Friday, May 8, 2015

Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell

It takes a very talented writer with a light touch to write a comic novel based on an actual tragedy. J.G. Farrell was such a writer and his Booker Award-winning book, The Siege of Krishnapur gives a witty account of a mutiny staged against a British garrison by sepoys (native soldiers).  In mid-nineteenth century India, the fictional Krishnapur, an outpost of the British East India Company, is cut off for months from supplies of food, medicine and other commodities by a native revolt. Eventually disease and starvation cause great suffering and many deaths.  Within the walls of the garrison, Farrell creates a microcosm of all that is admirable and despicable in Victorian society. The British react to this attack in the best way they know—stoically maintaining their British way of life. Hence, they keep class stratification strictly in place throughout the siege, particularly in the division of food, clothing and shelter, and even in the process of burying their dead. And there are many dead, so many bodies awaiting burial that the vultures become too fat to fly. The story revolves around several main characters, well-known Victorian types—stern paternal figures, beautiful self-absorbed daughters and wives and even a fallen woman. There are men of business who cannot agree on the management of the crisis; men of the cloth who cannot agree on the spiritual decisions that must be made; and men of science, who cannot agree on the treatment of cholera and  other diseases and injuries.  They are all forced to struggle for survival in the small, poorly stocked garrison and their hide-bound sense of superiority does not serve them well.