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Ghosts of Irish Famine in J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur

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This essay argues that Anglo-Irish author J. G. Farrell’s 1973 Booker Prize-winning novel, in emphasizing the starvation of besieged Britishers during the so-called Mutiny of 1857, implicitly recalls the starvation of the Irish during the Great
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    http://jcl.sagepub.com/  LiteratureThe Journal of Commonwealth  http://jcl.sagepub.com/content/46/2/275Theonline version of this article can be found at:DOI: 10.1177/00219894114049922011 46: 275 The Journal of Commonwealth Literature  Alan Johnson Ghosts of Irish Famine in J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur Published by:  http://www.sagepublications.com found at:can be The Journal of Commonwealth Literature  Additional services and information for   http://jcl.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts:   http://jcl.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions:  http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Reprints:    http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Permissions:   What is This?- Jun 27, 2011Version of Record>>  at IDAHO STATE UNIV POCATELLO on June 21, 2013 jcl.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Ghosts of Irish Famine in J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur Ghosts of Irish Famine in J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur Alan Johnson  Idaho State University, Pocatello, USA  Abstract  This essay argues that Anglo-Irish author J. G. Farrell’s 1973 Booker Prize-winning novel, in emphasizing the starvation of besieged Britishers duringthe so-called Mutiny of 1857, implicitly recalls the starvation of the Irishduring the Great Famine of the 1840s. The potency of this tropologicaltrace enables Farrell to satirize imperialism and, in the 1970s, imperialnostalgia, more effectively. By outlining the historical link between tropesof Irish gures and Indian rebels, and by highlighting Farrell’s echo of these tropes, the essay shows that the novel’s descriptions of food andhunger, for example, establish an unstated correspondence between thesenear-contemporaneous events that exposes the vacuity of imperialismand imperial nostalgia.  Keywords J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur  , Booker Prize, Indian Mutiny, IrishFamine, imperialism, post-imperial, India, colonialism, British RajReaders of J. G. Farrell’s comic novel The Siege of Krishnapur  , which wonthe 1973 Booker Prize, have rightly praised its deft parody of imperialambition. 1 Set in northern British India during the time of the so-calledMutiny of 1857-58, the novel deates the longstanding British view of thenear-defeat but eventual triumph of imperial forces as heroic, national eulogy.Far from representing seless courage, the besieged group of British-Indianson whom the novel focuses generally prove to be a motley crew of myopic,petty interlopers bred on the drug of British hegemony. Several scholars Copyright © The Author(s) 2011 Reprints and permission:http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.navVol 46(2): 275–292. DOI: 10.1177/0021989411404992  at IDAHO STATE UNIV POCATELLO on June 21, 2013 jcl.sagepub.comDownloaded from   276  Journal of Commonwealth Literature have, for instance, noted the ways in which Farrell’s titular “siege” refersto an embattled – and, in 1973, greatly enfeebled – belief system. Otherinterpretations highlight the narrative’s self-conscious pilfering of actualmemoirs of the siege, the danger that Monty Pythonesque scenes “blunt thecritique of Empire” and the obvious absence of any full-bodied Indians. 2   What is missing from these readings is a consideration of perhaps the mostobvious motif, that of starvation. Towards the end of the three-month siege,and about halfway through the novel, the scarcity of food begins to hauntthe characters’ consciousness and actions, to the extent that the narrativeis lled with images of eating, imbibing and digesting. Farrell’s emphasison this motif, as I will argue, is due not merely to the occasion of siege,but more importantly to the backdrop of the near-contemporary event of the Irish Famine. Farrell’s Anglo-Irish outlook is a satire of conventionalrepresentations of the “Great Indian Mutiny”, whose popular imagery, evenin the 1970s, rested on a subtext that nostalgically dramatizes the actionsof imperial Britain and avoids such unpleasant facts as the manufactureof scarcity – scarcity most notably seen in the Irish calamity of the 1840sand in other colonial-era famines, such as that of Bengal a century later.Given the vital role that popular narratives played in sustaining the mythof vainglorious British conquest, Farrell’s novel forces us to ponder therelationship of aesthetics to propaganda. Let me be clear that Farrell’sexplicit deation of the British imperial narrative depends for its impacton an implicit, probably unconscious, but no less potent evocation of thelasting effects of the Irish hunger. A more nuanced reading of the novel,as we will see, reveals that the depiction in The Siege of Krishnapur  of starving Britishers bears the trace of starving masses in Ireland, gures whotropologically haunt Farrell’s novel and thereby accentuate the vacuity of imperial nostalgia that the narrative wants to counter. More broadly, the focusof Farrell’s novels on the growing back noise of Empire, in Ireland, Singaporeand northern India, results from his Irish understanding of “troubles”, thosemoments of anti-colonial resistance when the Empire is forced to see itsnakedness. With the Irish experience at the forefront of his imagination,Farrell compels us to consider how his own historical narratives at onceundermine and participate in imperial nostalgia. This explains why Farrell’ssrcinal title for The Siege of Krishnapur  was “Difculties”, mimicking asit does euphemistic terms for events that threaten colonial rule. 3 Much of the time, of course, the British Empire hid its shame underlayers of stereotype. It was no accident that the Irish Famine coincidedwith a longstanding but increasingly vicious English assault on Irishcharacter itself. Racist imagery of the Irish as indolent, violence-prone andessentially inhuman 4 allowed the British government, and most Englishcitizens at the time (the 1840s and ’50s), to justify their unwillingness tomitigate the effects of the potato famine. The British sustenance of an at IDAHO STATE UNIV POCATELLO on June 21, 2013 jcl.