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Empire Trilogy #2

The Siege of Krishnapur

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India, 1857--the year of the Great Mutiny, when Muslim soldiers turned in bloody rebellion on their British overlords. This time of convulsion is the subject of J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, widely considered one of the finest British novels of the last fifty years.

Farrell's story is set in an isolated Victorian outpost on the subcontinent. Rumors of strife filter in from afar, and yet the members of the colonial community remain confident of their military and, above all, moral superiority. But when they find themselves under actual siege, the true character of their dominion--at once brutal, blundering, and wistful--is soon revealed.

The Siege of Krishnapur is a companion to Troubles, about the Easter 1916 rebellion in Ireland, and The Singapore Grip, which takes place just before World War II, as the sun begins to set upon the British Empire. Together these three novels offer an unequaled picture of the follies of empire.

Winner of the Booker Prize.

344 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1973

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About the author

J.G. Farrell

13 books163 followers
James Gordon Farrell, known as J.G. Farrell, was a Liverpool-born novelist of Irish descent. Farrell gained prominence for his historical fiction, most notably his Empire Trilogy (Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip), dealing with the political and human consequences of British colonial rule. The Siege of Krishnapur won the 1973 Booker Prize. On 19 May 2010 it was announced that Troubles had won the Lost Man Booker Prize, which was a prize created to recognize works published in 1970 (a group that had not previously been open for consideration due to a change in the eligibility rules at the time).

Farrell's career was cut short when he was drowned off the coast of Ireland at the age of 44.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 678 reviews
Profile Image for Matt.
918 reviews28.2k followers
July 18, 2021
“Now that the sky had lightened one could distinguish silhouettes against it; for an instant it had seemed that a strong breeze was blowing through the melon-beds and setting them on the march, but the day’s wind had not yet risen. Hardly had Fleury spoken when the rim of darkness beneath the horizon began to sparkle like a firework and immediately the air about them began to sing and howl with flying metal and chips of masonry…then in a wave came the sound. Daubs of orange hopped at regular intervals from one end of the rim of darkness to the other. Suddenly, a shrapnel shell landed on the corner of the verandah, and all was chaos. Harry had been on the point of giving the order to fire but he had been plucked from Fleury’s side and was groveling somewhere in the darkness…”
- J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur

Reading J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur is a good reminder that humor can be an extremely effective way of delivering a lesson or making a point. Sometimes, in fact, it can be the best way, because you find your way to the conclusion without even trying.

Set in India, Farrell’s classic – it is the second book in his famed “Empire Trilogy” – takes on incredibly serious themes, specifically colonialism and imperialism. But instead of a moralizing lecture, he wraps his critique in several layers of entertainment. This is a deconstruction, a farce, and an inverted comedy of manners, all masquerading as an adventure tale. It is among the more tonally inconsistent books I’ve read – rapidly veering from seriousness to satire, from the silly to the sublime – and works all the better because of it.

The animating event of The Siege of Krishnapur is the uprising of 1857, known variously as the Indian Mutiny, the Indian Rebellion, and the First War of Independence. Whatever it is called, it was an extremely violent affair, marked by sieges, battles, and massacres.

At the time, large parts of India were ruled by the British East India Company, which had its own army overwhelmingly made up of Indian soldiers. When this army shifted over to the more-modern Enfield rifle, it required a new type of sealed – or greased – cartridge. Unfortunately, word spread that the greasing had been accomplished by rendering cow and pig fat. Because the cartridges needed to be torn off at the mouth during the loading process, Indian soldiers – both Hindu and Muslim – had religious objections to using them.

In reality, the improperly-greased cartridges were merely a tipping point for a whole host of other grievances, chief among them the fact that the lives of many Indians were governed by a foreign corporation that existed for the private gain of its shareholders.

These complaints culminated in Indian soldiers turning on their British officers, creating a rebellion that flared all across India. Thousands of British subjects were killed, including noncombatant women and children. In reprisal, tens of thousands of Indians were killed, some in direct acts of vengeance (many mutineers being shot from cannons), others from the resulting famine and disease. Suffice to say, it was a traumatic upheaval.

Though knowledge of the historical background is not necessary to enjoy this, it is certainly helpful. Farrell assumes that his readers are familiar with the uprising, and does not bother to fill in much by way of backstory. Indeed, The Siege of Krishnapur is actually a modern take on a once-popular genre known as the “mutiny novel,” by which 19th century Britons tried to process their drubbing through the lens of fiction.

The Siege of Krishnapur takes place in a fictional town but borrows heavily from the real-life events at Lucknow. When the novel opens, tensions are already at the boiling point. Chapatis – an unleavened flat bread – have mysteriously begun appearing in surrounding villages, an apparent signal to revolt. Meanwhile, word of a deadly insurrection in Meerut has begun to filter in from the countryside. Despite the warning signs, most of the British residents of Krishnapur carry on as normal.

Moving at a deliberate pace (it takes about a hundred pages for the siege to start), Farrell introduces us to a sprawling host of characters, many referred to mainly by their job titles, such as the Collector and the Magistrate. Utilizing an omniscient third-person point-of-view, Farrell allows us to get inside almost all their heads. It is a matter of debate whether this is a good or bad thing.

A persistent observation of The Siege of Krishnapur is that Farrell paints his British characters very broadly, almost parodically. This is largely true. One of the chief protagonists, for instance, is George Fleury, a pompous young man who has come to India to write a book about the advancement of civilization. He is constantly monologuing about his philosophical beliefs, clumsily alienates those around him, and spends his first battle daydreaming of how he will pose for his daguerreotype. Fleury is often trailed by the Padre, a stereotypical religious zealot who will never let an argument drop, even as the cannonballs fly. The Padre’s shrill rantings were among my least favorite parts of the book.

Even minor characters are lampooned mercilessly. The Magistrate, for example, likes to savage the amateur poetry of the town’s women, and is also creepily obsessed with phrenology. Meanwhile, Lucy – a “fallen woman” seduced and abandoned by a cad – spends the siege in theatrical self-flagellation, which proves irresistible to certain men of the post.

Though these people are often absurd, their interactions can be quite hilarious. I especially liked the ongoing debate between two doctors, one English, one Scottish, about the proper treatment of cholera. Their arguments over miasma versus germ theory is gross, funny, and surreal. It lasts so long that I got really irritated; and then it lasted longer, becoming amusing again. Even darker is an interlude in which the Padre and a Catholic priest argue about the proper cemetery in which to bury three shrouded corpses.

As comical as it can be, I felt that the burlesque nature of the characters threatened The Siege of Krishnapur’s integrity. After all, these are the same people whose lives and deaths we are supposed to care about. If they are simply caricatures, then the outcome of the siege – whether it be life or death – does not matter.

Fortunately, Farrell provided enough grace notes to keep me invested. The Collector, for example, initially comes across as a genial doofus. Throughout the siege, however, his leadership holds things together, even as his prized belief in the Victorian ideals of progress are steadily eroded. Then there is Harry, who first appears on page as the formulaic English soldier-martinet: pompous, racially insensitive, and entirely undeserving of his self-confidence. Yet once the siege begins, Farrell depicts him as a highly-professional warrior, calmly engaging in complex mathematical formulas while aiming his cannon.

