I recently ranked the colonizing countries of the West in order of how much I like to read about their colonizing ways, and Britain came in first place. And if I had ranked British-colonized countries in order of how much I like to read about their colonized ways — well, I’d never have done that, because it would always be changing — but if I did do it, India would be at the top. I long and long and long to go to India. Someday I will go, and I think it will be amazing (but hot).
The Siege of Krishnapur is about a fictional compound of British soldiers and civilians in India just before and then all during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The main character (sort of) Fleury is a young, imaginative Romantic who has just come to India with an eye to discovering himself a wife. He is unhappy to discover that his carefully cultivated sensitivity to beauty is not quite the thing in colonial India. The Collector, governor of the town, is obsessed with his collection of marvels, many of which he acquired at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
J.G. Farrell is a funny guy. For as grim a book as he’s written, as claustrophobic and everyone’s-about-to-die a book as The Siege of Krishnapur, he writes with a quiet, wry humor that was very enjoyable. We see almost nothing of India outside of the besieged containment, so the whole book is given to us almost solely through the eyes of the Europeans. We see the Collector’s pride in the objects he’s collected, the marvels of European craftsmanship which, ultimately, they break down and use as weapons, or firewood, to keep themselves alive. One can’t help finding it fairly pointed that they fire a bust of Shakespeare out of the cannons at the attacking sepoys.
As Farrell is poking fun at the pretensions of the various characters — pretensions of beauty, of intellectualism, of scientific brilliance, of sensitivity — he also draws them with a certain degree of affection. The silly things they believe about themselves, about the British Empire, and about the Indian sepoys in the rebellion have plainly been instilled in them over years and years of British education. None of the characters is exactly sympathetic, but Farrell still makes them more pitiable than aggravating (by a thinnish margin in some cases).
I genuinely enjoyed reading The Siege of Krishnapur, but by the end I was ready to be done with it. The same quirks of character that entertained me so much at the outset were driving me crazy as I got closer to finishing. The critique of empire and its creations was there throughout, but it didn’t deepen over the course of the book. I liked the book! I don’t at all mean to imply that I didn’t. Only its events were not as exciting as you’d think they would be, which means the book lives or dies on its characters. The British characters didn’t change and grow, and without including textured Indian characters in the book, it was hard to see the impacts of empire from that side. So the whole thing fell a teeny bit flat for me. (Alas.)
This assessment has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I feel Mary Renault, and not J.G. Farrell, should have won the Lost Booker Prize. J.G. Farrell already won one! And I haven’t read Troubles, the winner of the Lost Booker Prize, but I have read The Siege of Krishnapur, and I’ve read Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven, and I thought Fire from Heaven was better. I love Mary Renault right in the face. (When I was unpacking my books after moving to my new apartment, I kept discovering more Renault books I had packed, and every time (there were four altogether), I was all, Awesome! Yay for Past Jenny! What impeccable taste and foresight that girl had!)
Tell me if I missed yours! If I did it’s not because I don’t love you!