Sunday, May 30, 2010

Matthew's Review - The Siege of Krishnapur - 1973

My library has a queue for J. G. Farrell's Troubles, which won the Lost Booker Prize this month, so I decided to give his novel The Siege of Krishnapur a try.

Set during the sepoy rebellion in 1857 in British-occupied India, this is the story of a bunch of upper class English idiots as they attempt to defend their cantonment against a never-ending assault by the sepoys. The siege lasts over three months, and slowly and methodically Farrell describes the English descent into starvation, class-obliteration, madness for some, disease and death for many.

This is a brutally anti-Empire novel. I have never read another book that absolutely excoriates the idea of the British Empire. Farrell's anger and bitterness about the perceived superiority of the British is so clear and forthright, but never cloying or annoying. In fact, this is a tremendously funny novel.

It can be read in a number of ways: as an adventure novel, a kind of boy's adventure in which the gallant and dashing English triumph in the end, or, more likely, it can be read as a anti-colonialism text, heavy with symbolism and meaning.

Both ways of reading the text are hugely entertaining. I had such a great time reading this book. I kept regaling my girlfriend with bits from the text, including the amazing sequence with the two dueling physicians over the proper treatment of cholera, or the fight scene at the end of the novel in which a aristocratic fop, using a violin, battles a giant Indian with a giant sabre.

Even with all of the symbolism and dissection of the psyche, Farrell never lets the novel get boring. Rather, this is a very exciting and rip-roaring adventure. It's like a Pynchon-esque pastiche of pulp stories.

The Siege of Krishnapur is a tremendous novel: witty, comic, engaging, exciting, and hugely entertaining. I absolutely adored this novel. I was sad to finish the book, but at the same time I was desperate to find out the fate of the cast. I am very excited to read Farrell's other novels in his so-called Empire Trilogy. I expect to find the same wit and bitterness and be entertained by it.

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