The Siege of Krishnapur


J. G. Farrell




Date Reviewed:

February 21, 2012

rom the back cover of this book: "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." Wow - the best book in fifty years? True, it did win the 1973 Man Booker Prize , but a claim that it is one of the best books of half a century is quite a statement. Could it really be that good? Is this another classic like I Claudius (which didn't win the Booker Prize)?

Now that I have read the book my answer is - no. No, this is not one of the best books of the last fifty years. It is just an okay book. It tells the story about a fictional city called Krishnapur, set in the real event of the Indian uprising against British rule. Due to a shortage of manpower from Britian, the English employed Muslim troops throughout India. In those days, soldiers were issued cartridges which contained a premeasured amount of gun-powder and bullet. The soldier was supposed to bite off the end of the cartridge and pour the gunpowder and bullet into the muzzle of his gun - this was supposed to allow for faster rates of fire, because the soldier didn't have to measure the powder as he reloaded. But in 1857 a rumor spread that the British cartridges had been greased with pig fat. Of course, Muslim troops were outraged because their religion forbids them to eat pork. No idea if the rumor was true, but it triggered the rebellion.

Krishnapur is under the control of Mr Hopkins, a learned Englishman who is charge of the outpost at Krishnapur. He orders that walls of mud be built around the Residency as a possible fortification, even though most of the other English scoff at the notion the rumors of an insurrection could be true. The rumors turn out to be true, and an assortment of British subjects is trapped inside the makeshift fort by the rebellious troops. This arrangement allows Farrell to make comments about British class and society. Apparently the people who hand out awards were delighted by what Farrell had to say about British class attitudes, but I was not impressed.

For example, one of the people trapped in Krishnapur is the Padre. The Padre blabbers on and on about God's will, and how people like Fleury, who doesn't believe in God, causes bad things to happen - if only everyone believed in the Padre's Christian God, nothing bad would happen. The Padres prattles on for pages - while digging graves, during pitched battles - he never shuts up, and I confess I started skimming the paragraphs of his reasoning.

Another set of characters trapped in Krishnapur are the two physicians. Dr McNab is a Scotsman, who seems to have an effective cure for cholera, but he is a Scotsman, and so can't be trusted. Meanwhile, Dr Dunstable is a member of the Royal College of Physicians, so surely his claims that cholera is transmitted by air carry more weight than McNab's claims that cholera is caused by dirty water. After an unbelievable set of speeches (this occurs late in the seige when everyone is supposed to be exhausted and starving), Dr Dunstable drinks some of the "dirty water" - and naturally catches cholera. But Dunstable refuses to consider Dr McNab's approach to a cure, and so naturally Dunstable dies. I suppose Dunstable is a metaphor for the British high class, and thus the British readers delighted in these passages, but I was more bored than delighted by the great cholera debate .

The character nearest to a "hero" is Fleury. He has just arrived in India with his sister Miriam. Fleury fights with the soldiers during the siege, while Miriam and beautiful Louise Dunstable hold tea parties (even though they soon run out of real tea.) Though the British are all trapped together, it is important that status be maintained - which is why Lucy, the "ruined women" must be shunned. (Unmarried Lucy is ruined because she slept with an officer who then abandoned her. Or maybe she merely kissed him. What does it matter what the transgression was - she is ruined!)

Although the British defenders are steadily whittled down during the siege, with sickness and starvation also taking their toll, the book lacks the sense of desperation that I expected. But apparently Farrell wasn't so interesting in telling an amazing story of human resilience against overwhelming odds, Farrell really wanted to write about the British class system, and only used the siege as a stage for putting his character in their places. So I was disappointed yet again by another Booker Prize winning novel. I did love the 2002 Booker Prize Winner though, Martel's The Life of Pi.