By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Perhaps all empires are blind to their own faraway maneuvers, which tend to be unpleasant. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said noted how the wealth described in Jane Austen‘s Mansfield Park came from slave-culture Caribbean colonies that, consciously or not, barely figure in the novel, and it’s no accident that English fiction‘s first great critic of empire was Conrad, who, as a Polish-born outsider, could see things that those from imperial nations could not. After all, the British themselves didn’t begin writing obsessively about empire until they could feel it slipping away.
And maybe we Americans, including writers, resemble the British in the 19th century. We‘re so busy reaping the material rewards of empire that our privilege comes to seem natural, even righteous; we can’t clearly see, let alone spin fictions about, the vast international machinery of money, diplomacy and military force that holds it all together. Caught within the solipsism of power, we don‘t yet care about countries whose destinies are less manifestly grand than our own.
One great virtue of all those 20th-century British novels about colonialism is their stinging sense of memento mori. In one of those pings of synchronicity beloved of newspaper columnists, Miramax began screening The Quiet American just as I was re-reading the wonderful 1970 novel Troubles, the latest volume in New York Review Books’ superb series of reprinted classics. It was written by the British novelist J.G. Farrell, who‘s best known for his enthralling “Empire Trilogy” -- Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur (winner of the 1973 Booker Prize) and The Singapore Grip (1978) -- which established him as one of the great chroniclers of imperial rot and entropy. Each of these novels is about the destruction of a vainglorious colonial enclave that, at one time, had seemed untouchably triumphant.
Troubles begins in the Ireland of 1919, the year Sinn Fein rebels and occupying British soldiers launched their endless campaign of terror and reprisal, killing and counterkilling. Major Brendan Archer, a slightly stunned English veteran of WWI, goes to an Irish coastal town to meet his fiancee, whose father owns the lavishly crumbling Majestic Hotel, a massive structure where rich Anglo-Irish colonials once frolicked at the locals’ expense. Day by day, the major gets sucked into the hotel‘s devouring aimlessness, playing whist with the biddies who still rent rooms, listening to the owner rant about the inferiority of Catholics, and becoming hopelessly bewitched by a lovely, caustic young Irishwoman, whose quicksilver charm draws him more powerfully than his dutiful belief in “the great civilizing power of the British Empire.” Even as terrorist violence moves ever closer, the hotel, like the empire, is falling to pieces all around them. Ceilings cave in, palm-tree roots burst through tiled floors, the upper stories are overrun by a legion of feral cats.
There’s no American writer quite like Farrell, who boasts one of the most enjoyable sensibilities in modern fiction -- funny, sardonic, attuned to human illusion, and aware that history is a game of dodge ball between tragedy and farce. Rather like The Jewel in the Crown‘s Paul Scott (but more imaginatively), he captures the contradictory textures of colonial experience, its abstract idealism and material exploitation, its social formality and personal explosiveness. Writing two years before the Bloody Sunday killings of January 30, 1972, Farrell nailed the visceral politics that would soon spawn the seemingly endless sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. When the major remarks that “there’s no need to abandon one‘s reason simply because one is in Ireland,” the Blimpish hotelier firmly corrects him: “In Ireland, you must choose your tribe. Reason has nothing to do with it.”
Troubles is so sheerly pleasurable that you may wonder why such a wonderful writer is so little-known in the U.S. The fault could lie in his own unlucky history. Only 44 years old and at the peak of his powers, Farrell sought to create a paradisal colony of his own, purchasing an isolated cottage on Ireland’s Bantry Bay. One stormy day in 1979, he went fishing on the nearby rocks and was swept away by the waves. Such an end, at once terrible and absurd, is one that he himself could have written, for Farrell never forgot that even in paradise, death is always sharpening his scythe.