As you might have noticed, all the people I’ve mentioned are British. That’s because – with a single exception – Farrell tells this story solely from that perspective. In the introduction, the writer Pankaj Mishra speculates that Farrell simply didn’t feel comfortable attempting to inhabit an Indian character. Whether or not that is true, this authorial decision is not fatal. To the contrary, I thought it reinforced the overall thrust of the novel, which is that the British were clueless, overbearing, self-deluded masters. The Indians in The Siege of Krishnapur are vaguely defined “others” because that is how the British saw them.

Somewhat surprisingly – for a book that traffics heavily in black humor and low-grade mockery – I found the battle scenes to be tense and well-executed. I often sensed that Farrell did not care about his literary creations. Intentionally or not, this indifference gave me the impression that anyone could die at any time, thereby heightening the tension. Furthermore, even if the men and women of Krishnapur occasionally felt fake, the violence is very real, and incredibly graphic. Beyond the bullets and swords, there are also grisly depictions of scurvy, cholera, and the early stages of starvation.

Also worth noting is the atmosphere. Farrell vividly describes the enervating heat, the monsoon-like rains, and the occasional insect infestations (one of the more memorable scenes involves a swarm of flies). He puts you right there on the front lines, in the mud and humidity, watching the glutted jackals feasting on corpses, with the smell of dead horses rotting beneath the sun. His evocation of the breakdown of Britain’s strict social hierarchy as the siege wears on is also forensic in its detail.

Historical fiction should never be read as a substitute for history. At its best, though, it is a perfect complement. Recently, I’ve read several good books about the Indian Rebellion, but even the best nonfiction can only take you so far, held back by incomplete documentary records and the need for objectivity. A book like The Siege of Krishnapur succeeds by using a historical framework to tell you not only how an event might have felt to the participants, but to make a pointed commentary about what it meant to the larger world.
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,423 reviews3,376 followers
November 8, 2019
The Siege of Krishnapur is a dark page in the colonial history… And very inventively and cunningly J.G. Farrell manages to turn his tale into a clash of idealism and materialism…
What you and I object to is the emptiness of the life behind all these objects, their materialism in other words. Objects are useless by themselves. How pathetic they are compared with noble feelings! What a poor and limited world they reveal beside the world of the eternal soul!

The ideal and material worlds are in the state of constant collision… Consequently, riots and rebellions are manifestations of this everlasting conflict…
“Oh Louise,” he exclaimed, “that is why it’s so important that we bring to India a civilization of the heart, and not only to India but to the whole world… rather than this sordid materialism. Only then will we have a chance of living together in harmony. Will there even be classes and races on that golden day in the future? No! For we shall all be brothers working not to take advantage of each other but for each other’s good!”

God placed Adam and Eve in the paradise offering them an ideal existence in an ideal world… And the Serpent seduced them to eat a forbidden fruit so they would know the temptations of a material world…
And J.G. Farrell is capable to portray even the darkest moments of the story without losing his sharp and intelligent irony…
They were glad of prayers. They felt that the more prayers they heard the better. But they became a little impatient as the Padre rambled on about Sin. What he said was true, no doubt, but they had the enemy to think of… It was rather like having someone keep asking you the time when your house is on fire. They found it hard to give him their whole attention.

However high may one’s ideals be but without material things, one just will die…
“All our actions and intentions are futile unless animated by warmth of feeling. Without love everything is a desert. Even Justice, Science, and Respectability.”

Only the equilibrium of the ideal and the material can bring harmony.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 2 books1,340 followers
August 17, 2017
Fascinating look at what empire means, in its moral decay, as the "happy native" ideal begins to be stripped away and Britain is faced with violence in India--all told with biting humor and incisive prose. This is the middle book of a loose trilogy, beginning with Troubles (which I loved) and The Singapore Grip (which I've yet to read).
Profile Image for William2.
745 reviews2,960 followers
December 13, 2016
A fictionalized account of the Indian Mutiny (1857), as the British call it, or the First War of Independence, as it's known in India. I agree with my GR friend Mark Monday who felt there was insufficient adventure here. We don't get any great battlefield set pieces, or much in the line of guerrilla warfare either. Instead, the story focuses on a relatively small group of twenty or so British subjects within the government compound of Lucknow, disguised here as Krishnapur, and how they fend off the attacking Muslim sepoys until relieved by their fellow occupying nationals.

The book is a pleasure read. I understand Farrell wanted to emphasize the claustrophobic isolation of the Residency, and how that strain told over time on the ever-thinning inhabitants. But to do that he felt he had to ignore the native POV, and that was something I missed keenly as a reader. Granted, the book is what it is. I don't want to say that Farrell should have written some other book.

The novel is anti-colonial in the best sense, not at all in a hectoring or strident fashion. Author Farrell shows us why the imperialist mindset was wrong from the start by way of so many actions and images. One being the materialist-spiritualist dichotomy which is an ongoing theme throughout the novel. The Great Exhibition of 1851 serves as the embodiment of the materialist side. We know the tide has turned against expansionist imperialism when the Collector, earlier such a great fan of the Exhibition, comes to the conclusion that
He, too, [had] suffered from an occasionally enlightening vision which came to him from the dim past and which he must have suppressed at the time . . . The extraordinary array of chains and fetters, manacles and shackles exhibited by Birmingham for export to America's slave states, for instance . . . Why had he not thought more about such exhibits? Well, he had never pretended that science and industry were good in themselves, of course . . . They still had to be used correctly. All the same he should have thought a great deal more about what lay behind the exhibits.

Of course, the view that science was and is good in itself was exactly the view that the Collector espoused before the siege opened his eyes. Recommended for all, but especially lovers of the historical novel.
Profile Image for Jibran.
224 reviews656 followers
July 26, 2015
We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us....but what if we are a mere after-glow of them?

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it was the first prominent novel, when it came out back in the 70s, that poked fun at the raison d’être of British rule in India; maybe it was a pioneering attempt by a [British] writer to show the absurdity of colonial superiority by laying bare its own inner inconsistencies through well-crafted British characters battling their own civilisational demons; and maybe it was the first of its kind when a writer penned something about the Raj without stooping down to the level of a twinkle-eyed romantic suffering from nostalgic cramps for the lost "Jewel in the Crown."

