The Siege of Krishnapur

This is the 1973 Booker Prize winner by J.G.Farrell.

The setting is the 1857 Indian Mutiny.  The story is told from the perspective of a number of British residents in Krishnapur.  The central characters are Mr Hopkins, the Collector; Fleury, a recent arrival to India and his widowed sister, Miriam; the Dunstaple family – father, the local physician – son, a young military man and daughter Louise, the season’s beauty; Mr Willoughby, the Magistrate; and the Padre.

I felt that the story started off very slowly and I was dreading another reading trial like The Poisonwood Bible.  Fortunately as I went further through the book and when the siege finally began it all started to flow for me.  In the end I was fascinated by the characters and the way the author grew them and altered their views through the trials and deprivations of living through a siege situation.

And for the first time in an absolute age, I actually felt like I picked up on some of the themes.  Admittedly they came to me one morning in the half-dozing state that occurs when you are on the cusp of waking up.

The political & philosophical themes were primarily voiced in the observations of each main character given page time by Farrell, although behaviour was also used, especially by the minor players.

One aspect that this novel shared with The Poisonwood Bible is the theme of people under stress and what that brings out of their character.  Are character and world view interlinked and changeable?  The Poisonwood Bible seemed to suggest a strengthening of existing character traits and views, while The Siege of Krishnapur seems to suggest a person could go either way with an extreme strengthening of convictions or a complete weakening of convictions, even to the point of altering them diametrically.

Briefly the themes I identified were:

  • Materialism and Advancement through Invention of things versus the importance of Advancement of the human spirit.

This was primarily played out by Mr Hopkins and Fleury.  Hopkins has fitted out the Residence at Krishnapur with items he believes represent advancement, especially items from The Great Exhibition.  He is reverential about the Exhibition, almost to the point of worship.
Fleury, on the other hand, views the advancement of the spirit to be the most important thing that humans can aspire to.  Certainly materialism and objects are not worthy of the reverence he sees Mr Hopkins display.

  • The Established View versus Scientific Observation and Rationalism

This pits the two Doctors against each other.  Dunstaple is ‘old school’ and is frequently found to be criticising the methods of his colleague, McNab, as experimental and cold.  Dunstaple views the ‘establishment’ as the source of information and direction, while McNab views his own observations (as well as alternatives to the prevailing treatments) as valid guides to patient treatment.  This comes to a head over the treatment of a cholera outbreak.  While the Dunstaple cholera episode should be sad, it is actually completely, gut-bustingly and ironically funny.

  • Scientific observation

The Magistrate also showcases the duality of science that prevailed during this time.  On the one hand he views scientific rationalism very highly, as seen in his support of McNab’s use of statistics to back up his arguments on the treatment of cholera.  On the other hand is his interest and wholehearted believe in the “science” of frenology.

  • Sin

Farrell also touches on themes like “sin” as well.  This is displayed through the Padre’s progressively vigorous pursuit of sin, and the expunging of it from the congregation.  The women also feature here, with a “fallen” woman, Lucy, brought into the enclave.  She is socially shunned with the exception of Miriam and Louise who feel it their duty to be kind to her until she begins to make herself cosy with their brothers.

Through the latter half of the book, and the siege, the writing gets progressively more double-edged.  You can’t help laughing at the characters.  I am sure that Farrell intended to almost caricature certain aspects of British India, Victorian science and the intensity with which people hang on to, or shed their beliefs.

I thought that the “voice” of the book was reasonably authentic.  Apparently a lot of material was taken from diaries of events and there is even a note by Farrell that indicates some sections were almost completely lifted from his research.  Presumably this is why it felt ‘of it’s time’.

I can highly recommend this novel.  After the first, slower part of the book, it picks itself up and becomes at once entertaining, sad and thought-provoking.

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