Winner of The Booker Prize. 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.
“The first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis, made of coarse flour and about the size and thickness of a biscuit; towards the end of February 1857, they swept the countryside like an epidemic.” Students of history will recognize 1857 as the year of the Sepoy rebellion in India–an uprising of native soldiers against the British, brought on by Hindu and Muslim recruits’ belief that the rifle cartridges they were provided had been greased with pig or cow fat. This seminal event in Anglo-Indian relations provides the backdrop for J.G. Farrell’s Booker Prize-winning exploration of race, culture, and class, The Siege of Krishnapur. Like the mysteriously appearing chapatis, life in British India seems, on the surface, innocuous enough. Farrell introduces us gradually to a large cast of characters as he paints a vivid portrait of the Victorians’ daily routines that are accompanied by heat, boredom, class consciousness, and the pursuit of genteel pastimes intended for cooler climates. Even the siege begins slowly, with disquieting news of massacres in cities far away. When Krishnapur itself is finally attacked, the Europeans withdraw inside the grounds of the Residency where very soon conditions begin to deteriorate: food and water run out, disease is rampant, people begin to go a little mad. Soon the very proper British are reduced to eating insects and consorting across class lines. Farrell’s descriptions of life inside the Residency are simultaneously horrifying and blackly humorous. The siege, for example, is conducted under the avid eyes of the local populace, who clearly anticipate an enjoyable massacre and thus arrive every morning laden with picnic lunches (plainly visible to the starving Europeans). By turns witty and compassionate, The Siege of Krishnapur comprises the best of all fictional worlds: unforgettable characters, an epic adventure, and at its heart a cultural clash for the ages. Quite simply, this is a splendid novel. –Alix Wilber
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