Krishnapur is a fictional town; the book is based on events at Lucknow and Cawnpore. It’s 1857, the time of the Indian Mutiny and sepoys lay siege to the British governed town of Krishnapur. Mr Hopkins, the Collector and Tom Willoughby, the Magistrate, are the senior figures among the panoply of other intriguing characters who undergo three months of privation and threat.
Farrell employs the omniscient point of view, much in the manner of Victorian narrative, where the author intrudes on occasion; this, and the abrupt switching of character point of view in mid-scene, I found to be the least liked aspects of the book. Its attractions are many, however. The characters grow and change during the siege and gain our sympathy. Despite the external enemy taking its bloody toll, there’s plenty of conflict within the fortification, for example between the two doctors, the two clergymen and the Collector and the Magistrate.
Lives are transformed in this crucible of warfare, not least the newly arrived poetry loving George Fleury, who seems totally inadequate to the task, quite content to daydream rather than seriously soldier, yet when he’s blooded in battle he discovers his true self. The womenfolk appear slight and of no consequence to begin with, but as time and lack of adequate rations strip away the veneer of ‘polite behaviour’, they show their mettle in a variety of ways. The scene with the invasion of tiny black cockchafers will linger in my memory for quite some time: horrendous, sensual and hilarious in turns!
Throughout, Farrell provides superb imagery and assaults the senses. The mixture of bravery and pathos, tinged with irony and black humour, works well. The final sepoy attack is highly dramatic, graphic and laced with lashings of ironic humour – the roses ‘pruned this year by musket fire’.
This novel won the Booker Prize in 1973.