In War, No-one is Apolitical (Thoughts on Two Novels of JG Farrell)

In my previous article, concerning the genre of what is ultimately pulp, soapish historical fiction, I discussed the idea that it is impossible for a work dealing with an elite and a dispossessed to be be apolitical. By extension, a work which downplays or mocks the downfall of an elite for comic value – by presenting socialists or reformists as figures of fun and inconveniences – can not unreasonably be read as sympathetic to that elite. Downton Abbey, the aristocratic soap popular on British television of late, is a good example; modernity, and a world where the landed gentry are no longer so comfortable, is presented as something annoying and the humour is drawn from how the most posh members of the society are inconvenienced by it.

It could be read as a work which is apolitical; it does not, specifically, judge the aristocracy as a concept but instead draws humour and drama from their reluctance to modernise. Its cast are an even spread of heroes and villains both high and low status, presenting an affable drama which superficially cannot be read as either condemnatory nor endorsing of the status quo. Yet implicitly its historical setting, and its studious unwillingness to pass much beyond broad moral judgements for the sake of a cohesive drama, paint it as a work with a political angle; that the status quo was not particularly worth condemning. A work can be dramatic and humorous and deflate the egos of the privileged and old-fashioned, but I think a comedy – which by definition requires a fall guy or punchline – cannot help but punch in one direction or another.

Of late I have been avidly reading the novels of JG Farrell; I read The Siege of Krishnapur and Troubles, and mean to read The Singapore Grip at some opportunity. I think the process of reading them changed my opinion of historical fiction and led to my reconsidering the meaning of “apolitical” and “apathetic” fiction. Farrell is, I think it is fair to argue, an author of post-colonial novels; his works with which I am familiar are preoccupied with depicting the decline of the British Empire from the perspective of its defenders. At first I felt the two novels would tread similar ground; both concern a man beseiged by “natives” of a British holding at the time of its decline, surrounded by “innocents” denying their complicity in their misfortune. Krishnapur concerns the Indian Mutiny, while Troubles focuses on Ireland. For the purposes of this essay, we will begin with Krishnapur.

The Siege of Krishnapur concerns a small group of British citizens beseiged by mutinous Indian soldiers, and their efforts to remain gentlemanly, British and “civilised” in the face of what they perceive as savagery. It is a satire, a sharp commentary on the complacency and obliviousness that was the downfall of the British; its protagonists begin unaware of the growing unrest, and continually fight to preserve what they see as order without ever really understanding what has caused their fight. It presents an uneasy tension; the potential victims here in this war are, arguably, “innocents”; women, children, civilians. Quickly it becomes clear the novel is providing a crash-course in the concept of shared guilt and privilege; do people who profit from oppression have the right to claim they have no part in it? The families of those who occupied India, nevertheless, play a part in occupying India.

Thus the novel dissects self-delusion, the belief that one can benefit from empire without actively supporting it. As a basic political groundwork through the medium of satire it is a very good and accessible post-colonial novel. By removing the grand geopolitical context from the Mutiny and focusing on a microcosm of people whose direct culpability is questionable, the reader has to weigh in their heads whether or not they really root for those under siege. Traditional siege-narrative – the status quo beseiged by revolution – either plainly favours politically the revolutionaries or the status quo. Farrell focuses almost exclusively on the beseiged, but in so doing makes them unheroic. Yet in turn a “simple” political question (was the British colonisation of India really a good thing) is made complex by the idea that the downfall of the British Empire would put a lot of “ordinary” people in danger. One would, of course, fight to protect one’s family if under attack. Self-preservation is natural. It is only the outsider perspective, the historical hindsight which lets us look at an empire in a post-colonial world, that makes one consider that occupiers may deserve usurpation, and all occupiers are partially culpable.

