The Siege of Krishnapur


I finally finished JG Farrell‘s The Siege of Krishnapur. It’s the sixth Man Booker Prize Winner, Farrell’s second, and it’s taken me an age to complete.

The second of Farrell’s Empire Trilogy tells the fictional tale of a 4-month long siege, with the Indian-born members of the British army rebelling against their colonial overlords. The story focusses on the plight of a number of expat residents, gradually being forced to live under increasingly squalid conditions.

Having  read both this and his earlier novel, Troubles, it’s clear that Farrell was an exceptional writing talent. Krishnapur is a piece of work that, in the end, I enjoyed very much.

That said, it took me a while to get into, largely because I felt quite unsympathetic towards most of the protagonists. Gradually, though, characters like the Collector, the Magistrate, Fleury and the Dunstaples seemed to become parodies of the stiff-upper-lip Brit that no-one likes, to the extent that this harrowing tale was engaging and, at times, very funny indeed.

From the outset, Farrell shows most of his characters at their pompous worst, as they look down upon woman, Indians and anyone deemed not to be part of their “superior culture”.

Harry listened to her in frank disbelief. Girls had a habit, he knew, of distressing themselves over things which did not exist. It was something to do with their wombs, so a fellow-officer had once told him. No doubt Louise was suffering from this womb-anxiety, then.

But as the book progresses, a transformation occurs and they each become more likeable, and more human. Those that survive find that their health deteriorates quite dramatically, but they become hardened battlers, relying upon each other and finding a role to play in their survival.

The Residency that is their shelter during this period reflects their physical and mental well-being, and towards the end, these previously wealthy, upper-class characters are losing teeth, eating horse or dog meat, drastically losing weight, and generally falling apart.

Her cotton dress was rent almost from the armpit to the hem and as she leaned forward to bring a saucer of water to the lips of a wounded man, the Collector glimpsed three polished ribs and the shrunken globe of her breast.

It took me a while to get going with this, and I almost want to pick it up again and re-read at least the first half. I don’t think it’s as good as Troubles, but it’s a superb read, and I’m already looking forward to Farrell’s third Booker Prize entry, the closing book of the Empire trilogy, The Singapore Grip.

It seems that some kind of radio play exists of this. If anyone finds it, let me know.

Man Booker Prize Top 5

  1. Troubles
  2. The Elected Member
  3. The Siege of Krishnapur
  4. Something to Answer For
  5. G


I started my previous Man Booker Prize review by stating that V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State was, at that point, my least favourite. I’ve now read the first 5 winners, and this recent entry is fighting it out for 4th place.

John Berger’s G. is a difficult read. I’m glad I struggled through it, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll revisit, and I can’t say that I’d recommend it to anyone.

G. (or, Giovanni) is an unlikeable character, making his way around Europe in the early part of the 20th Century, bedding women, breaking-up relationships and generally upsetting most of those with whom he comes into contact. He is a serial, touring shagger.

The Don Juan-style escapade is bookended by outbreaks of civil disobedience, and there are threats of violence and injury throughout. But that threat never engages, because the writing is so cold, so emotionless; the language itself being used as a metaphor for G.’s sexual conquests.

Occasionally, Berger’s style is so opaque it feels like it’s masking plot; there are several long paragraphs that describe minute aspects of the story in such detail, that I wanted to close my eyes and fend off an impending headache.

At other times, though, his writing is witty and very quotable.

Chavez has the impression that he is about to enter the jaws of an animal whose passages and gullet and stomach and arse are made of solid rock, an animal whose digestion is geological.

But I draw the line at the way he wrote pretty much all of the sex scenes. If Literary Review magazine held its annual Bad Sex in Fiction award in the early 70s, John Berger would surely have been a contender.

It occurs to him that the very form of the vagina, which he had always assumed was as it was in virtue of his function, has in fact evolved to meet the exigencies of the outward journey of a third person. He is reluctant to withdraw his finger.

