpses or figments of a creepy imagination.

And yet the Krishnapur of 1857 is a bustling place at first, with poetry readings and dinners and dances as well as the extensive bureaucratic business of empire. The one sign of trouble is (and I long to know if this detail is fact or just a sign of Farrell’s bizarre genius) “a mysterious distribution of chapatis” which start appearing in dispatch boxes and doorways, or on the Collector’s desk “neatly arranged beside some papers.” How can chapatis be ominous? What can they mean? The absurdity of chapatis as harbingers of doom is exactly the right starting point for this book, which makes empire itself, ultimately, seem absurd. The things people have done (the things people do!) in the name of “civilization”! Among the most cherished possessions of Mr. Hopkins, the Collector, is The Spirit of Science Conquers Ignorance and Prejudice: this “bas-relief in marble” epitomizes the perverse blend of violence and idealism that in this novel defines British imperialism:

it was here [by the window] that the angle of the light gave most life to the brutish expression of Ignorance at the moment of being disembowelled by Truth’s sabre, and yet emphasized at the same time how hopelessly Prejudice, on the point of throwing a net over Truth, had become enmeshed in its own toils.

One of the most memorable and suggestive images of the siege is of the giant marble heads of Plato and Socrates, once crowning ornaments of the great banqueting hall, prised off the roof to serve as shelters for the British gunners. The attacking sepoys are startled to see, through the chaos and dust, “two vast, white faces, calmly gazing towards them with expressions of perfect wisdom, understanding, and compassion.” Much later, when conventional ammunition has run out, marble fragments from The Spirit of Science Conquers Ignorance and Prejudice replace cannon shot, and later still, the heads of the Collector’s prized “electro-metal figures”:

of the heads, perhaps not surprisingly, the most effective of all had been Shakespeare’s; it had scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys advancing in single file through the jungle. The Collector suspected that the Bard’s success in this respect might have a great deal to do with the ballistic advantages stemming from his baldness. The head of Keats, for example, wildly festooned with metal locks which it had proved impossible to file smooth had flown very erratically indeed, killing only a fat money-lender and a camel standing at some distance from the field of action.

You can’t really get any more literal about imposing your culture on another than shooting people dead with the heads of your most famous poets! So much for the Collector’s belief in “the ennobling powers of literature.”

But Siege wouldn’t be as complicated and interesting as it is if it were nothing more than an indictment of imperialism. Didactic moralizing is really not Farrell’s game. For one thing, in some respects the British really do have the ‘spirit of science’ on their side. A key example is the flooding plains, which the native landowners are convinced can be protected “by the sacrifice of a black goat” on the banks of the rivers. ‘But that doesn’t work,’ remonstrates the Magistrate, Mr. Willoughby;

‘You’ve tried it before. Every year the floods are worse.’

The landowners remained silent out of polite amazement that anybody could be so stupid as to doubt the efficacy of a sacrifice when properly performed by Brahmins. They were torn between amusement and distress at such obtuseness.

As the great cholera debate shows, though, neither side has a monopoly on obtuseness or unscientific thinking, or, as we discover, on superstition (or, as some characters consider it, religion). The British are, by and large, racist, xenophobic, and self-satisfied, but the attacking Sepoys are hardly depicted as heroic freedom fighters–though we do see them exclusively from a British point of view, so the way they appear reflects at least as much on the observers than it does on them. There are pro-British Indians, too, who are as absurd in their pomposity and pretension as the British themselves – the Maharajah’s son Hari, for instance, whom we first encounter sitting “on a chair constructed entirely of antlers, eating a boiled egg and reading Blackwood’s Magazine.” I think my favorite detail about Hari (who, sadly, is treated as badly by the British during the siege as if he’d never read a page of Blackwood’s Magazine) is that whenever he meets Mr. Hopkins without Mrs. Hopkins along, he calls him “Mr. Hopkin” – singular, you see!

As in Troubles the collapsing hotel becomes symbolic of the collapse of British control over Ireland (as well as of the rotten foundations of that control), so the the besieged British of Krishnapur become symbolic of Britain’s faltering grip on its empire there. The Collector directs the construction of earthworks as defenses, but when the rains come they turn to mud and dissolve; the Collector’s single-minded efforts to build them up again are an absurd microcosmic example of the way control becomes an end in itself. Like a weird reversal of the Great Exhibition, which Mr. Hopkins has idealized as the ultimate demonstration of human ingenuity and accomplishment, he orders the emptying out of Krishnapur:

The furniture was the first to go. He strode about the Residency and the banqueting hall, followed by those men who were still strong enough to lift heavy objects. Every now and again, without a word, he would point at some object, a chair perhaps, or a sideboard or a marquetry table . . . More than one unwary member of the garrison found that his bed had vanished while he had been defending the rampart against a sepoy assault. Sometimes a person would arrive just as the divan on which he had been sleeping was dragged away.