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Ghosts of Irish Famine in J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur 277English landowning, manorial (or “Big House” 5 ) and largely absenteeelite at the expense of their ragged Irish tenants, greatly dependent ona single food crop, created the perfect storm of conditions that resultedin the deaths of over a million peasants. Far from interceding on theirbehalf, British administrators and the British media ratcheted up theircondemnation of the impoverished Irish. During the famine, for example,the Times newspaper declared, “Ireland and the Irish have, in a greatmeasure themselves to thank for their poverty”. 6   Fraser’s Magazine and Punch likewise harped on the innate “indolence” of “the Celtic tribes”,with “their blighted, stunted” and “brutalized” features. 7 This habitualEnglish scapegoating of the Irish, who were seen to be unruly in theirresistance to colonial rule, directly paralleled the perception of the Indianrebels of 1857 as ungrateful and, ultimately, disloyal. Indians, too, werecommonly depicted as lazy, coarse, and ungrateful. These perceptionsmake it clear that at its heart, the colonial idiom, as Frantz Fanon said of French-controlled Algeria, 8 depends upon an us/them, loyalty/betrayalduality that is self-justifying. Irish sensitivity to this prejudice (includingthe general British belief that “the Irish would exploit British charity” 9 )and recognition of the colonial struggles shared by Indians and the Irish, isone reason that the rst donation to help alleviate the effects of the Irishpotato famine came from Indian employees of the East India Company. 10  The manorial, frequently gothic setting favoured by both Irish andBritish novelists of cultural conict is not surprising given the focus ondomestic order and the lurking threats to this arrangement. While Irishwriters, including Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, deploy such gothicismto destabilize the conventions of imperial domesticity, 11 British works –Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone , with its Indian conjurers invadingan English estate comes readily to mind – tend to reinstate the familialparadigm of the English country-house (even as they often questionclass divisions). In all such novels, order and disorder contend for centre-stage, with the outcome depending on specic contexts and motivations.British depictions of betrayal in colonial Ireland and in colonial India aretherefore frequently couched in terms of domestic breakdown: stern butprincipled fathers and their harried wives are forced to suffer ungratefulservants, rebellious “children” (whether “native” soldiers or poor tenants),overgrown gardens and, perhaps most tellingly, raided parlours. Thisexplains why Farrell chose to centre the novel on the domestically titled“residency” of British governance. The historical model for his setting,the besieged British government Residency in Lucknow, is indeed a keyindex of the conjunction of political and domestic governance in colonialIndia, with the titular Resident occupying the roles of regional governor,ambassadorial host and European gatekeeper all at once. The Residencyitself was, in the words of one historian, “a large, imposing building which at IDAHO STATE UNIV POCATELLO on June 21, 2013 jcl.sagepub.comDownloaded from   278  Journal of Commonwealth Literature successive ofcial residents had been enlarging . . . since its srcinalconstruction in 1780”. The structure “stood on rising ground above theriver Gumti, looking down upon a sprawling city that covered an area of some twelve square miles . . .”. 12   The three-month-long siege, during whichmany died of gunshot, disease, or starvation before their eventual relief,became emotionally charged in English minds precisely because of thecompound’s representation as home – a domestic realm turned deadlyafter a lengthy calm. Stories of the Residency’s banqueting hall being“turned into a hospital” during the siege and staffed by Englishwomenwith heroic “forbearance” became part of an abiding myth. 13 The English media’s supposition that Indian rebels had betrayed thesanctity of this hospitable space provided a symbol that was used to justify harsh reprisals following the war. Scholars have long noted howthe very xation on threats of betrayal says more about colonialists’nervousness than about situational realities. It was much the same inIreland. As Neil Corcoran observes of twentieth-century Irish writing, theset-piece of the once great, now decaying Anglo-Irish estate symbolizesthe painful move away from traditional customs to an uncertain future.The motif of the overgrown, often bare manor also allows this set-pieceto be emblematic of a complex relationship to the past – the sense thatwhereas a certain aesthetic renement has been lost, the class inequitiesand public destitution on which this renement depended have beenexposed. Like the dilapidated Anglo-Irish manor, the British Raj’s land-base in India erodes in the face of political change and its bungalows haveto be vacated. Like other twentieth-century Irish accounts of manorialdecline, Farrell’s novel shows that, in the 1970s, Britain’s relationship tothe Indian landscape had for decades resided in memory, and warns of the dangers of nostalgic reverie, which, in lms and novels, infused theso-called Raj Revival of the 1970s and ’80s. Farrell chooses his settingwell: the events of 1857-58 received the most mawkish treatment of anyBritish historical event at the hands of imperial celebrants, equalled onlyby General Gordon’s martyrdom in Khartoum a few decades later. Tomock the iconicity of the “Great Mutiny”, as Farrell does, is effectivelyto question all conventional national narratives.Although Farrell follows in the tradition of manorial literature, hedoes so, therefore, with a signicant twist. In turning the tables on hisBritish protagonists by having them experience siege, hunger and otherdeprivations, Farrell forces his readers to re-imagine their receivedperceptions of colonial history, and their own relationship to nationalconsciousness. He upends the iconic potency of the Big House settingby having the British Residency crumble, both literally and guratively.The “native” soldiers who gather outside its walls represent latter-dayrealities confronting colonial rule that, read in the context of 1970s at IDAHO STATE UNIV POCATELLO on June 21, 2013 jcl.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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