To this end Farrell is quite successful. This is whence all rating stars come. Through the drama that unveils during the long summer months of siege at the Krishnapur Residency, the confined British officials and civilians come to a slow and painful realisation of the fragile state of their own civilisation they in their hauteur thought was invincible. Primary among them is the Collector who sees the futility of the great advance of science and art when, for the sake of survival, he is forced to use artifacts as cannon fodder when ammunition runs out; Drs Dunstaple and McNab, who were proud of the superiority of modern medicine, get into a bitter conflict when they fail to agree on the most appropriate treatment for the epidemic of cholera amongst the besieged; the ladies eyeing one another in disgust when they are put together into one big hall in complete disregard for their social rank; through the figure of the cynical Padre who, instead of providing a moral-religious support, sweats over inconsequential doctrinal debate going on in Germany – a superior civilisation shown rattling at its base when for once they were forced to confront the tragedy of life at point blank. Yet despite this there is stubborn refusal to admit to the real reasons of the Rebellion. It is ingratitude – worse, indifference - on the part of the native towards the fruits of ‘civilisation’

…the collector was overcome by a feeling of helplessness. He realized that there was a whole way of life of the people in India which he could never get to know and which was totally indifferent to him and his concerns. ‘The Company could pack up tomorrow and this fellow would never notice…And not only him…The British could leave and half India wouldn’t notice us leaving just as they didn’t notice us arriving. All our reforms of administration might be reforms on the moon for all it has to do with them.’

Irony is very well done but other than that, though it carries some flashes of fine writing, as all prominent novels do, it’s lacking in style. It is also lacking in interesting drama which a story set amid such an animated year of history shouldn’t have to be said about; and there are stretches of flat and uninteresting prose that, well, just didn’t do it for me.

This novel is described as a fictional account of the War of Independence / Sepoy Mutiny / Rebellion / What-You-Call-It of 1857. The reading of the novel makes it hard to justify this descriptor without qualified comment. Yes, it’s set around that episode of Indian-British history but the scope of the historical setting is so limited as to fit in a preface; what follows after that bears little resemblance to that momentous year. Which is to say it does not make you feel you’re really reading about 1857 but a long-winded random tale of heroic defence put up by a bunch of brave Brits against odds, against an army of anonymous native shadows.

My edition is 375 pages long. One would think in a novel of this size there was ample space for the inclusion of native point of view, a few characters who could be portrayed talking, walking and brooding like their British counterparts, even if to enrich the story if not to actually represent their point of view. But there is none of that save a half-baked caricature of a lowly crownless ‘prince’, named Hari and his mannequin-like ‘prime minister’. This Hari has had elementary British education, speaks ungrammatical English, and has taken to amassing bric-a-brac of art in imitation of the British masters. He is a dimwit and a lecher – two traits of the Indian character British chroniclers of that time didn’t tire of recording. Oh and there are three more natives who are mentioned more than once – all three serving the Company Bahadur faithfully during the siege, sharing its travails and just being true to their salt. They are Ram, Muhammad, and a burly Sikh named Hookum Singh (no Nanak Singh unfortunately) – and they don’t utter a word throughout the story, just follow orders. How convenient!

The Collector, the official in charge of the British administration in the fictional Krishnapur, gets a timely vision of their eventual success. Consider this symbol of the native seeking liberty:

Suddenly, a shadow swooped at him out of a thin grove of peepul trees he was passing through. He raised a hand to defend himself as something tried to claw and bite him, then swooped away again. In the twilight he saw two green pebbles gazing down at him from beneath a sailor cap. It was the pet monkey he had seen before in the shadow of the Church; the animal had managed to bite and tear itself free of its jacket but the sailor hat had defied all its efforts. Again and again, in a frenzy of irritation it had clutched at that hat on which was written "HMS John Company" . . . but it had remained in place. The string beneath its jaw was too strong.

Maybe it’s just me.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,452 followers
December 28, 2016
I am seeing stuff about this novel which says like “I read a paragraph and fell asleep for 48 hours, this is one boring book”, or “I read a page of this, it took a fortnight, this is the opposite of fun”. But I don’t get that, they are saying that no shit is happening in this book but it’s about a siege man so you can bet shit is happening, there is cholera and legs off and piles of bodies and mangy dogs that will eat other dogs and people get boils a lot, I didn’t know that was such a big thing in a siege. So as opposed to this book being boring I say that this book could be a damn video game, it’s laid out like one, you got all these British types with a leader and some fearless warriors and you got this army of faceless sepoys (= Indian soldiers) which could be orcs or name your favourite faceless horde who are attacking the small number of brave white people (so unfairly) and your task is to get the white people to shoot all the black people before the black people rape and murder them all. Okay to put it like that might could sound a bit racist but this is about 1857 which was a very racist year, more racist than now.

Well, I hope it’s better now, cause we have got 150 more years of getting enlightened, right? So it’s got to be better now. So I guess you could compare this Krishnapur siege with a real life siege going on today which would be like Mosul or Aleppo in Syria but it’s hard to compare because there are a lot more people getting killed because everybody has got a whole lot more bombs and guns and ammo and it’s not mostly white against mostly non white and also the non white people are inside the city and the white people are outside so it’s kind of the opposite but still you can find some white people bombing some Syrian people (check out those headlines “85 Dead after American Air Strike Mistake” 20 July 2016). Well I see I drifted off there but a novel like this does make you wonder. In this book the Brits in imperial India are awfully sniffy about the poor ignorant masses of Indians and so hoity toity it’s hard not to root for the sepoys when the shit starts to go down.

These sepoys, right, they had a beef (ha ha, joke) with the English which was that the English had muscled into their country and just took it over. I mean, that's just wrong, right. So you can see that things are much more enlightened now, where the last recent wars the west has had with the east, which was Iraq and Afghanistan, was to muscle into their countries and take them over. Okay, wait, there was a big difference, they just threw out one lot of rulers and put in their own lot and then they more or less left. So, you know, I think that is better. We in the west are learning!

Okay so this book is full of eccentric English types and acts of courage by brave English types fresh out of Eton whose arms get blown off and then they get maggots in their goolies because it's India, and naturally there are one or two eccentric Indian types, but absolutely zero brave Indian types, that’s because the book is mirroring the mind set of the time. Things have improved since then. Now our newspapers fairly report bravery and courage by both sides in this complicated war in Syria where some Syrians are our allies. Well you might think they would, only I never saw any of that. The only Syrians I see these days are your hapless refugee types who are glad of a packet of dried soup handed to them by a well meaning government sponsored white person or the incorrigible dastardly bad types who boil people alive and are causing all these problems.
Well I hope I am not coming across as bitter or cynical here. I know there’s been progress and that everything’s so much better than it was in 1857. But probably we are just going through a period when it’s not so easy to see that.


Hmm well that is not such a straight forward question. J G Farrell can write real smooth and wry stuff, and his novel Troubles is a big favourite. This one I sort of thought I’d seen before kind of. He had his black humour going all day long here – I will quote a couple of examples :

Without soap all her efforts to render herself odourless had proved in vain… her only comfort was that she smelled less than many of the other ladies of her own class and, of course, than all those of the classes beneath her.

And he likes to skewer the standard grotesque sexism of the day :

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 has once told him.

I believe this is a 3.5 star novel, because after a while you are quite anxious that the sepoys kill all the idiot Brits and it kind of drags on and on – hey, just like a real siege does, I see what he did there. But he does know his stuff and he’s amusing, and if this is really shooting fish in a barrel, which it is, he’s a dead shot.

