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The Age

The lost chronicler of an empire besieged

Author: Simon Caterson
Date: 29/05/2010
Words: 823
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: A2
Page: 23
Simon Caterson reassesses the winner of the Lost Man Booker, J. G. Farrell.

OUTWARDLY diffident in personality, and immensely ambitious and accomplished as a historical novelist, J. G. Farrell at last is receiving the recognition he deserves more than 30 years after his death by drowning in 1979 at the age of 44.

Just by virtue of its name, the Lost Man Booker Prize, won last week by Farrell's 1970 novel Troubles in an online poll, seems an especially appropriate award for a novel by an author whose fiction features well-meaning, often bewildered outsider figures.

The hero of Troubles is Major Brendan Archer, a shell-shocked World War I veteran who travels to a remote, decaying hotel in Ireland to recover  only to find himself caught up in emotional and political entanglements that threaten to destroy him.

Farrell, the Liverpool-born son of Irish parents, regarded himself as neither fully English nor Irish. Not only did he die relatively young for a novelist, but as a fit and healthy 21-year-old rugby-playing law student Farrell was struck down and incapacitated for months by polio. The disease permanently wasted the muscles of his upper body, causing him to abandon a conventional professional career and aim instead to become a writer.

Indeed, Farrell's creative imagination, which is notable for depth rather than breadth, was driven by a sense of our physical frailty and the absurdity of human wishes. Hence the fascination in his mature fiction with the dying days of the British Empire.

Troubles is set in Ireland during the IRA campaign that eventually led to the creation of the Irish Republic and the ensuing civil war. The second instalment in what was to become a triptych of empire novels is The Siege of Krishnapur, which actually did win the Booker Prize in 1973. The third and final volume in the series, The Singapore Grip, appeared in 1978, and depicts in Tolstoyan detail the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Farrell once said that his interest in the end of the British Empire had a lot to do with the fact that as a child it seemed to him very much "a going concern". The dual meaning encapsulated in that phrase informs the historical novels, each of which depicts a siege situation.

In Troubles, the Irish hotel is besieged by shadowy IRA saboteurs, while in The Siege of Krishnapur a remote British cantonment is surrounded by mutinous Indian soldiers in 1857. In The Singapore Grip, poorly led and equipped British and Imperial forces are attacked by the much stronger Japanese Army.

As a novelist, Farrell is not interested in the actual fighting as much as the effects on civilians of unaccustomed danger and deprivation. Farrell's besieged colonisers face being buried as the imperial edifice begins to collapse, a predicament that often brings out the very best in them.

Farrell is somewhat obsessive but not morbid. A signature of his style is the wry humour and gentle wisdom with which he manages to infuse the most harrowing scenes.

Though not mournful for the loss of the British Empire, Farrell is sympathetic towards his imperialists, commenting once that he was much more interested in how people hold their ideas than the ideas themselves. And that, surely, is how history is to be viewed if we are to avoid "the enormous condescension of posterity" warned against by historian E. P. Thompson.

Farrell's novels are similar in key respects, yet each is different. Along with the journey, the siege is one of the oldest narrative forms in Western literature. It has been argued that the plot of virtually every novel can be traced back to, on the one hand, The Odyssey, which chronicles the wanderings of the hero Odysseus, or, on the other, The Iliad, which depicts the siege of Troy.

The essence of Farrell's creative genius was to rework the siege plot over and over without ever appearing to write the same book twice. He was at work on what would have been his seventh novel, a post-siege story set in India, when he died. A bachelor who had a complicated sex life, he had recently moved to live alone at a remote Irish farmhouse in Sheep's Head, a rugged peninsula in County Cork accessible only via an unsealed road.

Farrell was fishing off rocks near his house one day when a wave swept him out to sea. He was buried in the tiny windswept churchyard close to the water. Weakened by polio as he had been, Farrell apparently lacked the strength to fight the swell.

In Troubles, Major Archer is buried up to his neck on a beach by the IRA and left there to be consumed by the incoming tide. It is not hard to see the eerie parallel with the death of Farrell. It was a tragic end to the life of a self-conscious yet visionary author whose work is increasingly being acknowledged as that of a great modern novelist.

Troubles is published by Phoenix at $22.95.

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