Troubles by J.G. Farrell (1970) NYRB Classics (2002) 459 pp
I’m afraid I won’t be able to review any more of the Lost Booker shortlist before the voting period ends on Friday — but at least we got that extra week, right? I still don’t think the public was given nearly enough time to read and properly vote on the winner, especially when there are a couple of long, dense works that should be strong contenders. Troubles was one of those long, dense works. It took me quite a long time to read. Some of it was because I have been incredibly busy with work, taking away my nights and weekends to the detriment of my reading and blogging, among other things. However, it wasn’t only work that made this a long read. Troubles, though a pleasure, is a heavy historical book dealing with a very complicated mess. In a matter of pages, many things can happen, each with its parallel meaning, so I ceded to the book’s demand and slowed my pace. I’m glad I did, too, because in the end I was happy to have spent so much time with this book on my mind.
Troubles is part of Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, books that take a snapshot of the British Empire in various states of decay. Also included is The Singapore Grip, which I haven’t read yet, and The Seige of Krisnhapur (my review here), one of my favorite Booker winners. Troubles takes us to Ireland in 1919. Major Brendan Archer has survived France in the Great War and is on his way to Ireland to meet up with his fiancée, Angela, an Anglo-Irish daughter of the once-wealthy Edward Spencer. The Spencers own the Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough. Just a generation or two ago, the hotel was a thriving, luxurious abode of the gentry. In 1919 it has a few remaining elderly guests whose presence brings the past more sharply in relief; they feel like ghosts of a better past still haunting the grounds. Here is how Farrell introduces the Majestic; he devotes the first lines of the novel to it:
In those days the Majestic was still standing in Kilnalough at the very end of a slim peninsula covered with dead pines leaning here and there at odd angles. At that time there were probably yachts there too during the summer since the hotel held a regatta every July. These yachts would have been beached on one or other of the sandy crescents that curved out towards the hotel on each side of the peninsula. But now both pines and yachts have floated away and one day the high tide may very well meet over the narrowest part of the peninsula, made narrower by erosion. As for the regatta, for some reason it was discontinued years ago, before the Spencers took over the management of the place. And a few years later still the Majestic itself followed the boats and preceded the pines into oblivion by burning to the ground — but by that time, of course, the place was in such a state of disrepair that it hardly mattered.
The state of disrepair is obvious to the Major when he arrives. He is surprised to find rooms that haven’t been touched in years, rooms where cats are thriving, and eventually, trying to find a suitable room, he has inhabited a good bit of the Majestic’s space. As he arrives, disoriented, the Major is surprised not to have Angela waiting for him. He meets her father, her brother Ripon, and many more inhabitants before encountering Angela as she sits taking tea. She had written him so many letters, but he is surprised to find she is not at all how she was in the letters or indeed as she was when they first met. Not that that meeting had been anything impressive:
They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere.
Still, over the course of the years since that kiss, he felt confident that they were engaged. One of the best features of Farrell’s writing, however, is how he creates ghosts in the narrative. The Major rarely meets with Angela throughout the course of the entire book. And there are other ghosts in the narrative. First is Sarah Devlin, one of Angela’s friends and the woman with whom the Major will fall in love. Where Angela is Anglo-Irish, Sarah is pure Irish and a Catholic:
“Angela told you all that, of course. But you’ve forgotten the most important thing.”
“The fact that I’m a Catholic. Yes, I can see that she told you but that you regard it as a fact too shameful to mention. Or perhaps you regard it as good manners not to mention such an affliction.”
“What absolute nonsense!”
“Pay no attention, Sarah got out of bed the wrong side as usual.”
“Be quiet, Ripon! It’s not nonsense at all. Ripon’s father calls us ‘fish-eaters’ and ‘Holy Romans’ and so on. So does Ripon. So will you, Major, when you’re among the ‘quality.’ In fact, you’ll become a member of the ‘quality’ yourself, high and mighty, too good for the rest of us.”
“I hope not to be so bigoted,” said the Major smiling. “Surely there’s no need to abandon one’s reason simply because one is in Ireland.”
Though the Major falls in love with Sarah, and though we do encounter her every once in a while, she still is, for much of the book, an absence felt. Months go by without their meeting, and she haunts the Major all the time. He even finds a warm room full of sheets in which he retires to imagine her with him. Farrell’s humour can be highlighted (the whole book is full of comedy) by looking at a few passages with the Major and Sarah. Here he the omniscient narrator speaking about the hopeless Major:
Until now, incredible though it may seem, the Major had never considered that love, like war, is best conducted with experience of tactics. His instinct helped him a little. It warned him, for instance, against unconditional surrender.(“Do with me as you see fit, Sarah.”) With Sarah he somehow knew that that would not work. He was learning slowly, by experience. Next time he had a love affair he would do much better. But to the love-drugged Major that was not much consolation.
And here is a bit of the comedy of manners that comes out:
Although his indifference to her had been amply demonstrated, the Major still could not prevent himself from haunting the couple, in the hope of getting further opportunities to demonstrate it.
Of course, the book has a very dark side. There is a lot of destruction going on and a lot of death offstage (and onstage, periodically). Which brings up another conspicuous absence: the Sinn Feiners, the rebel Irish who are, according to Edward Spencer, destroying the country. Or, according to others, the Patriots who will settle for nothing less than home rule. There are frequent tales of a Sinn Feiner shooting a cop or blowing up something, but we almost never see one. And even when there is a group of them present, it is written in such a way that we can feel them but not see them. It’s wondrous how Farrell does this.
In this context, Troubles becomes an intricate allegory of the British Empire in Ireland. The Majestic, it is obvious from page one, represents the Empire itself. But the Major’s motives for being at the Majestic are tied to the historical context. The cats, the bamboo, the statues, the sea: all come together in surprising ways.
But, if allegory scares anyone, Troubles is also a great historical read. Farrell is not obviously allegorical, as some are. His narrative goes on naturally and one need never look for symbols to understand the tragedy that is occurring in the lives, historical and personal, in 1919 Ireland.