Profile Image for Dmitri.
191 reviews136 followers
November 4, 2022
"In the decades before the mutiny the officials of the East India Company had radically disrupted India's old social and economic order. They forced skilled artisans and craftsmen to become petty commodity producers, while turning India from an exporter of high quality luxury items into a supplier of raw materials for the Industrial Revolution in England." - Introduction by Pankaj Mishra

"Civilization, as it is now, denatures man. Think of the mills and the furnaces. Everyone I talk to in Calcutta tells me to look at this or that, a canal that has been dug or some cruel practice like infanticide or suttee which has been stopped. These are certainly improvements but only of the symptoms. Although the symptoms are there the disease is missing."

"There was a figure of a small fat man with a black face and six arms. His eyes were white and he appeared to be looking with malice and amusement. One of his arms held a trident, another a sword, another flourished a severed arm, a fourth held a bowl, the fifth a handful of skulls by the hair. A sixth hand held up three middle fingers. People left food in the bowl and daubed his lips with crimson, as if with blood."

"The angle of the light gave life to the brutish expression of Ignorance at the moment of being disembowelled by Truth's sabre, and yet emphasized at the same time how Prejudice, throwing a net over Truth, became enmeshed in its toils."


J. G. Farrell opens this 1973 historical novel in 1857, on the eve of the Indian Rebellion, as native soldiers arise against their colonial masters. It is set in the imagined outpost of Krishnapur, near actual battles and sieges in Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow and across the Ganges plain. The cast is comprised of East India Company employees and follows a Victorian genre of literature on the mutiny. A century of distance from the events affords the author a starkly different perspective.

The Collector, a taxation official, has taken over Residency affairs as the Magistrate is ill. He is a believer in progress and the British civilizing mission; railroads, telegraphs and Christ. The Magistrate, a freethinker, is an aficionado of phrenology and an atheist. George, the addled son of the Director, and his widowed sister Miriam arrive from Britain. He is smitten by Louise, Residency debutant and daughter of the Doctor. Her brother Harry is an officer in the regiment.

Warning signs at the Residency and in the region lead the Collector to suspect an insurrection and fortify the grounds. Sepoy soldiers set fire to barracks, in protest of pig or cow grease used on gun cartridges. As they await their fate the Agent, an exporter of opium, defines progress in terms of material gains. The Padre, an importer of religion, proposes spiritual ones. Louise ignores George, preferring to flirt with the officers. Massacres in Meerut and Delhi were to follow.

George meets Hari, the son of a local Maharaja educated in England. Unimpressed by his knowledge or wealth, George discounts his achievements. Hari presses him, until George suggests an emptiness in both their cultures. Hari concludes George is 'a most backward man'. After an attack on British officers, the Residency is overwhelmed by colonial refugees fleeing the countryside. Harry, taking command of ramparts on the river, polishes his brass cannon anticipating a fight.

It is apparent some blame for the revolt is due to missionary activity. Native converts seek refuge in the Residency but are turned away. The Padre cries from his pulpit denouncing a lapse in faith. Louise rescues Lucy, a fallen woman, from the town. Once seduced by an officer she is now a magnet to the besieged men. Hari had tried to lead the Maharaja's army to relieve the Residency but finds himself trapped inside with foreigners. Looting and arson mark the start of the siege.

When ammo runs out heads of Johnson, Moliere, Voltaire, Keats and Shakespeare are removed from statues and used as cannon balls against the attacking sepoys. Dead bodies piled beyond the wall feed jackals as starvation and disease take hold. During the siege petty rivalries and vanities persist but abilities are realized in the face of adversity. Violence adds a tragic aspect to the dark comedy. A terrible retribution would one day be at hand in the aftermath of the Indian betrayal.

Dusty British ghost towns and neglected cemeteries evoke the loss of empire after independence in 1947. The rebellion in 1857 had ended Company rule and land was passed to the Crown. Farrell traveled to locations in Calcutta and along the Ganges watershed to prepare for this book. There is a sense of authenticity. The story focuses on the British; Indians are seen primarily as shadowy servants or sepoy rebels. They stand in startling contrast to a pretentious alien culture.

Pankaj Mishra, Indian writer and essayist, provides a concise overview of the historical context and literary analysis. J.G. Farrell won the Booker Prize for this and another novel in his 'Empire' trilogy about Ireland. A third was concerning Singapore. He was an Irish-Anglo author who combined his insights with a wry sense of humor. The result is a character study of the colonists. As a pastiche of mutiny novels and a critique of empire Farrell's views were decidedly cynical.
Profile Image for Tony.
906 reviews1,513 followers
September 2, 2015
My views on colonialism are such that in this recounting of battle between Brits and mutinous Sepoys, I had no trouble rooting for the home team.

Farrell feels the same way. Even the most kind-hearted of his characters are flawed, if only because they just don't get it or can't make themselves understood.

Yet, this telling of the Great Mutiny is Anglo-centric. So this is not about why the Sepoys mutinied. Of course they did. No, this is about the British who were there, and about how they could have been anywhere. It is British culture hiding behind the melting ramparts, British culture being swallowed by the encroaching jungle.

As a reflective character says in a kind of epilogue, "Culture is a sham....It's a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness."
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,644 reviews5,093 followers
September 10, 2016
fairly enjoyable overall and the period details are particularly fascinating. or maybe i just have a thing for the specific era on display. unfortunately something left me cold about this novel. perhaps it was the lack of old-fashioned adventure in what was a tale of a very bloody and very lengthy siege. perhaps it was the constantly ironic and semi-comic portraits of the characters, both english and indian. although the author uses his barbed wit in a rather unique fashion, as an approach to an historical adventure overstuffed with commentary on the nature of humanity, rationalism, religion, the colonial mindset, imperialism, etc... the tone just seemed so condescending. it actually made the experience feel slight when it could have been rich and satisfying. in a novel filled with much death and despair, i often longed for deeper emotions and higher qualities to surface. the ironic, comedic detachment became oppressive at times. like taking a road trip with your most sarcastic, cynical friend: you understand them, you may agree with their viewpoint, but hearing that commentary on every single thing that passes by? it gets wearying.

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still, a highly intelligent and very well-written novel. certainly a worthy experience.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,178 reviews1,936 followers
September 19, 2018
This is an excellent read and captures well the British in India in the nineteenth century with historical accuracy. There is great wit and humour in the book and some genuinely funny moments; however it is also a very brutal book with some grim scenarios. It captures well the British approach to empire in the characters of those caught in the siege and watching their gradual deterioration physically and mentally is fascinating. One of the characters has many antiques and artifacts from the Great Exhibition, which to him represent the future, rationalism and progress. Towards the end of the siege they are broken apart and used as cannon shot to fire at the natives/sepoys; a very clever reflection on modernity and progress. The changing role and perception of the women is very interesting and the futility of religion is well represented by the rather bizarre figure of the padre. A very stimulating read.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,842 followers
February 21, 2019
My main admiration for this novel is that it managed to be both masterfully written and really awful at the same time.

Farrell makes his British characters pay and pay and pay for the crimes of colonization, in brutally absurd scenes. Characters are spared no degradation and yet they never lose their bone-headed, obstinate British-ness, or the certainty of their superiority. Ha, ha.

