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.

 

J. G. Farrell, Troubles

In 2010, J. G. Farrell’s Troubles won the “lost” Booker Prize. Farrell had already won the Booker once, for his later novel The Siege of Krishnapur–also part of the Empire Trilogy, which concludes with The Singapore Grip. Though it is certainly debatable how far literary prizes succeed in identifying the “best” novels of any given year, they undoubtedly succeed at drawing attention to those that are nominated. In this case, I suppose I might have come across Troubles anyway, but it probably would not have stood out to me without the buzz generated by its belated Booker win. The bland cover on my edition would not have helped, either! Nothing in that cool, flat scene suggests that inside the book will be moments like this one:

Then he noticed again, more strongly than before, the sweetish, nauseating  odour he had decided to forget about earlier. It was an awful smell. He could not stand it. . . . A small cupboard stood beside the bed. He wrenched open the door. On the top shelf there was nothing. On the bottom shelf was a chamber-pot and in the chamber-pot was a decaying object crawling with white maggots. From the middle of this object a large eye, bluish and corrupt, gazed up at the Major, who scarcely had time to reach the bathroom before he began to vomit brown soup and steamed bacon and cabbage. Little by little the smell of the object stole into the bathroom and enveloped him.

This is one of our (and our protagonist Major Brendan Archer’s) first encounters with the comic grotesquerie that characterizes the Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough. The Major, physically hale but carrying the emotional and psychological scars of his war service (he wonders, at one point, if he has lost his sense of humor, and it’s hard to imagine why he wouldn’t have) has traveled to Ireland to sort things out with Angela Spencer, daughter of the Majestic’s staunchly Unionist father. He got engaged to Angela during a short leave and since then their relationship has flourished primarily on the basis of her letters, which are full of such detail about Kilnalough and the hotel that the Major feels he practically knows the place already. Well, there’s nothing like a decaying sheep’s head in one’s chamber-pot to defamiliarize one’s surroundings! It doesn’t take long before we understand, as does the Major (though he never quite articulates it) that enveloping decay is not just the state of things at the Majestic but a metaphor for the state of Anglo-Irish society at this time of the ‘troubles.’ The sheep’s head epitomizes the many ways in which the crumbling, mouldering, collapsing, overgrown, over-run hotel symbolizes an era well past whatever glory it once had, gradually losing even the facade of respectability, never mind beauty. The tensions running between English and Irish, Protestant and Catholic, Auxiliaries and Sinn Feiners, manifest themselves at the Majestic through the roots working their way through walls and floors (“the wooden blocks of parquet flooring bulged ominously upward like a giant abscess”). Nothing is stable, nothing is to be depended on, and yet Edward Spencer and his motley assortment of guests, mostly old ladies in various stages of decay themselves, hang on, charming, bemused, perverse, fearful yet defiant.

Though every element of the novel is presented and supported realistically (there is, for instance, a reason there’s a decaying sheep’s head in the Major’s chamber-pot: it’s not there just to be symbolic), cumulatively the novel’s absurdities eventually take us beyond the realm of realism: living in its world, we must accept one implausibility after another, starting with the basic premise that anyone would – could – live at the Majestic in the conditions Farrell describes with such deadpan glee (indulge me as I quote at length, because its details are too delicious, and characteristic, to cut):

The thing that most worried the Major was that the Majestic was literally beginning to fall to pieces. . . . Meanwhile, no matter how much they might grumble, the residents adapted themselves remarkably well to the nomadic existence of moving from room to room whenever plumbing or furniture happened to fail them.

True, the amenities had gone from bad to worse (not that the Major really noticed any more). The foliage evacuated from the Palm Court now looked like taking command of the residents’ lounge; the mirrors everywhere had become more fogged and grimy than ever; the gas mantles which had until recently burned on the stairs and in the corridors had now stopped functioning, so that the ladies had to grope their way to bed with their hearts going pit-a-pat; the soup in the dining room became clearer and colder as the days went by, and as the cook was left more and more to her own devices bacon and cabbage followed by baked apples appeared more frequently on the menu; outside in the grounds a tall pine keeled over and flattened a conservatory with such a terrible crash that two ladies (Miss Devere and a Mrs Archibald Bradley) packed their bags then and there; on the few remaining tennis courts a peculiarly tough and prolific type of clover continued its advance, so that if anyone had been thinking of playing tennis (which nobody was) they would have found that even the most firmly hit service would never rise more than six inches. . . .

One unseasonably warm day the giant M of MAJESTIC detached itself from the facade of the building and fell four storeys to demolish a small table at which a very old and very deaf lady, an early arrival for Christmas, had decided to take tea in the mild sunshine that was almost like summer. She had looked away for a moment, she explained to Edward in a very loud voice (almost shouting, in fact) trying to remember where the floral clock had been in the old days. She had maybe closed her eyes for a moment or two. When she had turned back to her tea, it had gone! Smashed to pieces by this strange, seagull-shaped piece of cast iron (she luckily had not recognized it or divined where it came from).

