If there’s a miscalculation in Farrell’s book, it is that he makes it abundantly clear that just about every British citizen in Krishnapur is either arrogant, ignorant, mentally deficient or clearly mistaken about their need to bring anything to the people of India. In this, I suppose the dark humor of the siege is easy to pass along, but there’s also the unrelenting and depressing inaction while being surrounded by generally unlikable individuals that can make one find many other things to do other than read through the next few chapters of the book. Of course, Farrell saves himself by nutshelling much of the British attitude towards the Indians that leads up to the siege with brilliant passages such as this (the Collector and Magistrate are British):
The land was particularly fertile here, either because it had been blessed by the footprint, as the Hindus believed, or, as the British believed, because it was regularly flooded and covered with a nourishing silt.
The flooding, though, was a nuisance and it grew worse every year because of the attrition of the embankments. Cattle and crops were lost. To stop the flooding by reinforcing the embankments was the great ambition of the Magistrate and the Collector. While the Collector had been visiting the opium factory the Magistrate, accompanied by his bearer, Abdullah, had ridden out of Krishnapur to visit the embankments and consult the landowners whose coolies would be needed for the work of the reinforcement.
Farrell packs so much in here – the improvements that are not asked for, the sneering at of religious belief vs. the superiority of science, the fact that India was (at the time) a key in trading opium for tea, that the British assumed India’s class system meant their access to labor was their access to labor. You find yourself suddenly reading through passages like this on religious matters, the matters of military theory, medicinal theory and morality. Even so, there’s humor to be found all throughout in character action and inaction (even the Collector’s one book on sieges gives advice for day thirty-five as It is now time to surrender… which one suspects he regretted not taking from taking as the siege began being measured in months).
It’s not difficult to see why this was one of the books up for the Booker of the Booker. One just wishes this were passed out in military schools and in introductory political science courses to all would-be politicos and military strategists that ever felt that one of their strengths was in being somehow “more advanced” than another country in terms of civilization. The Siege of Krishapur should serve as the cautionary tale how this belief will be your eventual downfall.
It stays – only 3 to go and I supposedly got the hardest one done!
This is the book that won the Booker of the Bookers. This was my quick review on LibraryThing:
Midnight’s Children has been a challenge to read for the last few weeks. At times I wondered how a novel full of children blessed with varying magical powers for being born at midnight on the day of India’s birth as a post-colonial nation, the history of a family fraught with its own destinies and secrets, the very history of India, a burgeoning love story and a story of an obsession with pickles could really ever meld together.
How? It’s an alchemy of magical realism, a narrator who carries with him a certain amount of admitted unreliability and a character who serves to remind our narrator that there are interested readers attempting to get through a story. Painted on the canvas of postcolonial India with a brush under the direction of Salman Rushdie, this all comes together and becomes a worth-while endeavor.
What I really wanted to get into was the brilliance of the main character, Saleem, but it would have started bordering on a bajillion paragraphs. Since this isn’t a review and I can be a bit more conversational, even he is this layered thing that I can probably question over and over. In the major events of India, he’s kind enough to point out his role his birth and life had in the destiny of major events…but it is easy to look back at the end of one’s life and say, “I did these random things and these other things happened,” isn’t it? Is this Midnight’s Child a tool of destiny? Or is he a child of coincidence who looks for meaning in the time of his birth that will rise above the 600,000,000 other people he shares a post-colonial world with?
It’s really something you can continue to think about for a while, but putting all of this together was an amazing thing – I’m getting why this was a step-above in the prize.
The Conservationist quickly introduces Mehring as the wealthy businessman who has recently purchased his weekend getaway 400-acres of South African farm (complete with Afrikaner staff) bought largely for purpose of saying, “I have a little farm I get to on the weekends.” This is still an Apartheid South Africa, so Mehring’s staff has been working and living on the farm for an untold time, keeping his accessory fully functioning for that day when he can invite untold guests down for the weekend.
Gordimer’s novel is sparse but thick. Mehring’s got an undeniable talent for making money from his homeland – during our story, he’ll talk about his pig-iron deposits and admit he has little understanding of the material outside of it being ‘used somewhere in steel.’ This is Mehring in a nutshell. At every turn, he’s given the opportunity to understand more about those people and things around him that support him, but Gordimer gives us a character that only chooses to learn once he thinks that it may impress a faceless mistress (he learns to identify the flowers that bloom on his farm, picturing the walks he’ll take where he can show of his new-found knowledge).
It is Mehring’s ability to be in his environment, but not of his environment that cuts to the heart of this story. It’s not just the farm where he holds this talent, he’s done the same as a husband, a father, a lover and a friend. In this farm environment, however, Mehring will discover that his attempts to remain apart from the upheaval of the land and local politics will be impossible.
It should be made abundantly clear that Coetzee is not falsely advertising Disgrace. David Lurie’s disgrace comes overtly in the form of a scandalous affair with a student that leads to his loss of position at the university in Cape Town.
But this is not a simple story about a teacher/student affair. Coetzee’s brilliance in Lurie’s character is that we’re only given the perspective of a man who has the emotional depth of a puddle. We see this scandal roll out and we know that there is more to the story, but we have to piece together the true nature of it from the occasional flashes our main character gets?
When our main character moves in with his daughter, we’re given her life through his filter. So while this might have been a more interesting perspective on post-apartheid South African race relations, it becomes a self-absorbed commentary on how his daughter reflects on him, on how her relationships reflect on him, and how she won’t remain attractive if she stays in the country. Is this the disgrace Coetzee refers to? The inability to remain nonjudgmental about your children and their choices?
The attack on David and his daughter is brutal, but we are only given David’s perspective. Again, this is the beauty of Coetzee’s novel. It is harsh and in watching David try to piece together the events of the afternoon, Coetzee’s novel truly shines. This is where one has to remember that we’ve been given a tale called Disgrace, because we will be pulled emotionally into a number of directions that longs for a tale about anything else. But Coetzee’s writing shows us that disgrace can come in many forms, can be self-inflicted, can be a product of environment, can be a product of perspective and can simply be a product of circumstance.
Much has been said of not liking the characters in the novel in other reviews. In reality, every character is seen through David Laurie’s vision, and David Lurie is a deeply flawed man. We are seeing every character through this flawed vision. That I wanted to catch the few shards of truth in this vision is a testament to Coetzee as an author.
I picked up two of the books cheap and in good shape (will be leaving good feedback). I now have Oscar and Luicinda and The Ghost Road in my “to be read” pile.
Every so often, I read award winning books and I find out they’re actually good. This year is the 40th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. The last Booker winner I read was Vernon God Little and I did love it. For the 40th Anniversary, the folks are putting up six books to choose from for a kind of “ultimate winner.”
These are the books:
Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road
Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda
JM Coetzee’s Disgrace
JG Farrell’s The Seige of Krishnapur
Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children