This novel's peculiar balance between: 1) "wow, this is written so well" with 2) "my god, this is making me sick" kept me reading until the end, in a rubber-necky sort of way. I was still reading with sick fascination when I came to a scene near the end when a besieged British subject confronts his enemy and kills him after a series of silly false starts--jammed guns, knives too tightly wrapped in his cummerbund to pull out when he needs them, the discovery of some handy violin strings--and he then manages to blow his enemy away so completely that only a pair of legs is left standing. Like all the other scenes in this novel, this scene is so breathtakingly well-written, and so awful.

I feel a little sick. I've discovered I don't enjoy reading cartoon scenes about a tragic historical event when many people died. I'm sure this worked better at the time when it was written, in 1973. Indeed the feeling I got from it reminded me a great deal of how I felt after consuming another masterpiece of that era, Fellini's Satyricon.
Profile Image for Anna.
215 reviews66 followers
December 5, 2020
The siege of Krishnapur grew on me very slowly. The cast of characters just like in ‘Troubles’ - the first part of J. G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy - is composed of humorous, tedious or simply odd individuals. As the story progresses and the residency is placed under siege, we watch them all in the face of an ordeal. The red-whiskered Collector, the very not likable Magistrate, in an unfortunate position of judge of the residency’s own poetry nights, all the fine ladies, the two doctors, the idealistic Fleury and the Rajas son Harry, with his thirst for knowledge and modernity.
All of them, despite individual differences, are equally, and distinctly out of place in India, in the midst of political unrest.

As the community finds itself in a situation that is more and more abnormal, when their lives become scarce and their daily lives more and more bizarre, I noticed that I grew to like them, and to feel for them and that I got involved in their troubles perhaps quite against my will. And then there comes the conclusion of the story, and the point where reflections are made, and the result and consequences of the experience are revealed. I guess you could see it from a political point of view, and perhaps this is also what the author intended - but I chose to look at it from a more private, human perspective - life just has to go on…

Now I have one more part left ‘The Singapore grip’, that according to many is the best of the three. I suppose I will have to find out. I have high hopes.
Profile Image for Andrew.
38 reviews11 followers
May 19, 2008
I consider myself lucky that I ended up reading this book after the other two in Farrell's empire trilogy, Troubles and The Singapore Grip. Farrell captured me when I picked up Troubles on a free table at my old Job. It was a supremely clever book, and I couldn't wait to find more by the author. The Singapore Grip was compelling as well, but seemed unwieldy. I don't thing Farrell had complete control of the plot and message, and the book suffers from the lack of direction. Perhaps it was the pressure of having won the Booker for Krishnapur that threw him off on that effort (I'm pretty sure it was his last full novel before his early death). The Siege of Krishnapur is surely the most accomplished of the three. The story of a British outpost under siege in India when the native militia revolts, Krishnapur is a pressure cooker of a story. The characters, nearly all Anglos trapped inside their compound, evolve and crack and explode under the assault of the Indians and Farrell's probing novelist eye. It's damn witty, interesting, and exciting. I've never been more fascinated by cholera or battlefield mining. I'd say Troubles is Farrell's greatest artistic vision; Krishnapur his greatest novel.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,735 reviews1,469 followers
July 30, 2020
The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell is a book with a message—it offers up a critique of the British Empire and in particular Britain’s control of India in the middle 1800s. The message is conveyed through satire, dipping into farce in its final episodes Imagine this—a character swinging from a chandelier and a Sepoy, strangled by a violin string, suddenly reappearing after he is thought to be dead!

This sounds too absurd. Don’t be turned away. The story is well told. You cannot properly judge a book until you have tested the writing.

The Siege of Krishnapur, and the town itself, are fictional, but the story is based on sieges that actually did occur at Lucknow and Cawnapore during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

The siege is drawn in detail. The description is gruesome—bombardments and stabbings, starvation, decaying bodies and an all-permeating stench. The infestation of vermin and insects is horrific. Cholera spreads. Other illnesses too. Disputes arise. We watch as any semblance of civilized behavior evaporates. Moral codes are discarded. It becomes impossible to behave with sanity. Reading this book allows one to experience up close life in a town under siege.

The humor varies in type—often satirical, occasionally farcical, and other times simply an amusing choice of words. Some examples—boar hunting is referred to as "pig-sticking", one character’s thoughts are "poached" and “apoplectic snapdragons” guard the drive leading up to a house.

It sounds strange that a book mixing gruesome real life events and farce can work, but this book shows that this is possible. Farrell succeeds though a clever choice of words, an adept usage of symbolism and an ability to know when and where to add humor. The addition of humor makes the darkest of moments bearable. He places the humor in just the right places.

The audiobook is narrated by Peter Wickham. That he speaks with a British accent is perfect. His reading is easy to follow and not over-dramatized. My rating of the narration is four stars, just as is my rating of the written book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
October 12, 2014
Definitely well-written, a joy to read and deserving of its Booker Prize in 1973. It is the story of a siege that according to Wiki was part of the Indian Rebellion in 1857 against British colonizers in India. In that siege, a small group of British people had to fend for themselves in a small community (that reminded me of a Jewish ghetto) for more than a month so when they finally got out, they were like, or even worse, than the Indians that they used to look down or ridicule as colonizers.

It's a satire attacking both the colonizers (England) and the conquered (Indian nationals). Presented a balanced view, I ended up mesmerized on how could Farrell, and English (Irish descent), could hide his bias in this well-researched work. This is definitely more balanced and stuffed with details than E. M. Forster's A Passage to India (3 stars) that book about India being a British colonized country that immediately comes into my mind whenever this period in Indian history comes into discussion. Now, I know a better book and that is The Siege of Krishnapur.

At first, I thought that I would not enjoy reading this book because it is filled with so much details that were unfamiliar to me. I even had to google the word "sepoy" haha. But as I went on, slowly but surely, it became a hard-to-put-down book and finishing it gave me a unmeasurable pleasure considering that Philippines also had to struggle fighting against our own colonizers: Spain, the US and Japan. So, I cheered on while the sepoys and the Indian soldiers conquered Krishnapur although at the back of my mind, I also care about the Collector, Magistrate, Fleury and Lucy. It's that feeling that you don't know who to side with that made the reading interesting. Not to mention of course that I also love history and reading historical fiction gives the best of both worlds: you enjoy the literary style of the author and you also learn so much about what happened during that part of a nation's history.

My first book by J. G. Farrell and definitely not the last.

Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,382 followers
Shelved as 'aborted-efforts'
August 13, 2015
So last night my baby grabbed this book off my nightstand where it's been moldering for a month and ran around the room with it, shrieking, until the cover was crumpled and the bookmark had fallen out and got stomped on the floor.

I didn't stop her and reclaim the book until I was sure that she'd lost my place.

I wanted to join the worldly, intelligent ranks of Mary McCarthy and everyone else who's ever picked up The Siege of Krishnapur but now that the bookmark's been removed I'm throwing in the towel. I'd reached this terrible point of stasis with the book where it was well-written and interesting enough that I couldn't in good conscious give up and move on to reading something else, but I just wasn't enjoying it and never actually wanted to pick it up so because I couldn't start anything else I really just haven't been reading.

