KLASSEN ON BOOKS - JUNE 2017 (Reviews)

John Klassen


J.G. Farrell

Farrell (1935-1979) was born in Liverpool, of Irish descent. He died at 44, swept out to sea while fishing from the shore in Ireland. Farrell wrote eight novels (two published posthumously), but he is best known for the Empire Trilogy: Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), and The Singapore Grip (1978). The overarching theme of the Trilogy, which is clearly on display in Troubles, is the human and political consequences and costs of British colonial rule.


The time is 1919-1921, a period of escalating anti-British and sectarian violence that slowly engulfs the protagonists. The place is the small town of Kilnalough, Ireland. The setting is the visit by Major Brendan Archer, British, to the increasingly decrepit Majestic Hotel owned by Edward Spencer, stalwart Unionist, and father of Angela whom Brendan met, and kissed, while on leave three years earlier, and with whom he had since maintained a lengthy correspondence while in the trenches and afterwards, as he recovered from shell-shock, and with whom, he might or might not, be betrothed. And so proceeds one of the saddest stories I have read, but one pulsing with wonderful descriptions of people, places, emotions, and real humour all within a historical moment of change fraught with violence and uncertainty. The tone, as John Banville describes it in his preface, is: "...one of vague, helpless desperation, while the wit is dry to the point of snapping."

The writing is a pleasure: "Thereafter the meal became lugubrious and interminable, even to the Major who thought that in hospital he had explored the very depths of boredom....The food was entirely tasteless except for a dish of very salty steamed bacon and cabbage that gave off a vague, wispy odour of humanity." And this description of the first time Brendan and Angela met: "He now only retained a dim recollection of that time, dazed as he was by the incessant, titanic thunder of artillery that cushioned it thickly, before and after. They had been somewhat hysterical--Angela perhaps feeling amid all the patriotism that she too should have something personal to lose, the Major that he should have at least one reason for surviving."

While Farrell has nothing good to portray about the British colonial experience, he is no less acerbic about the Irish whom he describes as surrendering to, "the country's vast and narcotic inertia", characterized by the stultifying hand of the church, the rigid sectarian and class divisions of society, the poverty of people on the edge of starvation while their British landlords live warm and well, the lack of education and opportunities, and above all, the enervating tribalism. Early in the novel, when the Major is told that he too will become critical of Catholics, he says, "I hope not to be so bigoted. Surely there's no need to abandon one's reason simply because one is in Ireland." The riposte is, "In Ireland you must choose your tribe. Reason has nothing to do with it."

The novel has a contemporary feel in reminding us that while techniques change, terrorism itself is not a new phenomenon: "The Major only glanced at the newspaper these days, tired of trying to comprehend a situation which defined comprehension, a war without battles or trenches....Every now and then, however, he would become aware with a feeling of shock that, for all its lack of pattern, the situation was different, and always a little worse." Farrell reminds us that Ireland was not alone in the turmoil of the time. There are frequent insertions of news articles of the day detailing clashes in Italy, Russia, Poland, India, Middle East, South Africa, all struggling with nationalist pressures and revolutions.

The nationalist and sectarian violence swells and laps at the walls of the Majestic Hotel. The reaction of the British, however dressed in high-sounding phrases, is extremely violent, thus feeding the spiral of hate and more violence that seems to offer no solution. If one stays in Ireland, there is neither escape nor neutral ground.

There is a second, major protagonist in the novel: the Majestic Hotel itself, a 300-room monster on the seaside, that in its heyday was a preferred holiday destination as the epitome of class and comfort, with numberless public rooms, outside amenities, a huge ballroom, and expansive dining room, all maintained by a small army of staff. Now it is home for a number of elderly ladies who have nowhere else to go, strangers such as the Major who come, by accident, for their own reasons or no reason at all, and occasional visitors who return for memories and are disappointed: "they would taste the bittersweet knowledge that nothing is invulnerable to growth, change and decay, not even one's most fiercely guarded memories."

The hotel is huge and it looms over the novel as well; it is the perfect metaphor for the glory of a rich lifestyle for those in power, but now, like the brittle and waning British colonialism, it is a site of decline and decrepitude; Farrell's descriptions of the irremediable decay of the hotel and its reversion to a state of nature are brilliant.

Thinking it through, there is not a single happy person in this novel. The closest one is perhaps the elderly, irascible town doctor who looks upon everyone and everything with a stoical eye, regularly intoning that all is change, everything must pass. But this does not make for an uninteresting novel; far from it: the characters are true to the vagaries of life that continue even in the midst of turmoil; they are varied and well-drawn as they play out individual hopes and fears, generational struggles, love, lust and relationships in a very unsettled and unsettling time.

It is years since I read The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip. I enjoyed both and having now added Troubles, I have no hesitation in recommending the trilogy for fine writing and fine stories in pointed historical fiction with strong political and social edges.

Tags: John Klassen