Thus Krishnapur. A novel whose politics are worn clearly and which serves as a kind of colonial litmus test; can one make the logical leap of realising that while base humanitarian instinct does not wish to see women and children killed, this empathetic desire does not begin to address whether or not the fighting in which they are involved is just or not. From here, we may consider Troubles, which offers a more nuanced and interesting conflict because it takes so much longer to actually reach its conflict. Troubles focuses on an English veteran returning to Ireland after the First World War, attempting to reconnect with his Irish fiancee. He hopes to retire in Ireland, living in a quiet, mostly vacant hotel and staying safely out of further fighting. Put like this it is hard not to sympathise. The historical hindsight that contextualised the Indian Mutiny as the boiling-point of a period of systematic exploitation allows a reader to know the First World War was a conflict of unprecedented horror, and anyone who survived it surely deserves a peaceful life.

In his efforts to be a man of peace, the Major, the novel’s protagonist, tries to live an apolitical life. He is made aware of the growing dissent in Ireland – between Protestants and Catholics and between the Irish and British, and tries to act in a way which will prevent conflict. He is equally amiable to all sides in this conflict, seeing himself as a friendly, mediatory figure. Instead he only worsens the conflict, appearing a traitor and conniving figure – angering everyone by his refusal (depicted representatively by his constant vacillation concerning his love life) to ever take a side. Reading this political stance from a modern perspective paints him as an ineffectual faux-liberal, someone who is receptive to revolution in theory but still “hates violence” and wishes people would get along. Renouncing violence is something that allows one to appease conservative, anti-revolutionary voices while still offering lip service to those seeking to bring down the privileged – all to the good, one may say. The Major’s fate, to witness a constant decline into violence and the destruction of his “easy life” in alienating everyone who might care for him, shows why his “apolitical” stance is a lie. In “renouncing violence” he can be read as tacitly accepting the status quo; even when presented with proof of the justification of revolution, he still feels revolution is not the appropriate course of action. “Renouncing” revolutionary violence in the way he does – offhandedly, and insincerely making efforts at “balance” in condemning oppression as a series of isolated, extreme violent acts – is effectively excusing the status quo. Violence is bad as a thing, but the causes of it have no part in this. The British rule would be fine if it was slightly nicer. The Irish rising would be fine if it was slightly nicer.

Apathy is not apolitical. This is the thesis of Troubles, and it is a novel which quite redefined my reading of political fiction. Amiably giving lip-service to “both sides” in an argument, trying to find ways to justify what is being rebelled against while also justifying rebellion, paints one as on the side of the status-quo because it can be so easily read as a seeking a mediocre, inconclusive compromise. This is given another twist by the wider context of Troubles. The Major returns to Ireland before the conflict escalates, declares his intent to remain “neutral” and then, nevertheless, remains right at its heart. His constant refrain is seeking a non-confrontational life, away from conflict, in which he may blunder about being amiable to all sides. This is the hypocrisy that makes his decline inevitable. He professes disinterest in a conflict then positions himself squarely at its front-line, happily crossing battle-lines to talk to those fighting as if their struggle does not even exist, and actively rejects opportunities to leave.

It is hard to deny he has earned, as a character, peace after living through war. What is made plain is that his demand for “peace” is peace in a warzone. He wants to live as an Englishman right in the middle of an Ireland increasingly hostile to the English, he expects the Irish to love his friendliness and “mediatory” position, and this is plainly absurd. Someone truly with no stake in the conflict, who wished to avoid it, would not remain at the front. His refusal to take a side becomes ever more clearly tacit opposition to the revolution. This is the beauty of Farrell’s novels; they present apparently “solved” historical situations, ones where hindsight presents all manner of apparent answers, and constantly question popular wisdom. A man of peace wanders a warzone trying to remain oblivious to the war. People who arguably do not deserve to die nevertheless had a part to play in the outbreak of a war they may die in. I know these sentiments are not exactly innovative, but what these novels did was present them in a way that educated me, that made me reconsider how I viewed the world – both history and current affairs. It is easy for works to claim to be apolitical or neutral. What these novels showed is that it is almost impossible for anyone to be truly neutral in discussing a topic because the common rhetorical tricks of neutrality are sophistry to disguise acceptance of one side or another.

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