The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell (1973) 375 p.

krishnapur

 

This is the second book in J.G. Farrell’s very loose ‘Empire’ trilogy, which share nothing more than a common theme: the decline and decay of the British Empire. Troubles was one of my favourite books of last year, a mordant satire set in a decaying Anglo-Irish hotel during the years of the Irish guerrilla war for independence. The Siege of Krishnapur jumps back in time about sixty years to India’s 1857 sepoy mutiny, an uprising of some of the colony’s native Indian regiments against their British rulers, and follows the story of about a hundred white British men, women and children and their loyal Sikh troops who find themselves trapped in a small complex of buildings, surrounded and besieged by an army of sepoys – very closely modelled on the Siege of Lucknow, and indeed the NYRB edition of this book uses the ruins of The Residency in Lucknow as its title image.

Based on Troubles I was fully expecting to love this book, and was surprised to find that it didn’t quite gel together for me. Farrell maintains the same wry comic tone he used to great effect in Troubles; but the key difference is that in Troubles the privileged British characters were utterly insulated from the actual impacts of the war going on beyond their doorstep, making their pompous opinions and wildly off-base political predictions all the more amusing. In the Siege of Krishnapur, on the other hand, the British characters suffer greatly from actual, genuine hardship and misery. Violent battle, medical amputations, cholera, literal starvation, plagues of insects, the indignity of disposing of the corpses of loved ones by throwing them over the wall for the jackals – all of this and more is visited upon them, and for the most part they bear it with stiff-upper-lip Victorian Stoicism which, considering the circumstances, feels less like a Troubles-esque skewering of the ruling class and more like something to be genuinely admired. The disconnect is particularly jarring when it comes to Fleury, a character who has recently arrived from England and, once the siege is underway, involves himself in more than one combat engagement with the sepoys which can only be described as slapstick. Fleury is certainly a pompous twit, but he’s no coward, and the tone of these encounters is at odds with the rest of the book; I found myself uncertain of what Farrell was trying to accomplish with this character.

It’s quite possible the ‘Empire’ label was only applied retrospectively, after Farrell finished The Singapore Grip and his premature death in a rock fishing accident left us with only six novels, three of which display a clear theme of British colonialism. It’s perhaps unfair, then, to compare The Siege of Krishnapur to the more openly satirical Troubles. Farrell’s afterword makes it clear that the subject of the sepoy mutiny genuinely fascinated him. Re-examining the novel with that in mind, I think it probably stands better as its own work than as a follow-up to the style and themes of Troubles; though I still think aspects of it don’t sit right, and that Troubles is the far superior novel.