My problem was that while the prose was great and its world was fascinating and vividly described, I just didn't give a shit if any of the characters lived or died, mostly because I felt the author looked down on them and didn't care much what happened to them either. Also, this book did nothing to make colonialism make any more sense to me. It actually made it make even less sense, as from the first pages I was practically shaking the book, dying to understand why any of these lunatics ever did this -- travel so very far from home to oppress, enslave, and dominate other people while in grave personal discomfort and, it turns out, physical danger? -- which was maybe the point but it's not like I had some cherished belief in the wisdom and value of colonialism that needed to be shaken to its core, so.


This book was good and I liked a lot of things about it, but I ultimately just couldn't get into it and I'm bailing about halfway though. It should surprise no one to learn conclusively that I am a dolt and a philistine. I was trying to pretend that I was not, but my mischievous infant has unmasked me and the little charade is up. If you need me, look behind the cover of a 1940s crime novel; I'll leave The Siege of Krishnapur to more refined minds than my own.
Profile Image for Cadiva.
3,344 reviews307 followers
February 7, 2018
I had to study this for my A level and it was one of the few fictional books that I've had to dissect which still came out as one of my favourite books.

There are so many amazing moments in this book that it's difficult to know which to pick out but the incident on the stairs will remain with me for my lifetime I know.

The characters are believable, the setting is, obviously, historically realistic and the outcome of the novel is an acceptable conclusion which demonstrates perfectly the flaws of the old British Empire and how the decline began in the Indian Raj.

Events in the book are both brutal and also hilarious, the mix between these two elements makes the horrific incidents even more shocking and, in George Fleury, Farrell has created a character who isn't so much a hero as a man forced by circumstance to up his game and turn his back on the dandified British officer background he comes from when things come to a head as the Sepoys mutiny, taking the local populace with them.

The other characters are portrayed as superficial, everything exists within the vacuum created by the sieging natives and yet life goes on as normal for this section of the elite and their servants.

Farrell makes no mention of those involved in the uprising, they are kept as a faceless mass of seething anger and hatred and this helps to prolong the feeling that those stuck inside Krishnapur's British compound were also ignorant of the native population and what effect the Raj was having on their country and their existence.

Having said that, Farrell was a supremely talented author and, in spite of their flaws and their self-absorbing and self-serving nature, you do want to see them survive and get back home to Blighty.

He finishes off the novel with a sucker punch, none of those involved who survive appear to have learnt their lessons at all, they return to other parts of the Empire with the same attitudes of superiority and condescension they brought back from India.

It's a supremely well written book and a deserved winner of the 1974 Booker Prize. It's also part of his Empire trilogy of books looking at the breakdown in the British Empire alongside Troubles (set in Ireland and also a winner of the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970) and The Singapore Grip.

That his talent was lost at such a relatively early age when he drowned while fishing off the coast of Ireland aged only 44, is a real blow.
Profile Image for Numidica.
371 reviews8 followers
April 14, 2022
This is the third book that I have read of Farrell's Empire Trilogy, and I found it to be the best of the lot. Farrell reflects on the obliviousness of the British in their attempt to impose their culture on the Indians, and he tells a gripping story of a fictional siege during the "Indian Mutiny" of 1857. I found the book to be compelling reading, livened by Farrell trademark humor. But his portrayal of several characters, including The Collector, transcends the burlesque that sometimes burdens Farrell's work. His character study of Mr. Hopkins, who is transformed by the hardships and death of the siege from a stereotypical English gentleman, with all the class-consciousness that that implies, to a man who is finally much more empathetic and realistic is quite an artistic achievement.

If you only intend to read one of Farrell's novels, let it be this one.
Profile Image for BrokenTune.
750 reviews202 followers
December 14, 2016
Later, while he was drinking tea at the table in his bedroom with three young subalterns from Captainganj a succession of musket balls came through the winder, attracted by the oil-lamp . . . one, two, three and then a fourth, one after another. The officers dived smartly under the table, leaving the Collector to drink his tea alone. After a while they
re-emerged smiling sheepishly, deeply impressed by the Collector’s sang-froid. Realizing that he had forgotten to sweeten his tea, the Collector dipped a teaspoon into the sugar-bowl. But then he found that he was unable to keep the sugar on the spoon: as quickly as he scooped it up, it danced off again. It was clear that he would never get it from the sugar-bowl to the cup without scattering it over the table, so in the end he was obliged to push the sugar away and drink his tea unsweetened.

The Siege of Krishnapur sounded fascinating - a depiction of the fall of the British Empire illustrated on a small town in Northern India.
I don't know whether this book fell victim to my reading slump, or whether it just missed the mark with me, but I could not get interested in any of the characters or the story, and on finishing, I don't even know whether I would have finished it at all if it had not won the Booker in 1973.

It seems to me that The Siege of Krishnapur is one of those books that may have made more of an impression at the time it was written, but that has lost some of its appeal over time. Maybe the expectation of the book is to defy any nostalgia towards imperialism in its reader. But what if there is nothing to left to defy?

I don't know. This book maybe just wasn't for me.
Profile Image for DeB.
983 reviews246 followers
February 9, 2017
Having just read a very light British novel which brought to mind old movies and romantic novels of eras past, I Googled through lists of fiction where the setting is India. Well, by George, if I didn't find a different sort of novel altogether and I couldn't resist adding it to my "Read" bookshelf, even though that reading took place an era ago in itself.

"The Siege of Krishnapur" came to me via my mother-in-law, (until 1994), the daughter of Englishman who had begun his adulthood seeking his fortune in India. That didn't pan out, and he emigrated to Canada. I've since realized that I can thank this now long deceased lovely lady for my literary education on Colonial India, via her introduction to M. M. Kaye, E. M. Forster and J. G. Farrell.

Perhaps more than any of those novels lumped together and written depicting the attitudes of "Colonials", the concepts of "us" and "them" and the "Old Boys" network, "The Siege" managed to wittily exaggerate the worst biases, ignorance and arrogance of a class which considered itself above every other on Earth. At the same time, the gap of understanding of the local population is demonstrated as the truly serious issue that it will remain, until a hundred years hence when India declares its independence.

A lesson that I learned is that though the descendants of British Colonials may enjoy the mockery and dry wit shown in various mediums, they do so with a large degree of fondness. After all, Queen Victoria ruled the world and their families were those who carried the flag. Though invisible, their sense of status from that history often walks with them.

As an addendum - that I actually remembered this novel, the ideas it presented, the tone and the general tale for thirty years is a testament to its excellence of genre. Quite amazing, actually!
Profile Image for Cathy.
276 reviews46 followers
April 7, 2008
So, so good. Plotwise, it's kind of Camus' The Plague meets Gunga Din or something -- Brits end up holed up in the administrator's residence in a remote Indian town during the Sepoy mutiny, and you get to see everyone's personality under pressure. It seems to me that I have read a lot of books about groups of people trapped somewhere with the food running out and the pressure on, and what becomes of them -- so, it's not very original on that level, but the people themselves are fascinating, the writing is extremely vivid, and there's this whole other dialogue going on in the book about Victorian conceptions of progress, which all the main characters have differing views on.

