J.G. Farrell – The Siege of Krishnapur

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The Siege of Krishnapur tells the story of a small group of Victorians who happen to find themselves on the Indian sub-continent during the time of the Indian Mutiny.  We first see the settlement at Krishnapur, where, in stifling heat the residents attempt to transplant British culture to this alien environment: long narrative poems written by the young female members of the Krishnapur Poetry Society, artefacts from The Great Exhibition indicative of the onward march of scientific progress, Louis XIV chairs, statuettes of Moliere, of Keats and Shakespeare.

Only Mr Hopkins, the Collector has any sense of disquiet.  The piles of chapatis that have appeared on his desk, and on the desks of other English bureaucrats have given rise to a sense of unease that others dismiss as fanciful.  He begins to make some small attempts to prepare for trouble, arranging for an earthen rampart to be dug around the residency whilst setting off to Calcutta, from where his wife will depart for England.

A brief sojourn in Calcutta is used to introduce the reader more fully to expatriate life, and focuses principally on the matrimonial wrangling of the English middle classes – a section that could almost come from Austen, though much more explicit.  These characters become the focus of the story as they travel back to Krishnapur, where the siege soon begins.  At one level this is a story of derring-do.  There is a lot of action, and quite some violence before the novel draws to a conclusion.

For me these stirring events are not the most interesting parts of the novel.  Farrell’s criticisms of Victorian society and the Victorian mindset are much more fun.

The Collector has just returned from the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace and is inspired by the power of science, whilst India’s more superstitious culture is shown in the sepoy’s rebellious response to the issue of the grease used on the new Enfield rifles. He sees the British as a civilising influence, and is not alone amongst the residents in holding this view.  There are  fruitless attempts to persuade the Indians to use engineering rather than animal sacrifice to control flooding, and a general sense of complacent superiority amongst the expatriates.

First there is the Magistrate, with “the red hair and ginger whiskers of the born atheist”. His interest in phrenology seems to stand for all that is wrong about the certainties of science: we are reminded of this towards the end of the siege as busts of Voltaire and other eminent thinkers are used by the defenders as ammunition for the canon!  Then the padre, an interesting study in religious mania, and the doctors, whose conflicting theories about the causes of cholera are used to epitomise the prejudice and ignorance of the time, in the same way as JB Priestley used the Titanic in An Inspector Calls: we now know it sank, just as we know that cholera is not inhaled, but ingested.

Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur is a Booker Prize winning novel – well written and researched, thoughtful, interesting, and designed for an audience that takes modern fiction seriously.  It was funny in parts and full of insights into a time that seems defined by both certainty and ignorance: in fact a time somewhat like our own!!

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