The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

Mocking the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Although life in the small fictional town of Krishnapur is currently peaceful for the British colonial community, the Collector fears trouble – he has been coming across small piles of chapattis left in odd places, and he’s sure he’s heard that this happened somewhere else, just before a native uprising against the representatives of the Raj. His fears are soon to be realised, and the British will be driven to take refuge in the Residency where they will have to withstand constant attacks, disease and starvation as they wait for the Army to come to their rescue…

Gosh, I don’t remember feeling quite so conflicted about a book for a while! On the one hand, it is written as a sort of farcical comedy which is totally at odds with the serious subject matter, especially as the siege progresses and the suffering and death of the British contingent grows. On the other hand, there’s no doubt it is quite funny in places. On the one hand, it is clearly mocking the whole concept of colonialism and the British attempts to force their culture onto another society. On the other hand, the natives are still shown as kind of comedy characters – none are fully characterised, they are mostly simply one agglomerated mass, and, unlike the Brits, they get no opportunity to redeem themselves through heroism before the end. On the one hand, Farrell mocks the position of colonial women – seen as useless but pretty ornamentation at best, or, should they fail to remain within the restrictive rules of the British society, disgraceful embarrassments at worst. On the other hand, for the most part this is exactly how Farrell treats them too, suggesting his egalitarianism wasn’t much more than skin deep.

The first section before the siege goes on way too long and there were times when I wasn’t sure whether to stick with it. At this stage, though, at least the humour feels in keeping with the rather light-hearted depiction of the fairly pointless existence of most of the Brits. However, it becomes much more interesting once the siege finally gets underway. There’s no doubt that Farrell has researched the period well and, while Krishnapur and his characters are fictional, much of the action is based on the real Siege of Lucknow of 1857. The humour persists too long into the bleaker aspects of the story, but gradually style and content begin to match more and I began to find that at last I was beginning to care about some of the characters as people rather than seeing them solely as caricatures of colonial “types”.

As well as colonialism, Farrell plays with contrasting themes of faith and science, civilisation and materialism, and honour and reputation. It all feels quite light and superficial because of the overall humorous tone, but I found that after I had finished reading it was these questions that lingered in my mind, more than the specifics of what had happened to the characters.

As cholera strikes the besieged community, the two doctors argue bitterly over how it is spread – by miasma, as was then mostly accepted, or through contaminated water, as some were beginning to think. As the people are trying to decide which medical advice to follow, the clergyman is insisting that their troubles are all a judgement from God on their sins, and exhorting them to trust in prayer.

When the Brits retreat to the Residency they bring all their precious but useless valuables with them – exquisite china, beautiful paintings, even large items of furniture which they had paid a fortune to have shipped out from England. But as hunger and danger strike, some of them begin to see the futility of possessions and would cheerfully give up their priceless antiques for a square meal and an unbroken night of safety. Some however cling onto their goods as if they are the markers of what makes them superior to the marauding natives out there.

JG Farrell

But when the situation becomes one of life and death, some of the old moral and societal standards fall away, and people begin to behave in ways that would have been unthinkable in the safe days, the respectable and the disreputable finding that they may have to rely on each other after all. And, in the end many of the characters show true heroism, even the most unlikely of the men facing the fighting with all the courage and initiative they can muster, and some of the ornamental women turning their hands to the sordid, dirty and dangerous job of nursing the sick and wounded.

Although I had mixed feelings about a lot of it, I found that as it darkened my appreciation grew, and by the end I was glad I had stuck with it – the destination made what had felt like a long and sometimes tedious journey worthwhile. Perhaps it’s of its time – Farrell was clearly modern enough to be critical of colonialism, but perhaps not yet modern enough to prevent himself from falling into some of the attitudes he was mocking. Or perhaps he was so modern that he was mocking the attitudes of the people who were mocking the attitudes of the colonialists! I’ll quickly pull myself out before I get even more lost down that rabbit hole, give it four stars and add the other two books in his Empire trilogy, Troubles and The Singapore Grip, to my wishlist, which I suppose can be taken as some kind of a recommendation!