For a book with so much bloodshed and cholera and dire circumstances, it is also often very funny. I can't recommend this one highly enough.
Profile Image for Chloe.
349 reviews539 followers
March 8, 2009
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).
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books781 followers
August 14, 2008
Great book. So well-written that though you know it's a satire (which comes across without authorial comment), you still end up caring about the characters and their outcome. Also amazing in that much of it is funny (despite the subject matter) with a purpose -- hard to pull off, but he does.

Also well-done are the handling of its themes, such as what is civilization and who gets to decide it, and the notion of superstition within religion. The whole story is a metaphor really; but done so subtly, that you may not even realize it, even while it gives you so much to think about.
Profile Image for dianne .
630 reviews98 followers
November 1, 2022
“Bricks are undoubtedly an essential ingredient of civilization; one gets nowhere at all without them.”
This is the third book i’ve read recently in which a particular population has a collective delusion of grandeur. Why, that could never happen to us! - while the sense of impending doom grows. We are invincible! Superior! Civilized! The creepy similarity of the East Prussian Germans in Jan. 1945, the Nazis lulled by the cooperative inhabitants of the Channel Islands during their occupation, and now the English colonists in West Bengal ignoring the imminent Sepoy mutiny of 1857. Evocative of the current: “I don’t need a mask, or a vaccination, or to change anything about my life...this is just a wee flu, and dammit, I want a haircut!” assuring that the world’s humans will inevitably suffer from variants and relapses endlessly. We’re simply not too bright as a species, are we?

There is a running subplot in this story that i found delightful. There are two English doctors in the cantonment, one old, “distinguished”, and quite traditional, the other younger, Scottish and willing to take on new information (even learning from the locals! Egads!) and include that information in his therapeutics. He had decided that cholera was spread by (excuse me, but this is the medical terminology) the fecal-oral route, the taking in of “rice water” (the discharge flowing from cholera patients) and that the cause of death in these unfortunates is dehydration. Which is true. He had actually studied empiric evidence, including a report of neighborhoods in London - differentiated by where their drinking water came from - and noted radically different levels of cholera infection. The old fart was aghast that the young Scot would vary treatment from the traditional (and lethal) ways of yore - you know, heating the body, leeches, the giving of cathartics (all of which are cringeworthy). But in presenting the evidence to the group -those listening couldn’t get past the source, the messenger - after all the old guy looks more believable?

The obtuse pomposity of the occupying English is not a new topic, but the inability to Get It is demonstrated well here:
“‘One or two mistakes, however serious, made by the military in their handling of religious matters, were surely no reason for rejecting a superior culture as whole….Truth cannot be resisted! Er, that’s to say, not successfully,’ the Collector added as a round shot struck the corner of the roof and toppled one of the pillars of the verandah.”

The marble sculptures, and silly imitations of useless inventions from the Great Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in 1851, were revered as almost mystical objects, absolute examples of the clear superiority and pure excellence of all things British. They finally find their true function as they are smashed into bits and blown as projectiles at attacking Sepoys.
“...the greater part of the improvised canister was filled with fragments of marble chipped from ‘The Spirit of Science Conquers Ignorance and Prejudice’.”.

And, of course, the conscious enforced disabling, disempowering, of the English women - leading, predictably, to their existence only as burdens as the situation worsens. A scene in which Hopkins, our Collector, is reading his daughter’s diary which is daily prepared for his perusal:
“‘May I always accept Papa’s decisions with a good heart, without seeking to oppose them with my will.’...This dutiful phrase had surprised him. It had never occurred to him that either of the girls had a will…”


I find myself wondering if we could take Rumi’s advice to “Be melting snow, Wash yourself of yourself”. Perhaps then we’d be better at this ‘life’ stuff.
Profile Image for Shovelmonkey1.
353 reviews874 followers
July 4, 2011
This book totally fooled me - I thought it was written ages ago in times gone by, days of yore etc. but nope, JG Farrell rattled it out in the 1970s. Very tricksy in a EM Forster representation of Brits in a colonial setting kind of way.

You might want to keep a cup of tea handy or perhaps a G & T as you will want something to dunk this book in - it can be a little dry . The petty tribulations of life in colonial India are really brought to the fore with delicate lay-dees overcome by heat/ boredom / the ridiculous weight of their inappropriate clothing and pompous men intent on "educating" the natives because the number one colonial rule was, "if its different then its clearly wrong or stupid" (the second rule was if it moves and has an attractive pelt then shoot it. The third rule is still very much in use by some Brits abroad today; go abroad, hate the food and complain it's not like Blighty). I'm still waiting for someone to explain how a bunch of weak chinned bureaucrats in badly designed uniforms kidded the world into letting them take it over but I liked the fact that in the end, the wibbly-round-the-edge character of Fleury found a bit of backbone. The relief of the eponymous siege wasn't very dramatic - some might go so far as to say downright underwhelming - so if that's what you were waiting for then perhaps you might want to finish that G & T and find something else to read.
Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews656 followers
October 29, 2014
Yet another book that I liked but didn't love. There were times when I found it hard to go back to - there was never, for me, any drive to see what happened next.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for J..
455 reviews184 followers
June 25, 2015
J.G. Farrell's novel of the Indian Mutiny as seen from the inside; the story concerns the British trapped in a siege of their compound by their own former Indian Army members or sepoys. As the entitled representatives of the decades-old British Raj, their defense is secondary to the sheer stunned disbelief that the native population should ever even consider rising up.

The author weaves a few parallel threads here, making his little instant-dystopia the direct result of the injustice of autocracy and colonialism. And it is the perfect model for the historical situation in miniature. But no Indian in the book is developed much beyond the level of character-actor.

Not that tommy-at-the-cannon isn't out to give the dark little people their inning, when it's felt to be the proper thing:

“… What was concerning them at the moment was the thought that, since the sepoys could not be expected to attack from their direction, they might have no chance to fire their cannon. There was an important question they had to resolve: would it be considered permissible, in the circumstances, to fire at any native who presented himself within range, as they might well not see any actual sepoys? Would it be sporting? What they concluded in the end was this: it all depended on the direction of the native’s progress … if the native was coming either directly towards them, or at an angle of anything up to forty-five degrees, it was fair to assume that his intentions were mischievous and they could blow him to smithereens (at any angle greater than forty-five degrees they would quickly review his case and then blow him to smithereens or not, as the case might be). While they were settling this the darkness was slowly fading on the verandah where they waited…”

Farrell knows that the hearts and minds battle is lost from page one, and wisely doesn't pile on the Glaring Hypocrisy thread as much as a lesser writer might. Instead, a Cook's tour of all kinds of Victorian preoccupations is on offer, spiritualism to phrenology, cricket, railways and the Age of Steam all have their moments. At least for those in the Residency. The ongoing theme of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, with its forward-looking, semi-inclusive emphasis on Science (and the White Man's Burden in educating the populace), is felt by the hierarchy to be the mission in India, and circulates throughout.