Sofas and tables, beds, chests, dressers and hatstands were thrown on to, or upended along, the ramparts, but still their strange haemophilia continued. Now the Collector’s finger was pointing at other objects, including even those belonging to himself. Statues were pointed at and the shattered grand piano from the drawing room in the hope that they might help, if only a little, to shore up the weakest banks of soil. . . .

But although a great deal of solid matter had soon accumulated on one or other side of the ramparts and sometimes on both, it had little or no effect. It was like trying to shore up a wall of quicksand. . . . So in the end he took to pointing at the last and most precious of ‘the possessions’ . . . tiger-skins, bookcases full of elevating and instructional volumes, embroidered samplers, teasets of bone china, humidors and candlesticks, mounted elephants’ feet, and rowing-oars with names of college eights inscribed in gilt paint.

Eventually even Mr. Hopkins has “come to entertain serious doubts” about the Exhibition – “he should have thought a great deal more about what lay behind the exhibits.” I think that curiosity about what lies behind things is what makes Farrell such an unusual historical novelist. Siege is very much a novel of ideas, and a novel about ideas and what people do because of them. It’s full of people arguing about ideas, too. The Sepoy Mutiny wasn’t the end of British India, but Farrell sets it up as exemplary of something beyond that particular story: it’s an opportunity for him to interrogate the whole concept of progress, the very meaning of ‘civilization.’ Yet the novel is intensely historically specific.

I wasn’t surprised to see Siege on the list of Hilary Mantel’s ‘five favorite historical fictions.’ It has the total lack of sentimentality shown in both Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety (quite unlike the surfeit of sentiment to be found in my collection of Richard III novels!) and, also like Mantel’s historical fiction, it is grimly violent. But Farrell’s humor is like nothing else I’m familiar with. It’s quite disturbing, actually, how funny the battle scenes are, right up to the horrific last stand of the defenders inside the Residency itself. And grave-digging: hilarious! It’s often not so much the situation itself as Farrell’s wry, unexpected style that startled me into laughter:

[The Collector] realized with a shock how much his own faith in the Church’s authority, or in the Christian view of the world in which he had hitherto lived his life, had diminished since he last inspected them. From the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens, every night of the siege, one or two were carried off in the jaws of rationalism and despair.


4 thoughts on “J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur

  1. Erin Johnson May 10, 2012 / 10:48 am

    Thank you (from a blog and Twitter lurker) for posting your very interesting thoughts on The Siege of Krishnapur. I’ve been curious to read this novel for some time, mostly because of the Booker win and the British India setting. I had no idea it was darkly comic as well!


  2. Rohan Maitzen May 10, 2012 / 12:04 pm

    Thanks for de-lurking, Erin! It is amazing just how funny impalement on a sharp object can be. But as I was leafing through the book last night writing this up, I also got more and more impressed at how dense it is with interesting and really smartly deployed details. It didn’t feel that dense when I was reading it: in addition to being wickedly funny, Farrell has a good sense of pacing.


  3. Don Hackett May 12, 2012 / 2:44 am

    I also liked The Siege of Krishnapur, and believe it is one of the best novels of, say, the last 50 years. One moment that struck me, and that I try to recreate from memory: “He looked up at the night sky, and for a moment everything seemed normal. Except for the dirt on his shoes from digging graves. And the smell of death. And the occasional gun shots.” Very funny, and also touching in showing a particularly male way of dealing with crisis, with the overwhelming. The simple word for this is denial, but what Farrell presents is richer than that one word. I think one thing he does is to show the British colonial enterprise as an extension or projection of that particularly masculine denial.


  4. Rohan May 12, 2012 / 6:55 pm

    Don, that’s a great moment, and also a great point about that kind of denial. The different roles played by men and women during the siege is really interesting, as is the fraught eroticism of the close quarters they all eventually are crammed into. Another of my favorite scenes is the one in which a couple of the men are literally scraping bugs off Lucy’s naked body and, in good Ruskin-legend fashion, are startled by the discovery of her pubic hair (and then puzzled about how to tell if they’ve gotten the bugs out of it). What a strange book.


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