The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Part of the current A level English Literature syllabus, this classic novel from Farrell is part of his triptych of books looking at, and criticising, the British Empire. This one is based loosely on the real events of 1857 when Indian sepoys either led their first war of independence or mutinied against the British (Asian historians describe it as the former and Western ones the latter). Although Krishnapur is a fictional place in India, the story mirrors closely the real siege which took place in Lucknow.
I know a great deal of the tragic and horrific incidents which took place during that year. Both sides committed terrible atrocities not just against valid enemy opponents (soldiers) but against innocents too. Men, women and children were slaughtered and neither side comes out well. What Farrell succeeds in doing is presenting the human side of the story in a deeply sympathetic way despite the fact the entire novel is written as a parody – almost a black comedy – of the British Raj mentality.
This parody is almost too well-written for its own good. The portrayal of the British in all their arrogance and pomposity is so close to the reality that I can see many British readers missing the criticism altogether. Even more so considering the fact it was published in 1973 at a time when the British still very much held such prejudiced and blinkered views. Indeed, it took me about 50% of the book to be convinced Farrell was parodying the British at all and not really writing from a blinkered, semi-racist view himself.
This subtlety then is Farrell’s skill and enduring legacy (it is a shame he died from accidental drowning at a young age). He avoids farce and slapstick in his descriptions of the British under siege and keeps the comedy at just the right level to make the point and allow the reader to take seriously the very real sufferings inflicted on the characters. This is important because these sufferings really did happen to people in 1857 and Farrell is respectful to the source documents he used to create his work. He criticises the society and culture of the time; he doesn’t disrespect the individuals.
So just what are these criticisms? He deals not just with colonialism but with the assumptions that lay behind it – the idea that the British had better values, customs, religion, science and social rules. Item by item, he tears these down as the characters become increasingly desperate and despair of hope. Even the value of animals and humans is attacked, as are the whole British values of social class and sexism within the system.
Oddly, it is Farrell’s respect for the Indians which is easily misunderstood as prejudiced. He barely gives room to any Indian character, and this can come across as an unhealthy preoccupation with the British. But, in reality, Farrell is passing over both the good and bad, rights and wrongs of the Indian side. He remains neutral about them choosing neither to champion them nor ridicule. He reserves his entire attention for the British so that he can lampoon and tear down their whole way of life – both metaphorically and literally.
The result is a novel which is faithful and respectful to those who lived through those troubled times yet succeeds in revealing the facade which was (and, I would argue, still is) the framework for British society. Farrell brilliantly portrays the collapse of everything these people hold dear without descending into unbelievable melodrama. What happens in the book is what happened in reality – and what would still happen today if the same situation could arise.
As such, despite more than forty years since the publication, seventy years since the end of the British Raj and 160 since the mutiny/war itself, ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ remains as fresh and relevant today as ever. Perhaps even more so for British values have moved on a little insofar as the Empire is all but forgotten today and we pretend we’re more enlightened now. Not taught in schools other than to pass over in lip service, the British youth are ignorant of much of that period and certainly don’t realise the importance of the prejudice nor that it remains deeply ingrained in the British psyche today. Farrell’s book holds a mirror – albeit a comic one – to our own faces and dares us to take a good long stare.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
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