Post-imperial irony

Farrell, J. G. The Siege of Krishnapur. 1973. 2nd ed. New York: New York Review Books, 2004.

During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58, several hundred British subjects in a fortified compound of the East India company (attended by their anonymous Eurasian servants and Sikh loyalist cavalrymen) fight for their lives, their possessions and their beliefs with increasing desperation until, after all looks lost, a smartly-outfitted rescue party find the few foul-smelling and emaciated survivors in this very funny, ironic and violent vision of the British imperial project.

From the first signs of mutiny, the Collector (chief local official of the Company) takes command (after the fortunate deaths of, first, a senile and incompetent general and then an equally incompetent major), young Lieutenant Harry Dunstaple very skillfully manages the compound’s two cannons, a dreamy young idler (Fleury) acts with comical fearlessness, several young women – Harry’s sister Louise, Fleury’s sister Miriam, and the “fallen woman” Lucy – evolve from their various styles of coquetry to more mature responsibility.

Farrell has great fun with stubborn and irreconcilable 19th-century beliefs that various characters consider more important than their very lives. The Padre (as they call the Church of England priest) pursues first Fleury, then the Collector with his absurd proofs of the existence of God (based on the complexities of nature, which he insists could only be the work of Intelligent Design), the Collector keeps making speeches, sometimes to himself, about the wonders of progress as seen in the inventions at the Great Exhibition (London, 1851), even as the siege forces him to reflect on the wondrous destructiveness of modern inventions and the resistance of India to what he sees as Progress. The one declared atheist in the group, the Magistrate, is ironic and sensible on most topics but is an absolute nut about phrenology, which he thinks explains all behavior. Dr. Dunstaple (Harry and Louise’s father) is so convinced of his theory that “an invisible cloud” (not bad water) is the cause of cholera, and so furious with the younger Dr. McNab who disagrees with him, that he publicly swallows “rice water” from a sick patient – and of course dies, quite unnecessarily, because he refuses McNab’s intelligent treatment. Many eccentric and interesting characters die in violent ways that nonetheless raise a smile because, like Dunstaple's, they are so counter to heroic tradition. One of the funniest scenes is also one of the most violent, in which Fleury is pursued through the destroyed Banquet Hall by a giant, saber-wielding Sepoy while he, Fleury, is unable to extricate any of his many weapons (daggers, pistols) from his cummerbund – until finally he gets an extremely heavy, multi-barreled pistol to fire all its barrels at once, disintegrating the upper half of his assailant.

There are no Indian characters with dialogue except Hari, Anglophile son of a local rajah, whose twisted Anglicisms further suggest the misguidedness of British imperial policy. Farrell also makes the point that a mainstay of the imperial enterprise is opium production in India for export to China.

Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra has written a helpful introduction, contrasting Farrell’s version (the 1973 Booker Prize-winner) to the many 19th century British novels about the mutiny, which (according to Mishra) celebrated the heroism and enlightenment of the British in contrast to the brutish savagery of the Indians. In Farrell’s version, the Brits are no more rational than the zamindars (rural landlords), who try to control monsoon flooding by having a Brahmin sacrifice a black goat. It's a view that became possible (and could find a reading public) only a hundred years after the events.

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BolivarianInca said...

Thank you for this intelligent gloss of a book which reflects the accidental, brutish consequence of the imperial enterprise...reminiscent of some of Goyas best work.

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