This is a highly amusing recounting of a 'fictional' compound caught up in the whirlwind of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. J. G. Farrell brilliantly captures a slightly stereotypical group of East India Companymen and assorted hangers on who find themselves being cut off from civilisation and facing imminent disaster. Indeed, the very idea of what constitutes 'civilisation' and how it is maintained or threatened is the theme running through the novel. It is also what it makes it highly entertaining but also brings the novel on to a more philosophical and worthwhile novel to read. Although the observations are often absurd, they do recount something of the battle between the forces of Victorian enlightenment - eg, between the forces of rationalism and religion for instance. The following quote nicely encapsulates some of the issues being discussed - although the opinions on the value of civilisation will shift and vary throughout the book:
"For several nights the Collector had stayed up until dawn reading his military manuals by the light of an oil-lamp in his study to instruct himself in the art of military mining...What an advantage that knowledge can be stored in books! The knowledge lies there like hermetically sealed provisions waiting for the day when you may need a meal. Surely what the collector was doing as he pored over his military manuals , was proving the superiority of the European way of doing things, of European culture itself. This was a culture so flexible that whatever he needed was there in a book at his elbow. An ordinary sort of man, he could, with the help of an oil-lamp, turn himself into a great military engineer, a bishop, an explorer or a General overnight, if the fancy took him. As the collector pored over his manuals, from time to time rubbing his tired eyes, he knew that he was using science and progress to help him out of his difficulties and he was pleased..."
The book has a wonderfully understated sense of humour - it is rarely laugh out loud, but it constantly offers up a diet of amusing situations, anecdotes and comic insights. Inevitably, these often play to a stereotypical view of upper middle class Imperial Victorian society - although the horrendous situation does modify the behaviour of many of the characters - positively and negatively. It also throws individuals together and drives them apart. It shows members of a group desperate to maintain the trappings and hierarchy of a rigid society but having to make concessions and deal with the situation as it deteriorates. The English stiff-upper lip of the various heroes and heroines is stretched to breaking point.
"Louise now greatly regretted having made Fleury the green coat, which she feared made him too conspicuous... and it was a fact that the sepoy sharpshooters could seldom resist trying to hit this brilliant green target. Out of bravado Fleury dismissed these fears as groundless, but he was secretly rather alarmed. Love, pride and foolishness combined to make him keep on wearing the green coat, however."
I would highly recommend this book and not just for its humour. It is actually a genuinely insightful book. It also places the fictional events in to a real context. Many of the events portrayed are representative of events that did actually take place. You are likely to get a feel for the events and period - even if it is a satirical feel. The book is a joy to read and valuable with it.
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