"Let us pray. Let us thank the Lord for all His mercies . . .
For there is an order in the universe . . . Everything is ordained for a purpose in this life, from the lowest to the highest, for God's universe is like a pyramid reaching from the most lowly amongst us up to Heaven. Without this purpose our life here below would be nothing more than a random collection of desperate acts . . . I repeat, a random collection of desperate acts. Ripon, would you have the common decency to put that cigarette out and wait until I've finished?"
So intones Edward Spencer, an alarmingly volatile Protestant landowner, over breakfast in Troubles (1970), the first of J G Farrell's tragi-farcical masterpieces depicting the collapse of the British empire along
with the ideas that sustained it. These novels - the other two are
The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) and The Singapore Grip (1978) - are sometimes spoken of as a trilogy, but it is a posthumous designation. In 1979, halfway through writing the book that was eventually published as The Hill Station (1981), Farrell drowned while fishing on the west coast of Ireland. He was 44. His historical novels are still in print in the UK, but in America they are deemed sufficiently obscure for NYRB Classics to have reissued them in handsome new editions with introductions by John Banville, Pankaj Mishra and Derek Mahon.
And 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.
In Troubles, the Major - a haunted veteran of the First World War - travels to Ireland, where Angela Spencer, to whom he may or may not be engaged, awaits him at the Majestic Hotel. It is 1919, and the once-splendid Majestic is now astonishingly decrepit. Creepers choke the empty ballrooms, cats have taken over the Imperial Bar, and Edward, the proprietor, is too busy railing against the insurgent nationalists to notice that Ireland is on the brink of independence. Tiptoeing around his ageing fellow guests, drugged by the sadness that hangs in the corridors "like an invisible gas", the Major finds himself witnessing the last days of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.
Troubles has some brilliant comic set pieces - most memorably
a scene in which two young Black and Tans set out to ravish Edward's twin daughters, with unfortunate results. And while the Majestic Hotel is very blatantly a symbol of imperial decline, it is so intensely imagined that it takes on a sprawling, baroque life of its own. The same thing happens in The Siege of Krishnapur, in which a cantonment of befuddled colonialists defends itself against the Indian Mutiny with whatever comes to hand. Here the action is almost allegorical: a statue called "The Spirit of Science Conquers Ignorance and Prejudice" is used as ammunition, for example. But the comic detail is developed with such hallucinatory clarity that the symbolism doesn't seem heavy-handed.
Farrell's last completed novel, The Singapore Grip, takes its title from the sexual attainment more commonly known as the "Shanghai squeeze". "Watch out for the Singapore Grip", an RAF man shouts as he deposits the puzzled hero, Matthew Webb, in the pre-Second World War islands. No one is prepared to explain what he meant, and Matthew thinks the grip might be some kind of flu. By the time someone tells him, he has decided that the real Singapore Grip is that of western capital. He speaks from experience, having become entangled with the monstrous Blackett family, whose patriarch, Walter, is prepared to do almost anything to protect his rubber plantations. Meanwhile, the Japanese army approaches, and we spend time with one Private Kikuchi, who has good reasons for suspecting that his commanding officer is not "altogether sane".
It is impossible to do justice to any of Farrell's novels in a short review. Summarising the plots makes them sound like quasi-Marxist versions of Carry On Up the Khyber, but, even as the characters' worlds dissolve into a random collection of desperate acts, they are never just clowns, and Farrell's laughter is not straightforwardly cruel. Even the likes of Walter Blackett have a saving glint of ironic self-awareness. And while Farrell vigorously mocks the antiquated ideals held by the Major and his counterparts in The Siege of Krishnapur, their passing is viewed with melancholy compassion.
In his fine essay on The Siege, Pankaj Mishra quotes Conrad, who famously wrote of "the conquest of the earth" that "what redeems it is the idea only". Farrell's novels succeed because they manage to convey the seductiveness of "the idea" even while tracing its appalling real-life consequences with black comedy. They are also beautifully and idiosyncratically written, with a streak of wayward sexiness and a sharp eye for unexpected period detail. "If Troubles is the expression of the end of a world," John Banville writes in his introduction, "it is one of the most finely modulated and magically comic whimpers the reader is ever likely to catch."