Book 1 of 12

This was The People’s Choice winner for January and started the year off well, so good choice, People!

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51 thoughts on “The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

  1. Judging by other people’s fondness for it, I thought it would be quite a thorough critique of colonialism and backward attitudes, so it’s a bit disconcerting to discover that you feel the author is not quite fully aware of his own biases in that respect…

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    • I think it was the humour that jarred me – it works as humour in that it’s funny, but somehow it seemed to make the Indians into a kind of comedy backdrop that just wouldn’t work in a book published today. It reminded me of the old sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum – funny, mocking the Brits, but also somehow managing to perpetuate the stereotypes of the “natives”. But overall I think it sort of still works…

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  2. Hmm, this does sound like a bit of a mixed bag, FictionFan. I think I had the idea from what I’d read about it that this was going to be a different sort of take on the topic. Still, I’m glad that you ended up being glad you’d read it, and it does look at a part of history I don’t know enough about… Hmm….

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    • I had no idea it was going to be funny, so I found that quite jarring. I was expecting something more serious, like The Jewel in the Crown or something. But it does more or less work overall, and I’m intrigued to see how he handles the other episodes he’s chosen for his trilogy.

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  3. I went through a period of Farrell worship, back in the day, reading Siege, Troubles and Singapore Grip in rapid succession. I loved all three, although Troubles was my favorite. It’s been so long since I read them, however, I remember little beyond the bare outlines of the stories.
    I’m not surprised to read that you were a little taken aback by Farrell’s tone & attitude. I believe Siege won the Booker in the early 1970s, when many writers were just beginning their reevaluation of the British Empire & its values (wasn’t Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet published at about this same time?) and post-colonial studies were only getting underway. I’m not defending the attitudes you point out, merely picking up on your suggestion that Farrell wasn’t totally able to free himself from the attitudes of his time/place (although he certainly was in the vanguard of the movement holding them to account).
    And isn’t Farrell funny? I do remember that his mixture of black comedy and tragedy could be most disconcerting. His novels are set in moments of darkest crisis — the “uprisings” in India; the struggle for Irish independence and the fall of Singapore — but he always finds something incredibly riduculous in the heroics. When I read these novels many years ago, I considered the humor as Farrell’s way of undermining the pomposity and false values of the empire as well as emphasizing the farcial elements present in the human condition. Whether I was correct of not — well, I was pretty young at the time!
    There are so many marvellous new-to-me books that it’s hard to justify the time for re-reading, but I must admit I’ve been tempted by Farrell; I’d be very interested to see if his “empire trilogy” still justified my high regard.

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    • I think you may well have been correct – certainly his mockery of a lot of the British side of it was spot on, and I think perhaps we’ve reached a moment where we’re too sensitive on matters of race to be able to mock the other side in the way he felt he could back then. It reminded me of an old sitcom we had over here, which I don’t imagine travelled across the Atlantic, called It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, which also mocked the British in India and was genuinely hilarious. Now they won’t show repeats of it, though, because it also mocked the Indian characters and showed them as just as laughable as the Brits. So I suspect my reaction to his portrayal of the Indians is very much coloured by today’s race issues, and that I’d have felt very differently about it back in the ’70s, if that makes any sense.
      I’m glad to hear you liked the other books just as much – both settings appeal to me, and at least this time I’ll be prepared for the humour going in and so won’t find it quite as jarring as I did in this one. He is funny, but a lot of the time I felt guilty for finding it funny since my brain was sending signals telling me the whole thing was too serious to laugh about! However, I do like books that make me question my own reactions, and while I might not always enjoy them best at the time, they tend to be the ones that I appreciate most in the long run…

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  4. I read it a long time back, FF but from what I remember I agree with what you’ve written over here, esp his depiction of the Indians. Overall, I think I loved the farcial element in this. The humour was pretty well-done for the most part.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed it overall – I had wondered what Indian readers’ reaction would have been to the way the Indians were portrayed, or mostly not portrayed, in fact. They were mostly just there as a comedy backdrop to the Brits being foolish, which jars a bit these days, although it was fairly standard for earlier colonial literature. I did wonder if he did it deliberately to mock that kind of literature, in fact, but I felt I was overthinking things! It was funny, though – very different from the usual serious tone of anti-colonial literature…

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    • I was glad I stuck with it in the end but it was tough going for a good long time at the beginning. At least when I read another of his books I’ll have a better idea of what to expect going in!