 We also have to live, as the Major does, with brutality strangely laced through with comedy: Farrell excels at a ruthless sort of slapstick, provoking laughter even as he makes you flinch. In one scene, for instance, a cheerful whist game is interrupted when one of the hotel’s many resident cats is “tantalized beyond endurance” by a decorative pheasant on one of the old ladies’ hats. What follows is at once, uncomfortably, completely hilarious and entirely awful:

the cat sprang from Mrs Rappaport’s lap, hurtled through the air in a horrid orange flash, and pounced on Miss Staveley’s black velvet shoulders, sinking its hideous claws into the bird’s delicate plumage. Miss Stavely uttered a shriek and sank forward on to the card-table while the cat, precariously balanced on her shoulders, ripped and clawed savagely at her headgear in an explosion of feathers. There was pandemonium. The ladies cried out in alarm. The men voiced gruff barks of astonishment and leaped to their feet. But still the beast savaged its prey. At last Edward and the Major, knocking chairs aside, stumbled to the rescue. But before they could reach Miss Stavely the tutor sprang forward and dealt the beast a terrible blow on the back of the neck. It gave a piercing wail, thin as the shriek of a child, and dropped senseless to the carpet.

Silence fell. Everyone in the room froze. In the sudden stillness the crackling of a log in the fireplace seemed unnaturally loud. The tutor stooped and picked up the cat. For an instant, as he held it high over his head, there was a savage rictus on his white pocked face. Then he hurled it across the room with terrible force. It smacked against the wall with a sickening thud and dropped lifeless to the floor. There was a sharp intake of breath, and everyone peered at the shapeless marmalade bundle.

If you were laughing at first at the spectacle of “cat attacks hat,” I bet you aren’t laughing now. If Troubles were ever adapted for the screen, it would need a special warning that “no cats were harmed in the making of this film”–they feature largely in the novel, including in at least two other quite gruesome sequences (let’s just say, of the first one, that Edward and the Major resolve to reduce their numbers, which are multiplying uncomfortably amidst the neglect and decay of the hotel, with grim results, and of the second, that it has some relation to the “tiny white skeletons scattered around” the shell of the hotel described in the prologue). The tutor, Evans, who hates his employers and everything they stand for, later leans over a parapet to “vomit copiously, a thick yellow fluid” that splatters on the glass roof of the hotel ballroom as “the black and white gentleman on the other side of the glass continued to revolve mechanically with the softly flowing silk and taffeta of the ladies.” “You’re disgusting,” the Major says, dragging him back, but the scene is, again, both disturbing in its violence and unfortunately funny because it literalizes the visceral (sorry) and irreconcilable antagonism between the republican Irish and those they see as their occupiers.

The whole of the novel, in one way or another, embodies this conflict, with people’s personal troubles humming with or somehow reiterating the political troubles that are devastating the country. Thus, for instance,  the Major’s fitful, irrational, unsuccessful love affair with the beautiful sort-of crippled Sarah Devlin – “D’you know that I’m a Catholic? Of course you do. But do you even know what a Catholic is?” she demands, when he finally gets her, in fulfillment of his fantasies, alone into the linen cupboard where he has made himself a bizarre sweaty retreat from the hazards and tensions of the household. Farrell brings the literal, historical ‘Troubles’ into the novel through interspersed news clippings: I don’t know if they are authentic (they certainly feel so), but as the novel goes on their terse announcements of murders and reprisals are like the ominous bass notes to the chorus of mingled frivolity and despair that increasingly marks activities at the Majestic.

To some extent the novel has the form of the country house or ‘big house’ novel, but in the end, it’s important that the Majestic is not a house but a hotel. This setting means that we are continually reminded that the characters’ stay there is impermanent–at best they are guests, at worst interlopers, in a place where they were never really invited. How different is the situation of the Anglo-Irish (or just plain English) at the Majestic from the more general human condition? “All this fuss,” muses the doddering old Dr. Ryan of Kilnalough near the end: “it’s all fuss about nothing. We’re here for a while and then we’re gone. People are insubstantial.” We’re here for a while and then we’re gone: true enough. But Troubles clarifies that, transients as we may be, we are still bound to live together as best we can, and in the novel as in real life, one  of the most important courtesies we can display – one of the safeguards of civility- is knowing when it’s time to go. If there’s something lost, something to be mourned, however awkwardly, among the “charred rubble” which is all that remains of the Majestic at the end, the novel also leaves us in no doubt that time had come for the English in Ireland.