I was looking forward to reading The Singapore Grip but I was disappointed by it. I paid a small fortune for it in British postage costs when I belonged to an online Booker Prize reading group … we had chosen The Siege of Krishnapur as a book for discussion but I couldn’t buy it here in Australia. (Yes, this was before the Book Depository existed and when the fledgling Amazon focussed on US titles). In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, and I bought the entire Empire Trilogy comprising Troubles (1970); The Siege of Krishnapur (1973); and The Singapore Grip (1978). The novels explore the decline of the British Empire with wry humour, and not without schadenfreude. (Farrell was Liverpool-born, but of Irish ancestry).
The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker in 1973, and it was also shortlisted for Best of the Booker in 2008. It’s a great book, not least for the depiction of its central character, The Collector. He starts out as the sort of British colonial fool you’d expect, racist towards the Indians on whom his lifestyle depends, and casually complacent about British power. But he grows in stature and moral complexity when the garrison is besieged by sepoys for four months and everything he has assumed about British power and character and ‘standards’ is inverted. Troubles is a great book too, again tracing the breakdown of society when its military and economic power is tested, in this case, satirising the Anglo-Irish overlords during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921).
So, yes, expectations were high for The Singapore Grip, but the novel drowns under the weight of its own research, and the characterisation is woeful. It’s about the last days of British power in Singapore before the Japanese invasion in 1941, beginning with a depiction of the lost world of British privilege and exploitation, and taking 596 pages to detail the inexorable progress of the Japanese towards victory. Even if I’d had a map I couldn’t have followed it all and I wasn’t interested anyway – because each air-raid, battle, attempt to escape Singapore and struggle to quench the fires is used for diatribes by two characters, Matthew and the American Ehrendorf, who, having met at Oxford, have somehow escaped the prevailing British contempt for the exploited workers – and Farrell spends a lot of printer’s ink on their inner thoughts and dialogue about how morally wrong it all was. It’s as if he thinks his readers are too dim to understand his pontificating and need to be beaten over the head with it.
Most of characters are caricatures, as if Farrell had lost interest in depicting the Brits as human beings and saw them only as vehicles to use for his stance on anti-colonialism. I can’t begin to explain how irritating the depiction of women was: there’s the vacuous wife of Wilfred Blackett who’s an unconvincing version of Mrs Bennett; his cruel and selfish daughter Joan determined to use her beauty to unite business empires through marriage; and the most peculiar Vera, a Eurasian who – I kid you not – considers herself superior to Joan not because she’s more intelligent than Joan and has a consistent moral core, but because she has bigger breasts. Walter Blackett is the central character, a businessman who cares only about commerce, and obstinately persists with his plans for his firm’s jubilee despite the imminent arrival of the Japanese. Walter isn’t above profiteering and in the end is prepared to end decades of petty hatred for a commercial rival to marry Joan off to the rival’s offspring when her other plans have gone awry. I kept waiting for Walter to have his moment on The Road to Damascus, or even a slowly dawning realisation, but no, it doesn’t happen.
So, why is this title included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die? Well, they include the entire trilogy, and they note this one as a vivid portrait of Singapore at a historical watershed. They think it is
lengthy and leisurely, but full of suspense and humour. Quietly and humorously critical of the conventions and ideologies of Empire, Farrell anticipates a style of postcolonial writing that came to be embodied by authors such as Timothy Mo and Salman Rushdie. (p.675).
They also explain that Farrell used his Booker prize money to fund a trip to Singapore to do the research for this novel, and I suspect that he ended up just wanting to use it all…
Author: J.G. Farrell
Title: The Singapore Grip
Publisher: Phoenix, 1992
Source: Personal library.
Fishpond: The Singapore Grip