And then there is this surreal image:

Her cunt begins at her toes; her breasts are inside it, and her eyes too; it has enfolded her.

It enfolds him.

The ease.

Next up is JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. If it’s as good as his previous novel, Troubles, then I’m in for a treat.

Speaking of which, here are my top 5 Man Booker Prize winning novels, so far.

  1. Troubles
  2. The Elected Member
  3. Something to Answer For (no review)
  4. G.
  5. In a Free State


In a Free State

V.S. Naipaul’s 1971 novel, In a Free State is my least favourite Booker Prize winner, so far. I didn’t hate it, but I was almost two-thirds of the way through the tale before it began to engage at all, and that’s not a good sign.

It’s a depressing read, full of unlikeable characters, and is based in a country viewed by, and narrated through, the eyes of people who have very little love for Africa or its people.

They say there’s good and bad everywhere. There’s no good and bad here. They’re just Africans. They do what they have to do. That’s what you have to tell yourself. You can’t hate them. You can’t even get angry with them.

Bobby and Linda are our protaganists; two people who dislike each other and with whom it is subsequently very hard to spend time. Their road-trip is the basis for the novel, and it takes place in an Africa set to rebel against its Empirical Imperial overlords. From the start of their journey, homeward bound after their visit to a corporate conference, In a Free State describes their torrid relationship, and the countryside through which they travel.

He needed to be calmer. Acknowledging the need, he became calmer.

It does both successfully, and it’s not without its positive aspects. At times, Naipaul’s prose is a pleasure to read, but, much like Bobby and Linda, it wasn’t enough to get me to the Collectorate with a smile on my face.


JG Farrell’s Troubles is the third Man Booker Prize winner, although technically, it was only awarded in 2010, as the Lost Man Booker Prize.

It may be four decades overdue, but at least JG Farrell’s Lost Booker triumph will bring his work of genius to the wider audience it deserves. Guardian, May 2010

“Work of genius” can be overused, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone claiming that Farrell’s debut novel falls into this category. It has the feeling of a classic; a darkly comic classic that I’m sure I’ll revisit.

Set in and around the hotel Majestic in the town of Kilnalough, Ireland, Troubles doesn’t focus solely on the political upheaval of the time, but the repercussions of World War I, and the Easter Rising of 1916 are key.

The book opens with Major Brendan Foster making his way to Ireland, planning to marry his fiancée. On his arrival, he has to deal with death, marriage, sectarianism, madness, murder, and a seemingly endless number of old ladies, all while the hotel he might have expected to inherit (and much more besides) crumbles around him. In short, his World starts falling apart, acutely mirroring the sanity of those around him, as well as the political state of the country in which this book is set.

Troubles is fantastic, and certainly the best of the three Booker Prize winners I’ve read so far. It’s the first of Farrell’s Empire trilogy, and I’ll be revisiting his work shortly, as number 2 in the series won 1973’s award.

The Elected Member

‘Norman, forgive me,’ he said. ‘Forgive. Is all my fault.’ He opened his eyes again and he saw what he was leaving. Two sad unmarried daughters, one with her earnest scheitel, and in another room, his broken son. ‘I failed,’ he muttered. ‘Forgive.’

I’m on book two of my challenge to read each of the 49 (so far) Man Booker Prize winners. I’m attempting them in order, starting with PH Newby’s Something to Answer For, and recently completing Bernice Ruben’s The Elected Member.

If the first book was a disappointment (and it was), then this second one was a much more enjoyable read.

Reminding me in parts of a John Irving book (broken families, incestuous relationships) and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (madness, mental institution), The Elected Member is the story of the once brilliant lawyer Norman Kweck, and his drug-addled downfall. Of course, his fall from glory doesn’t just affect him, and throughout we learn of the damage he has inflicted upon his mother, father and sisters.

I would definitely recommend this one, even if it gets a wee bit too religious for my tastes towards the end.