Voted by the good people of a Scottish village as their favourite of the Best of Booker shortlist, The Siege of Krishnapur is J.G. Farrell’s humorous take on the British Empire in India, 1860’s style.
After years of global supremacy, the age of Britain’s unrivalled Empire is coming to an end. The Indians are finding their voice, and a series of mutinies have broken out in small cantonments. Small and isolated, Krishnapur could be next. How do we know? Because chapattis have begun to appear all over the place, in collections of three. No-one knows exactly why, or what it means. But to the Collector, obsessed with the demonstration of human potential at the Great Exhibition, it spells disaster. It is an example of the new speed of communication between people hostile to British rule, their organisation, and impending threat.
First of all he is mocked. People whisper that senility is claiming him. But soon his fears are proved correct. And as the Sepoys close in on Krishnapur, the British are forced to retreat to the Collector’s residency and build their fortifications. But they are a ramshackle bunch of administrators, retired servicemen, women and children; against the organised enemy they stand no chance. So, with falling rations, awful sanitation, and no contact with the outside world, they set themselves to wait out the siege until someone comes to rescue them. Yet with resolute determination and imperial arrogance the soldiers just about manage to repel the attacks in their makeshift, stumbling sort of way. But as the months pass by, more and more is sacrificed to defend both the lives of the people living within the compound, and the British way of life itself. But if help doesn’t arrive soon, they are doomed.
The Siege of Krishnapur is witty, intelligent at interesting. There is a fascinating battle between the two doctors, one a quiet young Scottish physician; the other a superb orator, confident, learned, absolutely convinced of his methods. When an epidemic of cholera breaks out the two are brought into conflict for the hearts and minds of the people, and the validity of their scientific methods questioned. The people of Krishnapur take sides, following like sheep with wilful abandon, transforming their loyalties at the flick of a switch. They carry cards indicating which doctor they wish to treat them, and often these cards demonstrate that they have switched allegiances regularly. Old orators may rule the roost, but faced with life and death it is practical results which will judge who is correct.
And for the Collector there is an even greater test: will his treasured new technology be able to save their lives?
There is one great problem with this book, however. At no point in the plot did I really feel involved in the action. There are various characters and they are involved in some pretty hairy situations, but to be honest, I didn’t really care whether they survived or not. There is the Collector, who is reasonably interesting, a young lad named Fleury who is wet as a fish, a deluded and arrogant doctor, another quiet and reasonable doctor, a committed but out-of-touch reverend, and a bunch of other people with generic names such as The Magistrate. Half the time, I wasn’t even sure who was who! Many say this is a great, exciting novel. But to be honest, I found it pretty slow going. In my opinion it doesn’t matter whether a book is intelligent and witty, if it doesn’t have a narrative which compels you to read on, then it will never be the joy it should be.
That the people of the Scottish village rated this book is probably enough praise for you to buy and read it. And you will probably enjoy it. But in my opinion, The Siege of Krishnapur is not in the same league as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. It’s doesn’t even belong to the same universe.
6 out of 10