You know those books that you think you know even before you read them. Those books that seem to strike those happy chords in your heart and call out to be your bosom buddies based on nothing more than an impression of their cover? That's how Krishnapur
and I were for those months it sat on my shelf before I got around to it. Yet when I recently got around to actually cracking the spine on this Booker winner, I found that I had no clue what I was in store for.
Rather than a brutal retelling of colonial history, of the harsh realities of life under the British yoke, this was more of a look at the psychology of imperialism- of the justifications that the Brits (and currently the Americans in Iraq) threw up in order to shield themselves from the guilt of their repression of the indigenous peoples. These excuses range from the glory of spreading Christianity among the dark heathens, to developing a better understanding of the pseudoscience of phrenology, to the bringing of rational science to a people who would rather sacrifice a goat than build their dikes higher and prevent flooding. That Ballard can compose such a story while avoiding having any actual native characters (aside from the faceless masses waiting to storm the building that forms the titular Siege
) is a tribute to his skill as a writer. Better than anything, Ballard drives home just how banal this evil was and how unwittingly it was perpetrated upon their Indian subjects in the name of progress.
The time is the early 1860s, the setting is a fictional cantonment in a Hindustan still ruled by the East India Company. The Indian army is in revolt because the new bullets they were issued are greased in animal fat to allow for easier loading. The military can not understand why this is upsetting for their Hindi soldiers, because loading the weapons entails using ones teeth which is a violation of their vegetarian ways. So the sepoys (Indian soldiers) revolt and trap the Brits in the local government headquarters and begin a months-long siege.
Over the next several hundred pages, Farrell unravels the various foibles of these ladies and gentlemen, who have relied for so long on their servants for everything that they can't even fathom a reality where they must do their own work. Things swiftly devolve into a miasma that reminds me of nothing so much as Pride & Prejudice
with Lord of the Flies
(which is fitting, given the recent popularity of Austen adaptations such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
or Pride & Predator
Farrell's style is long-winded and occasionally a bit too pedantic to allow me to give it that ever-elusive fifth star, but the stunningly complex characters that he weaves together into an increasingly chaotic rabble all, at one point or another, manage to get you invested in their continued survival. It's odd to see that, no matter how willfully blind they are to the native's complaints or how unconsciously racist these people are, I still care about whether they survive to return to England and feast upon the Queen's crumpets or whatever it is that Brits do in their spare time (I imagine that it has something to do with dog's bollocks).