Rain Makes Me Think of an Underappreciated Novelist

November 23, 2019

So we are in the middle of a big storm here, which is coming at the end of a week of rain.

As I mentioned previously, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Nice in the rain.  We have been to all the museums and seen all the English-language movies.  Right now it is Saturday morning and W. is swimming at the local Piscine Municipal, fighting her way through crowds of undisciplined French swimmers.  I’m writing this.

I don’t mind the rain as it gives me a good excuse to sit around and read, which is probably my favorite activity.  I’m in the final stages of a novel called Troubles by an Anglo-Irish writer named J.G. Farrell.

Troubles, published in 1970, is the first novel of a trilogy that includes The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) and The Singapore Grip (1978).  The three novels are known as the Empire Trilogy, as they dissect the strengths and, more commonly, the weaknesses of the British Empire and the whole concept of colonialism.

If this sounds a bit didactic, well, it isn’t.  Farrell was an extraordinary storyteller with a wicked sense of humor and a wonderful sense of character.  His grasp of historical detail, of social structure and of the way things work — from 19th century artillery to the operations of a Singapore merchant house — is unparalleled, in my opinion.

One character — “the Major” aka Brendan Archer — shows up in both Troubles (as the main protagonist) and in The Singapore Grip (as a relatively minor observer).  He is sort of a stand-in for the Empire, decent, well-meaning but, in Ireland and Singapore, essentially out of place.  In each book, “anti-colonial” forces (the Sepoy Mutiny, Sinn Fein, the Japanese Army) exert irresistible pressure on the colonial establishment.

Another “character” in Troubles is the Majestic Hotel (later the “ajestic” after the M falls off and nearly kills a long-haired dachshund).  This is a 300-room edifice by the sea that has seen far better days.  The roof leaks, palms grow wild in the Palm Court, and stray cats are everywhere.  I see the Majestic as a symbol of the late stages of the Empire, leaky and doomed.

In Krishnapur (a fictional city in the midst of a very real insurrection) the colonialists hold off the attackers, at the cost of the trappings of their own civilization.  In defending themselves, they become half-starved, ragged savages.  In Singapore and Ireland, the other side wins.

The books are classics.  In a just world, they would be prominently displayed in every bookstore on Earth, but in this world they are typically available only through Amazon (although The Siege of Krishnapur turns up in the paperback fiction section at Barnes & Noble once in a while).  Each book is long, self-contained and totally absorbing.  I recommend them wholeheartedly.  Just the thing for a rainy day in Nice, or anywhere else for that matter.

Farrell, by the way, died a tragic death in 1979, when he fell from a ledge while fishing and was washed into the Irish Sea.  He was 44.

The last week of the Big Trip is coming up.  We will be home at this time next week.  With luck the weather will clear and we will hit Monaco and return to Antibes to see the Musee Picasso.  As I have said before, things could be worse.

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