Wednesday, November 08, 2006

For your consideration

Since I am somewhat mired in my current books I thought I would discuss an author I consider unjustly little known. JG Farrell, an Englishman, wrote a number of novels, but of greatest interest is his British Empire Trilogy. The first, Siege of Krishnapur, is set during the Indian Mutiny (or as the Indians would prefer, the first war of Indian Independence.) The second, Troubles, is set during the slow expulsion of the British from Ireland. The final volume, the Singapore Grip, is set during the 1942 Japanese conquest of Malaya and Singapore.

The protagonists of all the novels are British and each is confronted by a local (or least regional) rejection of Empire. What sets the books apart is Farrell's characterizations. Rather than setting up the British as cruel conquerers, he shows them as arrogant about their assumed role and completely clueless about the realities or desires of the locals. They aren't bad people, in fact they are often very good people. Thanks to their position as members of the Empire they are put in very bad situations, often not of their own choice. Part of the story is that they remain unaware of what their nationality means to others. With the exception of Troubles, which does give some voice to the local Irish, the books are told nearly entirely from the British side. The advantage is that we see them being increasingly disconnected from reality until it hits them like a two by four.

As a further benefit, these are very well written stories. The action in the Siege of Krishnapur is particularly exciting. I thought the little court dramas of the hotel in Troubles were both amusing and troubling. The Singapore Grip suffers for being a bit too lengthy, but the depiction of the bawdy pre-invasion world is quite something. These novels unlike those with a similar theme by Graham Greene or John Le Carre send their message without telegraphing it or rubbing the readers face in it. When the inevitable crop of Iraq novels appear in a few years I hope someone uses Farrell as a reference point.

1 comment:

Brack said...

I've read Troubles, thank you T, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Farrell spends more time unveiling the motivations of his characters than does the average bear, giving Troubles more depth than I expected.