Troubles by J.G. Farrell (1970) 446 p.


Across the turbulent years of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), Troubles – the first of J.G. Farrell’s loosely connected “Empire” trilogy – follows the upper-class British residents of The Majestic, a seaside hotel in County Wexford. The Majestic has, to put it bluntly, seen better days; Farrell paints a marvellous portrait of crumbling decay, the hotel’s three hundred rooms mostly empty and mildewing, the swimming pool stagnant, the main courtyard overgrown. There’s a touch of Gormenghast to the place, and Farrell is such a talented writer that even though the symbolism is present in every scene it never feels overwrought. The Majestic clearly represents the last disintegrating years of the British Empire itself, the green-eyed orange cats overrunning the upper floors represent the newly ascendant Sinn Fein, and the stiff-upper-lip old Tory who owns the place obstinately refusing to acknowledge the obvious truth that it’s falling down around his ears… well, that represents something still quite relevant to those of us well-versed in British politics in 2019. Particularly the way in which he eventually embarks on a sort of Apocalypse Now descent into madness.

Troubles is regularly interspersed with extracts from newspapers – real ones, I assume – discussing the situation not just in Ireland but in other far-flung parts of the Empire like India and Egypt. There is a familiar tone to these extracts: a delusional steady-hand-on-the-tiller attitude, a refusal to acknowledge that other nations and peoples might have interests and desires which differ from England’s, and a ridiculously unfounded optimism that borders on deranged. A century later, little has changed. Troubles is a brilliant skewering of the Tory mindset and a perfect book to read in October 2019, as the British slouch towards either a no-deal Brexit or yet another extension of their Indefinite Leave to Remain.