Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 15, 2020

The Siege of Krishnapur, by J G Farrell, winner of the Booker Prize in 1973

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The Siege of Krishnapur, by J G Farrell, won the Booker Prize in 1973.

February 22nd, 2003

This is a very fine book indeed. It is – as the blurb says – both witty and serious, and it’s a sort of ‘boys’ own adventure’ too.

Set in 1857 in a remote British outpost of the empire in Hindustan, The Siege of Krishnapur is the story of the defence of the residency when the sepoys rise in revolt. Written from the vantage point of the besieged British, yet sympathetic to the justice of rebellion against their rule, it shows the British at both their best and worst.

Mr Hopkins, the Collector, is at first a comic figure, but he grows in stature. He reminds me of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, who unexpectedly finds himself at the behest of great forces and must become equal to the task before him despite his inadequacies. At the outset, however, Hopkins is convinced of the rightness of the Empire, and his place in it. He is pompous, bossy and preoccupied with C19th progress as exemplified by the Great Exhibition. He loves his possessions as talismans of a civilised life, and there is poignancy in the moment when he must cast these precious possessions into shoring up ramparts about to collapse under the monsoonal rains. He mourns his Louis XVI table when it is ruined too – but in the end, he cares not about possessions at all.

From the light-hearted beginning, with Farrell poking fun at British colonial pomposity and arrogance, events trace the gradual contraction of the ‘civilised’ world over four months, June to December. By the time of the relief, those within the walls are starving, dressed in rags, and they smell. The women have grey, pasty complexions, and boils. These ‘fragile’ creatures, formerly limp in the heat without servants to operate the fans, end up washing their own clothes, labouring in the ‘hospital’ and nursing the sick. But there’s no romanticising this as heroism. The Collector notes that the women still ostracise the ‘fallen woman’, Lucy, and ‘British standards’ remain discriminatory for the Indians who remain loyal.

Farrell uses irony and metaphor to show that the degradation imposed on those within the ramparts by the siege, is little different to the conditions imposed on the locals by colonialism. The conflicts and prejudices of the community under stress are there to show the reader that British high-mindedness is as vulnerable as any other culture’s. Human dignity is in short supply when one is subject to a long inglorious attack, which is what colonialism inflicted on its subject peoples.

Farrell also wrote The Singapore Grip (see my review) and The Troubles, which similarly deal with the collapse of British colonial power. He died in 1979.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 22.2.2003.

 


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa

    This is one of my favourite Booker winners and I agree wholeheartedly with your comments and analysis. For me, Farrell’s use of the siege, both as a metaphor for the situation of the British in India and of their besieging the native Indian population in their own country remains very strong. I read this when it first came out in 1972/3 and have revisited it several times, most recently during March this year in Lockdown One; it has lost none of its power.
    Chris Browne

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    • Hello Chris, and thank you for your comment:)
      These ‘reviews from the archive’ are some years old now, and some of them are not very good, but a couple surprise me and this is one of them!
      I’ve just visited your blog about book collecting, and I can see that I need to spend some time exploring what you advise. (I collect Booker and Miles Franklin winners in first editions, up to when books were first published in paperback). All the best, Lisa

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      • Lisa
        Could I ask you to re-post and revisit your comments on Possession by Antonia Byatt. I would be very interested to read what you said at the time, albeit probably a few years post publication.

        Possession is my all time favourite Booker winner and would make an excellent long read for people suffering the current lockdown. Following on from the comments on Kate Grenville, Byatt, by contrast, is a wonderful writer who tells a completely imagined story about invented characters (Crabbe Robinson is the only real person who intrudes into this novel) with such attention to craft and detail that it is more real than reality.

        I should also add that your posts are a great tonic to all of us who love books during these difficult times.

        Best
        Chris

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        • Hello Chris, I’m so glad you’re find my blog cheering. (I do a survey every now again about the impacts of COVID_19, and there’s always this question about voluntary work, and I think, does keeping my blog up and running count, when so many find themselves unable to read and write?)
          But as to Possession, how I wish I could do what you’ve asked! I started keeping a reading journal in 1997, so although they vary in quality, I’ve got a reasonably good record of my thoughts at the time But I read Possession round about the year it won the Booker (1990). So it’s one of the Booker winners I plan to read again, but of course it will be a different experience, I was a more naïve, less experienced reader back then, as we all are when young…I do remember being very excited by it because it was so intellectually stimulating, and it wasn’t always easy to know about books like that in the days when we had to rely on library and bookshop displays and book reviews in the print press…

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  2. I enjoyed this book a lot at the time, and it’s good to be reminded of it. I read it because of the kerfuffle between Inga Clendinnen and Kate Grenville over The Secret River. Inga gave it as an example of a novel that showed historical imagination, which she felt was lacking in The Secret River. (Incidentally, that kerfuffle is being talked about now as the novel being attacked by people who didn’t want to face the violent reality of Australia’s past, which wasn’t at all what Inga Clendinnen was about.)

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    • I’ve said this before: I think we need a new word to describe historical fiction that reveals hidden history, i.e. from voices that tend to be silent in the history books. These tend to be women and Indigenous/colonised people. I don’t think this one quite qualifies, because although it’s written with an empathetic eye, it’s still telling the story from the PoV of the victors in India. It would be different if it were written from the PoV of one of the sepoys, for instance.
      But it is a very good book, it’s years since I read it and yet I still have vivid images from it.
      I see Grenville is at it again, inventing Elizabeth Macarthur’s life. It’s disappointing… I was at a talk she gave in Melbourne (at the turn of the millennium, I think) and she was adamant that novelists should be addressing current issues such as climate change. Yet here we are, four historical novels later… I gave up on her after that trashy Sarah Thornhill.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I also recall being impressed by this when I read it long ago. And Troubles.

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    • Yes, Troubles is good too, but I was not so keen on The SIngapore Grip.

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  4. Everybody keeps telling me I need to read this book – and it would seem you agree with that!

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    • Yup!
      *giggle* Just adding to your TBR again!

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  5. It might sound strange to say I enjoyed this book given how bleak it is. But I thought it was riveting. The way he shied their physical decline was memorable.

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    • Me too, it was unputdownable, and re-reading my thoughts about it from so long has made me want to read it all over again.

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  6. […] ads for the places I visit in my reading: this month I have ‘been to’ Algiers and Krishnapur in India but of course (like any other sensible person’s) my travel plans are on hold.  […]

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