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The Siege of Krishnapur

The Siege of Krishnapur
J.G. Farrell
314 pages

Looking at the Prime Minister the Collector was overcome by a feeling of helplessness. He realized that there was a whole way of life of the people in India which he would never get to know and which was totally indifferent to him and his concerns. 'The Company could pack up here tomorrow and this fellow would never notice ... And not only him ... The British could leave and half India wouldn't notice us leaving just as they didn't notice us arriving. All our reforms of administration might be reforms on the moon for all it has to do with them.' The Collector was humbled and depressed by this thought. (p.210)


This is a fictional account of one town held siege during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, when sepoys from the British East India Company's army staged a mutiny which then spread across a significant portion of the country. As the novel opens, the Collector (head of the British settlement in Krishnapur) is concerned about potential unrest. But author J.G. Farrell takes his time painting a picture of the British colonial lifestyle first, and spares no one. He captures western arrogance and superiority quite well. The Great Exhibition of 1851 is cited by many characters as an example of superior British science and intellect. Farrell also pokes fun at the Victorian fondness for possessions, describing the Residency's decor in vivid detail, and the impractical fashions worn by both men and women.

Eventually the inevitable happens and the British settlement finds itself under siege. At first the community tries to maintain some sense of normalcy, holding fast to their class structure and enjoying the odd brandy now and then. But as casualties mount and supplies dwindle, conflict inevitably arises. The Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy debate openly with each other and with certain members of their "flock." The two physicians engage in verbal sparring over the causes and cures of cholera, and members of the community take sides. Through it all the Collector attempts to remain in command, with varying degrees of success. The reader can only watch the situation deteriorate, and try to absorb the tragedy.

I struggled a bit with this book. In the opening portion I was enjoying what I considered a satirical view of British colonials. And then suddenly the satire stopped, and war took over. Yet the characters continued to behave according to the satire. My emotions were very much in conflict, until a friend hit on just the right word: sympathy. Yes, that's it. Farrell presents a very sympathetic portrait of the colonials and a situation gone very, very wrong. It was written at a time when people were beginning to re-examine the importance of empire. I suspect its message hit home, which is why it won the Booker Prize in 1973. So many years later, the impact is not quite the same but it is still an interesting story and a pretty good read. ( )

Comments

(Anonymous)
May. 21st, 2009 03:05 am (UTC)
Lemonade award
Laura--I love your blog and have just nominated you for an award. Please see my blog (http://tutus2cents.blogspot.com/2009/05/lemonade-award-x-2.html) for the details.

Tutu at www.tutus2cents.blogspot.com

Keep those great recommendations coming.