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  5. Not for me, sorry to say. The part about the cholera — the medical disagreements over its beginning and spread, the clergymen’s stance that it’s a retribution from God — sounds just too much like what we’re enduring with this COVID stuff. Glad you found it an enjoyable read though.

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    • Ha, yes, almost every book I read at the moment seems to be about some horrible disease! They used to seem entertaining, and hopefully they will again some time, but I agree – too close for comfort at the moment!

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    • It’d be interesting to see what you think of it. I’m not sure I really was on his wavelength – I found I was wondering all the time if I was reading too much into what he was doing, or maybe too little! However, I always enjoy when a book makes me question my own reactions…

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  6. My recollections of this novel are murky, but to be fair, most of the natives are outside the compound attacking it, as I recall. Also, it’s from the point of view of the colonials and it reflects how they think about the natives, doesn’t it?

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  7. The Mutiny, or the War of Independence, or whatever people choose to call it, saw some horrific atrocities committed by both sides. If you want to make up a fictional siege and joke about it, like in Carry On Up The Khyber, that can work OK, but I’m not sure that the events of 1857-8 are the best subject for a farcical comedy. I think I’ll give this one a miss!

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    • That’s what I found so jarring – it didn’t seem like the kind of subject I’d have expected to be given a humorous treatment, and he did show the real horrors of what happened to the Brits, though not to the Indians. There’s no doubt he made it funny, but I wasn’t altogether comfortable with laughing, if you know what I mean.

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      • The Carry On Up The Khyber one is a total spoof in which the British residents keep on drinking tea whilst the roof and walls are collapsing around them, but no-one actually seems to get hurt. I’m OK with that 🙂 . Making a comedy out the events of 1857-8 just isn’t funny!

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  8. Hhm, doesn’t sound like one that I’d be willing to stick with. I think that dark humor works best if its written from the perspective of the person/people most severely affected by the darkness, especially as it sounds like the targets of the humor become buffoons. Perhaps if he were writing about his own background in Ireland…..

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    • Yes, I know what you mean, although I think that’s a more modern perception than was around when this was written. The making them all buffoons was part of what jarred me – the subject matter seemed too serious and people on both sides suffered terribly, both in real life and in the book. To laugh at them seemed beyond black comedy, and just another form of claiming superiority, this time for us over our forebears. I don’t think we’re superior to the colonialists – we just do different bad things nowadays, which the people of the future will in their turn mock us for…

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  9. I can’t remember what it was up against, but feel sure I didn’t vote for this. However… your review has me thinking I might actually enjoy it. There’s something to be said for dark humor. That said, I don’t think I’m ready to add it to my wishlist.

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    • I sometimes enjoy black comedy – depends on the story, I guess. But this one seemed odd because the true story is so horrible – not really something I’d think of joking about! However, I enjoyed it overall so if you ever feel you’re running out of books it might be worth adding to your TBR… 😉

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  10. I recently removed this book from my TBR list – I was just worried it would be too colonialist leaning and not have aged well. But it actually sounds pretty interesting. Back it goes on to my TBR list.

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    • It’s definitely anti-colonialist, Nish, but it also doesn’t give a very positive view of the Indians. He kind of makes both sides look farcical. I’d be interested to know what you think of it if you do read it…

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  11. I’ve had the same feeling when I’m reading, wondering if the author was mocking the mocking of the characters, or just seriously mocking the characters? It’s so hard to tell sometimes, especially when you’re reading books about a historical time or place.

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    • I’ve added Troubles to my wishlist, on the grounds that at least I’ll know what to expect this time. The humour felt very odd in the context and I guess it’s a sign of his talent that he kept me on board nonetheless…

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