Wednesday Book Club: The Siege of Krishnapur

Wednesday, 12 November 2008 — 11:31pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) by J.G. Farrell.

In brief: An early winner of the Booker Prize, a prestigious annual award for the best English-language novel about India, Krishnapur is an insightful, action-packed, and surprisingly funny look at how Victorian idealists conduct themselves in the face of destruction at the hands of mutinous sepoys. As a fair assessment of India under company rule, it appreciates the complexities of empire while avoiding the trap of revisionism; as historical fiction, it is an old-fashioned delight.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Siege of Krishnapur, keep reading below.)

I am often inclined to think that the best novels are the ambivalent ones, the stories that invite competing interpretations each defensible in their own way. Part of the attraction of fiction is its heteroglossia, its ability to speak in multiple voices instead of adhering to a singly integrated political position like what we would expect from an essayist. When a book of fiction is deployed as a thinly veiled allegory lacking counterpoint or nuance, it shows, and readers who are not so sympathetic to the author’s views may find the one-sidedness alienating and unfair.

This is not the case for The Siege of Krishnapur, a novel that relates the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 from the perspective of a besieged cantonment’s British inhabitants. Krishnapur is a microcosmic account of the Decline and Fall of the British Empire, and the temptation is to read it as a postmortem for once-cherished beliefs in rationality, progress, and global cultural uplift through science. To jump to this crude conclusion would not give the book the credit it deserves, as it is far more intelligent than that.

Farrell handily dispenses with the common assertion that the project of imperialism was motivated by anything resembling a consistent ideological monolith. The characters holed up in Krishnapur advance a diverse collection of opinions about the nature and task of civilization, many of them mutually opposed, none of them anachronistic. There is the Padre, a Biblical literalist who receives the mutiny as God’s punishment and frets about what sin or heresy could have invited it. (“I believe, Mr Hopkins,” he says with the utmost trepidation as the town falls apart around him, “that there may be German rationalism at work within our midst. I hope I am mistaken.”) There is the Magistrate, a reasoned atheist whose total acceptance of material determinism leads him into pseudosciences like phrenology. Then there is George Fleury, a protagonist I would describe as fashionably Byronic: with a head full of Coleridge and Keats, he thinks of civilized progress as the fulfilment of the heart rather than anything rational or mechanical—though for a man who eschews materialism, he is remarkably well dressed.

The smartest of the bunch is the Collector, the East India Company representative in charge of Krishnapur and the closest thing the novel has to a main character. The Collector is a man who understands that few ideas that we suppose to be diametric opposites are actually antithetical, and his ideals allow him to see past the false dichotomies that often divide science from religion or art from technology. He realizes that tearing down mosques is not only bad governance, but a far cry from how civilized authorities should behave. In his vast collection of art, he prizes above all the sculptures that go by names like “The Spirit of Science Conquers Ignorance and Prejudice”, which he keeps next to a host of inventions from the Great Exhibition. As he puts it himself:

“This Universe of ours functions according to laws which in our humble ignorance we are scarcely able to perceive, let alone understand. But if the divine benevolence allows us to explore some few of its marvels it is clearly right that we should do so. No, Mr Fleury, every invention is a prayer to God. Every invention, however great, however small, is a humble emulation of the greatest invention of all, the Universe.”

… whereupon he rattles off a list of instruments that have assisted humanity in this way or that. Yet the Collector, too, is trapped within his own set of prejudices, which take the shape of a very literal paternalism. Here is someone who routinely reviews his two daughters’ diary entries, but has trouble telling the children apart; who, in one of the book’s sparing ironic acknowledgments of how history would come to unfold, thinks to himself:

“Women are weak, we shall always have to take care of them, just as we shall always have to take care of the natives; no doubt, there are exceptions… women of character like Miss Nightingale, but not unfortunately like Carrie or Eliza or Margaret… Even a hundred years from now…” the Collector feebly tried to imagine 1957… “it will still be the same. They are made of a softer substance. They arouse our desire, but they are not our equals.”

Needless to say, the Collector spends most of the novel confounded at why the Indians could possibly wish to turn their backs on the promise of forward progress. (“It was as if, after the improving rule of the Romans, the Britons had decided to paint themselves with woad again.”) In the meantime, he is not alone in Farrell’s dramatis personae in failing to distinguish between nature and nurture or correlation and causation. Yet for all the faults of the characters in the book, almost all of them turn out to be right about something, some of the time. The Magistrate may be a caricature of rational man at his most condescending—disappointingly, his atheism is one of the few beliefs in the novel given short shrift—but when he observes two doctors quarrel over whether cholera is spread through air or water, he has no trouble cutting through the medical jargon and gauging the soundness of the underlying logic, while everyone else is easily swindled by appeals to authority.

And whether you like it or not, there is little denying that the rapid twentieth-century development of India as an autonomous economic force depended a great deal on the transformative contributions of the British, be it in the construction of railway infrastructure or in systems of government and finance. In the end, a society that recognizes the scientific diagnosis and treatment of cholera is invariably better off than a society that sacrifices goats to lower the level of a river, no matter how often the latter may appear to work. Farrell goes to great lengths to expose the hypocrisies inherent in his characters’ ideals of progress, but appears to be aware that the ideals are at fault, and not the benefits of progress itself. Consequently, The Siege of Krishnapur manages to exhibit a convincing understanding of imperial motivations without apologizing for the implementation.

To harp on the depth and sophistication of Krishnapur, as I have done, may inadvertently conceal the fact that it is, at a basic level, an exhilarating pleasure to read. It is a sharp social satire of civilians who try in earnest to lead their lives according to familiar ideals as their town is being shelled: in addition to the Padre, who is more concerned about the rigour of his proofs of intelligent design than his own physical safety, there are the spoiled young ladies unused to discomfort in any form, who squabble over servants and go out of their way to exclude a “fallen woman” of ambiguous sin. Thankfully, the growth and behaviour of the central female characters is a lot more flattering to the maturity of the fairer sex.

The assault on Krishnapur being central to the action of the book, Farrell is obliged to portray it with the grandeur and tactical clarity we have come to expect from the great sieges of English prose fiction (among them, Ivanhoe and The Lord of the Rings), and he accomplishes precisely that. The explosive skirmishes along the ramparts fall into a natural rhythm with the interludes of sober reflection.

The nineteenth-century prose style is exquisite and authentic throughout, giving the book an air of complicated nostalgia. True to the way the British perceived indigenous peoples, there are hardly any named Indian natives to stand apart from the throngs of anonymous sepoys other than Hari, a Maharajah’s son who can barely conceal his enthusiasm for phrenology and daguerrotypes, but appreciates his deployment as a propaganda tool somewhat less. We see India through British eyes, and although most of the characters are objects of satire blinded by pettiness, unreason, and prejudice in equal measure, they remain the sympathetic figures of the book. The Siege of Krishnapur reminds us that the transition out of the British Empire’s glorious dominion, which commonly invites the external reassessment of history by ex-colonial voices, also necessitates sombre self-reflection and a mature critique of the rational-progressivist conscience.

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