Thursday, March 1, 2018

Booker Book #6: The Siege of Krishnapur, by J. G. Farrell

EDIT: It might appear that J. G. Farrell was the first writer to win two Booker Prizes. He won in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur, and his novel Troubles holds that honor for 1970. However, the 1970 prize was retroactive. Due to changes in the rules, no prize was awarded for a book published in 1970, until a public vote rectified the situation in 2010. 

Both books are intimate accounts in the form of a microcosm that depicts British colonialism. Troubles takes place in a decrepit English-owned resort hotel in Ireland, while Krishnapur takes place in a “residency” owned by a British trade company at the beginning of India’s own troubles, and is based on actual people and events. Both stories throw strangers together in a siege situation in order to ridicule the notion that the British way is inherently better than the ways of its colonies.

In both the Hotel Majestic and the Residency, the walls literally crumble around the characters, who still absurdly manage to believe themselves better than their “inferiors.” Here, the microcosm is composed of The Magistrate, an atheist and rationalist; Fleury, the aptly named Romantic poet who believes that the most important aspect of religion is feeling; and The Collector, chief of the Residency and self-described “whole” man; as well as a priest, a military man, and two doctors opposed in their methods. Louise, Lucy, and Miriam fill the roles of virgin, whore, and Modern Woman.

The irony is introduced early on, as we find that the British are thriving due to their exports of opium to China – while they spread The Gospel in Asia. The Collector, the Magistrate, and Fleury all believe themselves to be men of ideas – until they are forced by siege-induced famine to daydream of food. Civilization at first seems to mean respecting others’ religions, but then necessity drives the besieged to tear down a mosque. Finally, all must question whether civilization is truly a source of progress, or simply a sign of decay, as all of their fine European belongings are sacrificed to reinforce the ineffectual mud ramparts. The Indian soil literally swallows up all the material things that its oppressors hold dear.

The dueling doctors show that the “superior” British civilization has its own superstitions and blind spots. The two physicians wage a war of ideas over cholera: one has grasped the modern notion that cholera is transmitted through contaminated water, and that the disease can be treated through rehydration. The other clings to the outdated notion that cholera is caught from the air, and can be treated with mustard and brandy. In a moment that had me mentally screaming “No!” the second doctor drinks a bottle of dirty water to prove his point. You can guess the outcome.

More than one of the main characters undergoes a shift in perspective thanks to their ordeal. One of the most enlightened, The Collector, even questions his ideas about the natural inferiority of women, and wonders what he is missing about Indian religion, but never goes so far as to respect the natives.

I enjoyed both books. There is a dry, black, absurdist humor to both, but especially Krishnapur. The bathos of the English aristocracy reduced to sucking on horsehide and shooting pieces of statuary out of their cannons brings home Farrell’s point with wry wit. If I had to choose one, it would be Krishnapur: it is wittier and more action-packed, as well as shorter. But I recommend both for their brutal post-colonial honesty.

PS: I've been reading Booker Books for one month now: 6 books in the month of February, or one book every 4.6 days. A little slower than my usual rate but still on target. 

No comments:

Post a Comment