The Empire Trilogy

The Man Booker Prize may not always shift as many units as its shortlisted authors and publishers would like, but it does occasionally have the virtue of introducing readers to writers they might not otherwise have met, providing a sort of glorified speed-dating service for the incurably promiscuous among us. And like speed-dating (I imagine; I’ve never tried it but I have indulged in its grittier alternative, as readers of my short stories will be aware), it sometimes leads on the real thing. This year’s decision to award JG Farrell the Lost Man Booker Prize for Troubles is a case in point. Farrell had been on the farthest edge of my peripheral vision for years but I might never have read his work if the Booker judges hadn’t decided it was even better than Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven. (That good, I thought. Surely not). Well, they were right. I’ve now read all three of the Empire Trilogy and it’s love.

Empires, like relationships and sticks of seaside rock, express themselves most clearly at their point of fracture. And as with relationships (although not, one hopes, with rock), the fracture is likely to be anything but clean. Farrell’s trilogy looks at three different colonial outposts – Ireland, India and Singapore – and three different periods, between 1860 and 1945, and what he finds is that most people – on whichever side of the fracture they stand – have only the slightest idea of what’s happening around them, and of their role in it. This isn’t new; the death-struggle between ignorance and culpability is often at the heart of tragedy. Farrell, of course, is perfectly aware of who does what, and of how small  acts have large consequences, just as large acts can have insignificant, or entirely unpredicted, ones. One of the most interesting aspects of these three novels, for me, is the way the lives of the characters are folded into the greater issues, which will ultimately determine what happens to them and which treat them, as their author doesn’t, with total indifference. Sometimes – particularly in The Singapore Grip, which, more than the other two, sets the action at the local centre of power – this is achieved through the public role they occupy, as movers and shakers, compromised by and complicit in the final throes of the world they’ve helped create. In Troubles, probably my favourite of the three, it’s the way essentially innocent characters – insofar as anyone is innocent – cope with the fallout from larger events that provides the pathos. Farrell’s very good at foolishness, and how dangerous, and dangerously ineffectual, well-meaning people can be – much of the humour in the books comes from this. In Troubles, the Major is a figure of fun, thwarted in love, apparently aimless, damaged by war in a way that hasn’t ennobled him, so much as displaced and demoted him, transferred him to a smaller stage. But he’s also the epitome of decency, and decency is a powerful value in Farrell’s world, regardless of its larger-scale effect, recognising perhaps that there can be no larger-scale effect, and that this isn’t finally so important. Coming across him decades later in Singapore is one of the great joys of the trilogy.

The most lasting single scene for me, though, from these three extraordinarily rich, intelligent and compassionate books, is in The Singapore Grip, and describes a visit to a place called the dying house. Guilt and innocence, realisation and the refusal to realise, coloniser and colonised come together in this scene in the most extraordinary, and – appropriately – harrowing, fashion. I don’t have the book with me as I write, but my index card (see preceding post) tells me it’s on pp 355-360 of the Penguin edition.  It’s wonderful.


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