The breakdown in conditions, as the Siege continues onwards, leads to re-examinations of the prevailing wisdom, the concepts of class and property, in the push for making limited resources do for the good of all:

“The food in question had, of course, belonged to the dead; but now the living who still possessed their own meager stores began to fear for their safety. Prices had already quadrupled during the siege; now a frenzy of economic activity took place in which more than one lady gave a handful of pearls for a bottle of honey or a box of dates. This was regarded by many of the erstwhile “bolting” party as the twilight of reason before the Collector’s increasingly communistic inclinations demanded that you give up not only your stores, but perhaps your spare clothes, and, who knows? Maybe even your wife as well. Others, conscious that they were eating the equivalent of a diamond brooch or a sapphire pendant, sat down to a last giddy meal, eating before the Collector could get his hands on it, all at once, what they had hoarded for weeks. Exasperated by this foolishness, the Collector told Mr Simmons to distribute the extra food, with the rations, as quickly as possible.
“The rations?”
“The normal daily rations of the food in the Commissariat.” The Collector looked at Mr Simmons as if he were being obtuse. . .”

The white characters are well developed, and the reader is swept up in the strangeness of an unending emergency, alternating from devastating attacks to watchful doldrums in the long afternoons and nights. We are given a lot of specifics on the artillery, and a lot of shot-loading, tamping and fusing goes on in the livelier moments. As with every single Brit novel ever set in the subcontinent, we naturally have the Monsoon. We are also treated, necessarily, to a fair amount of the gore and reek of bloody 19th century warfare.

As they always do, the British bear up and suffer along willingly. Contrarily, custom and ritual are grasped at, gleefully, as the situation goes south. Afternoon tea is served even when there's no actual tea; piping hot water in the customary teapots, cups and saucers preserves the practice. Neither the stoic countenance of the Anglican church nor the habitual stagecraft of the Raj will be denied, even to the end.

Farrell does well and it's a streamlined, gripping read; the absence of any true Indian character is explained -- or better, perhaps mirrored-- by the fact that the white hierarchy also has absolutely no idea of the Indians under their oppressive control. Good as it is, this finally feels a bit like a cut and paste construction; given the historical facts, it would almost be difficult to make this uninteresting if it's assembled in the right order. Worth the trip simply for the day-in day-out of the Raj, though, the 'enlightened rule' that was not to be.
Profile Image for Grace Tjan.
188 reviews506 followers
November 26, 2009
In The Siege of Krishnapur, J.G. Farrell exposes colonialism as what it really was: a Victorian folly riddled with hypocrisy and exploitation, a fact that gradually became apparent during the Great Mutiny of 1857. The various characters holed up inside the Company’s Residency in Krishnapur each represent the different faces of the British colonialism: the Collector, a conscientious bureaucrat whose mission is to bring Western science and civilization (as exemplified by the Great Exhibition of 1851) to India; the Padre, who wants to deliver the people of India from heathenish superstitions; Harry Dunstaple, a young soldier whose sole interest is his military career in the Company’s army; the Magistrate, a cynical official obsessed with the ‘science’ of phrenology; and Fleury, an aspiring Romantic poet who has recently arrived in India with his widowed sister, Miriam. The whole lot of them, including Harry’s sister Louise and a band of loyal Company servants, spend increasingly desperate months being besieged by mutinous sepoys.

Farrell has a fine eye for the ridiculous as well as the macabre; while pariah dogs and vultures feast on human and animal carcasses outside the ramparts of the Residency, Fleury and Dunstaple have to figure out how to scrape off swarming insects from a young lady’s naked body without outraging Victorian modesty. A Cholera epidemic rages while the two resident doctors argue about its cause. And during a desperate bout of fighting, the Magistrate, feeding his obsession, surreptitiously feels up other people’s heads.

The only native character that Farrell describes in some depth is Hari, the English-educated son of the Maharaja of Krishnapur, a passionate advocate of ‘progress’ that comes from the West. However, his sole encounter with Fleury ends up in mutual misunderstanding, and while visiting the Residency to offer his support, he is taken hostage by the British. The sepoys and the rest of the native population are as alien and hostile as the vast Indian plains that threaten to engulf the tiny British enclave. Ultimately, despite all of their efforts to impose their values on the Indians, the colonials are simply irrelevant to a country that they barely understand. A lesson that could very well apply to modern day Western powers that occupy foreign countries in the name of progress.

Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,525 reviews796 followers
October 23, 2012
Towards the end of SoK, the once-sanguine Collector meets the once-romantic Fleury. Fleury asks him about his collection of art; the Collector says that "Culture is a sham. It's a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness."

I enjoyed Farrell's 'Troubles,' but something about it was a bit off. In part, it just wasn't as streamlined or controlled as SoK is. I was worried that SoK would end up as unsatisfying as T through the first 100 or so pages. But by the time the Collector said this to Fleury, I had realized what was so odd about the former book: it was a story, fundamentally sympathetic to the colonized, told in the voice of Establishment English Culture. Farrell's style is a lovely, readable combination of Austen, Trollope and Forster, as well as his own favorite influence, Richard Hughes. His stories, though, go to great lengths to reveal the bloody-minded chaos that went into building the world Austen, Trollope and Forster wrote about (excepting 'A Passage to India'); Farrel, on the other hand, writes about the (hoped for?) end of that world.

In 'Troubles,' the style seems to win out over the story; in SoK, the story and the style conflict, but end up producing an extraordinary novel that blends high irony, wonderful character development, fascinating description, and a deeply troubling, ultimately rewarding investigation of the mind of the colonisers.

And this, despite what the Collector says, is the proof that culture is never merely a sham. It can be, maybe it often is, but in the hands of a Farrell - as in the hands of the late twentieth century's very best theorists, critics, novelists and poets - 'culture' is put at the services of humanity, instead of inhumanity.
Profile Image for Paul Cornelius.
755 reviews18 followers
June 6, 2022
Coming to Krishnapur after reading The Singapore Grip, I see most immediately that the latter is a superior work--not that Krishnapur is bad. It's simply that Singapore Grip is far more subtle and nuanced, its satire a matter of discrete layers set apart with others of tragedy and a sense of undeterred fate. Krishnapur, on the other hand, never veers from hard satire, sarcasm, and biting irony. Often it overwhelms. Just as happens to the Collector at the end, the reader feels unmoored, confidence in the material and scientific sureties that surround you dissipating. In fact, the novel may invite that feeling more today than it did when it was written, in 1973.

I also can't help but compare Farrell's fiction with William Dalrymple's contemporary history of the British in India in his so-called quartet. Much of Dalrymple is interesting and his storytelling strong. But Farrell's novel ends up giving a better insight into the British psyche. I have a more complete picture of the colonizers of India in Farrell than I ever do with Dalrymple. The latter is so determined on pursuing his sympathies with especially the Mughals that his Britons turn into cardboard villains--except of course for Dalrymple's Anglo-Indian ancestors alluded to in White Mughals. What can I say? Farrell the novelist can look into the souls of the British invaders and find room for the portrayal of tragedy as well and buffoonery. Indeed, often they go hand in hand. Dalrymple is on too much of an ideological mission to carry that off. Give me Farrell any day.
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