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J G Farrell and the last gasp of the British empire

NS critics on the winner of the Lost Man Booker Prize.

As the reading season approaches, one book readers might not have thought to pack on holiday, but which would well deserve their leisure time, is J G Farrell's Troubles (Phoenix), which was this week declared the winner of the Lost Man Booker Prize, a one-off award for the best books of 1970 -- never considered for the Booker because of a change in the rules that year.

Set on the east coast of Ireland in 1919 -- the eve of the Irish war of independence -- Troubles tells the tragicomic story of Major Brendan Archer, recently discharged from the British army, who visits a down-at-heel hotel, the Majestic, in the hope of finding a woman he is convinced must be his fiancée.

Troubles was the first of what became known as Farrell's "Empire trilogy", a series of novels that explored the decline of the British empire. Writing in the New Statesman in 1999, Tony Gould recalled Farrell's long-standing preoccupation with the subject:

"It seemed to me," [Farrell] once said, "that the really interesting thing that's happened during my lifetime has been the decline of the British empire." He also remarked that "being half Irish and half English I'm able to look at the same thing from both sides -- from that of the colonist and the colonised".

His work was also saluted in the NS by the literary critic Christopher Tayler, who wrote:

Farrell's writing is well worth rediscovering. Sardonic, generous, eccentric and sad, it seems as original now as it must have done in the 1970s, before successive waves of historical and post-colonial fiction dampened the memory of Farrell's achievements in this line. His "trilogy" is concerned with the gap between imperial ideals and imperial practice -- with the idea that "a nation", as one of his characters comes to suspect, "does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge". Yet the novels are never earnest or pompous. On the contrary, they are often extremely funny, combining vivid historical backdrops with an ironic, absurd sense of humour pitched somewhere between P G Wodehouse and Samuel Beckett.