Should be a solid 4 star, except for those mind-numbingly dull chapters where Marlow ruminates about Jim's predicament on the Patna. He's like a drunk...moreShould be a solid 4 star, except for those mind-numbingly dull chapters where Marlow ruminates about Jim's predicament on the Patna. He's like a drunken uncle who won't go home long after the party's over. But the rest is just brilliant, though the prose could be pretty dense at times. It is also fascinating to see one's own country more than a century ago through the eyes of a Polish sea captain.(less)
Let’s cut to the chase: is it as good as the Sea of Poppies? The short answer is (regrettably) no. It is by no means badly written, but it simply does...more Let’s cut to the chase: is it as good as the Sea of Poppies? The short answer is (regrettably) no. It is by no means badly written, but it simply does not live up to the promise of its predecessor. Ghosh does a creditable job of telling us about life in the Thirteen Hongs during the interesting period that culminated in the First Opium War, and he chose a protagonist that is well-suited to the task of conveying the subcontinent’s perspective on the whole sordid affair --- but it somehow feels rather mechanical, as if he is merely following the dictates of history instead of creating his own vibrant, utterly believable version of a time long past (surely the test that anyone who dabbles in historical fiction must pass). He has obviously done his research: Pidgin English, the Chinese equivalent of the Anglo-Indian extensively employed in the first book; the Chinnery paintings; the surprising role of the Parsis in the British-led Opium trade; the Tanka boat people who eked out a living around the foreign merchant’s quarter in Canton; nearly verbatim quotes from historical figures who were involved in the war. These are well integrated, informative, and are never allowed to grow into overtly dominant historical voice-overs, yet something is missing from the story --- and it is not the history.(less)
The Siege of Krishnapur succeeds because Farrell let his colonial characters expose their own tragicomic ridiculousness with minimal intervention. Her...moreThe Siege of Krishnapur succeeds because Farrell let his colonial characters expose their own tragicomic ridiculousness with minimal intervention. Here, in the last novel of his Empire Trilogy, he was much more heavy-handed, resulting in several main characters that are outright caricatures. Walter Blackett, the head of the eponymous British trading firm that grew fat on the pre-war Malayan rubber boom, is the Evil Capitalist-Imperialist-Racist who bumbles through his public and private lives with all the tact and sensitivity of The Office’s Michael Scott. At one point early in the novel, Farrell made him do a Bond villain speech while giving an explanation (to an appalled British army officer) on how his firm managed to drive down the selling price of Burmese rice:
“ ’You see, the Chettyar money lenders in Burma, and to a lesser extent, here in Malaya, too, acted on the peasants like saddle-soap on leather. They softened them up for us. Of course, some of the Chetties became rivals in the milling of crops but that couldn’t be helped. Without them to get the peasants used to dealing in cash (which, of course, in practice meant tricking them into debts they would have to pay up) rather than in barter of produce the merchants would have been all in the poorhouse, including Mr. Webb. One bad crop with forward contracts to fill!’ ”
Walter even has porcine bristles on his back, which “had a tendency to rise when he was angry and sometimes, even, in moments of conjugal intimacy.”
The other main character, Matthew Webb, the son of Blackett’s partner who comes to Malaya to inherit his father’s interest in the firm, is another caricature. Fat, bespectacled, a naïve idealist fresh from a League of Nations job in Geneva, he is the Pierre Bezukhov of the novel, full of lofty ethical notions entirely at odds with Blackett and Webb’s business practices (the book’s polemics on colonial economic policies are conducted largely through these two characters). Yet unlike Tolstoy’s lovable, redeemable dork, he is little more than an annoyingly passive windbag and his character’s naïve idealism is never tested in any meaningful way. He is so inconsequential that Farrell’s attempt in embroiling him in a love triangle reminiscent of the one in War and Peace falls flat on its face. The Prince Andrei character, the American officer Ehrendorf, seemed to be promising, but is then summarily dispatched without much ado once his usefulness as romantic foil is used up. The Helene Kuragin proxy, Walter’s pretty daughter Joan, is just as vacuously farcical and unbelievable as her father. The weakness of the central characters makes long stretches of this 700 plus pages novel (another Tolstoyan emulation?) quite dull indeed. Which is a pity, since Farrell had obviously done his homework and was perfectly capable of conjuring a plausible, grittily exotic version of pre-war Singapore replete with amusing, well-drawn colonial supporting characters.
“There, too, when you staggered outside into the sweltering night, you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of money and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood and heaven knows what, a perfume like the breath of life itself.” (less)