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Oh! I can barely put chewed-finger to keyboard to tell you about this book. It's the best thing I've read in a long time, and it's older than me - why did it take so long to find me! Why did I waste so much of my time on inferior contemporary fiction when this gem had been on the bookshelves for thirty-odd years.
The error has now been well and truly rectified. Not only have I read this book, I have fallen gut-wrenchingly in love with it. The wit, drama, and cleverly shaped prose sends a shiver down my spine just thinking about it. You may think that an exaggeration, but I do feel quite strongly that The Siege of Krishnapur is one of the best things I have ever read. It's so good that I can't bear to finish it - I am currently on hold about six pages from the end; I want to guzzle them down, but I am so afraid of what will become of the characters I have come to love, and scared of the book-abyss that will greet me when my reading of this one is over.
Gah! Okay, calm. I will start from the beginning in the hope that many of you will go out and invest in this literary jewel.
The year is 1857, the place, Krishnapur - a British enclave on the Indian plains. The British East India Company has been there over a generation, English ladies searching the ballrooms of Calcutta for husbands have been born and bred on Indian soil. The natives are content, civilisation is being spread, and only one person in Krishnapur thinks there might be something afoot when piles of chapatis begin to randomly appear all over the place.
The opening segment of the book deftly introduces us to the country and a handful of our main characters as he works up to the start of his story. We are privy to the workings of Colonial Victorian life, the obsession with home, the heat, the boredom, the class system. This is set in the wake of the Great Exhibition, and everyone is eager to be thought himself a man of the time - practical, gruff and scientific. As the book opens we meet the Collector and his mysterious chapatis, Fleury - fresh off the boat to find a wife, The Dunstaple family, and a bevy of other characters who will come to play a part in the story.
To be honest I found the book a little difficult to get into. The narrative is penned with a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek, and it takes a while to get used to that, and the monologues of Victorian men with which is is peppered. Farrell's language is so clever though, so very well structured and punctuated, that you soon can't fail to be delighted with the very strange caricatures being drawn as India shimmers off the page at you.
Of course, this imperial outpost won't be calm for long (did you read the title of the book?) and soon the Europeans are barricading themselves in against an onslaught of uprising Sepoys. It is here that the story comes into its own. The very dry wit and charm of the writing starts to strip the characters, and as the siege goes on we really do get to their bones. Issues of class, race, sex, religion and intellect are played out in the most Victorian way in the besieged Residency. It's a very bare backdrop against which to examine humanity and nothing escapes Farrell's attention, yet somehow the whole thing is infused with humour.
But don't think this is pure fiction, it has at its heart a very real basis in the actual Sepoy uprisings of those years. This isn't just a comical tour of the English colonies, and that's why the humour and depth that exists here is so magical. Who's in the right? The oppressed natives? The English who believe they are spreading civilisation? The book lets you feel revulsion towards the English with their pomposity and blinkered lives; at the start they are all laughable, by the end you desperately want them to win.
Gah! I've got all excited again. It really is very good. I won't tell you what happens in the end - of course, I still don't know yet myself as I am hiding on page 307 - and I couldn't guess for you because even that close to the last page the tension is high and it could go either way. Will they be one of the surviving colonies that goes on to rule India for almost another century, or are they destined to be dust on the plains?
What I will tell you that this is a fantastic read, once you get into it it has a pace and rhythm that will have you hooked. I can't express it any more succinctly than with the quote from the back of my edition:
'For a novel to be witty is one thing, to tell a good story is another, to be serious is yet another, but to be all three is surely enough to make it a masterpiece' - The New Statesman.
The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell First Published 1973; winner of the Booker prize in that year.