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It is rare to come across a book that tells a rattling good yarn, makes one laugh out loud and also makes serious points, all in witty and flawless prose. This month our group has been enchanted by J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur.
Krishnapur is a fictional town and the eponymous siege is based on the Lucknow siege of 1857. This was at the start of the first Indian Rebellion, or what has become known as The Indian Mutiny. Interestingly, Indians call it The First War of Independence, so you can see what a semantic minefield Farrell was getting into. But he grasps the nettle with great panache and through a memorable cast of characters, paints an uncompromising portrait of British Colonial life.
We meet The Collector, Mr. Hopkins, who is in charge of The Residency and feels it his duty to bring ‘civilization’ to the masses. Hugely influenced by The Great Exhibition, he has filled the Residency with classical sculptures and models of the latest industrial machines. Young George Fleury, on the other hand, is full of romantic ideals and strongly believes in a civilization of the soul. He is totally averse to ‘manly’ pursuits and is misunderstood by Harry Dunstable, the epitome of an active young army officer. Harry’s father is the local doctor, reluctant to embrace the latest developments in medical science. The women are mainly seen as ‘ornament’ but we are given tantalising glimpses of what they might become given a choice.
The siege progresses and we witness the transformation of individuals, as deprivation strips away the artificial layers of their existence and forces them to confront their prejudices. The author does not flinch from graphic descriptions of death and decay and we can virtually smell the putrefaction of rotting flesh. But the horror is leavened by black humour, which so often manifests itself in extreme situations. He simultaneously engages with subjects as diverse as the treatment of cholera, phrenology, military tactics, the roles of men v. women in society and the big religious debates of the time. Farrell has held a mirror up to Victorian society but also reflected is the way we structure our own ideals and we must wonder if they could be similarly undermined in future years.
We meet again on 10th May when we will discuss Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour.
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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