Context: Read this while we took in a marvellous cream tea in the most idyllic tea garden in Selworthy, Somerset.
Back in early 1995, I was walking up a path in the Himalayan foothills with an Indian friend. I mentioned that I’d recently read Christopher Hibbert’s fantastic book The Great Mutiny: India 1857 and asked him what his perspective on the Indian Mutiny was. “Oh,” he replied coolly, “You mean the First War of Independence.” I’ve never forgotten that lesson in historical perspective. Farrell gives us another lesson with this remarkable novel.
Farrell’s written a great book here. It deals with the human condition so very well against a startlingly vivid backdrop through a medium of wit, irony and deep insight. It seems a very worthy winner of the Booker. I enjoyed it immensely and found it a much more satisfying read than The Singapore Grip.
It’s the characterisation that makes Siege an improvement on Grip, principal among the nameless Collector who oversees a residency under siege. He is rendered exceedingly well as a man whose religion of rational culturalism is, as we know from our perspective, doomed. Farrell tells the story with pathos, wit and with some wonderfully ironic passages scattered with healthy doses of cynicism.
To illustrate this, take The Collector’s pride and joy: his hoard of cultural artifacts brought over at great expense from Europe in the hopes that some of their beauty will rub off on the natives and thus raise them from their morass. In desperation however, The Collector ends up ordering them to be used either as shot for the cannon or to shore up the earthen ramparts. In other words, he uses his art to either kill the natives or to hide behind. Fantastic imagery.
There are some great passages about religious and scientific discussions of the day which, as they would have done in reality, polarise the community under siege. Towards the end, the two doctors end up at loggerheads over how to treat cholera and throughout the Padre demonstrates the inanities of religion in various forms. Hardly anything isn’t dealt with: religion, sexuality, culture, science, civilisation, relationships… Farrell weaves them all in seamlessly. I’m very glad I read it.
Anyone who has never before visited Krishnapur, and who approaches from the east, is likely to think he has reached the end of his journey a few miles sooner than expected.
Perhaps, by the very end of his life, in 1880, he had come to believe that a people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge.