J. G. Farrell


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 10, 2003)

"A situation which defied comprehension, a war without battles or trenches. Why should one bother with the details: the raids for arms, the shootings of policemen, the intimidations? What could one learn from the details of chaos?"

Originally published in 1970 and newly reprinted by The New York Review of Books, J. G. Farrell's Troubles, the story of Ireland's fight for its independence from England, from the close of World War I through 1922, illuminates the attitudes and insensitivities that made revolution a necessity for the Irish people. Farrell also, however, focuses on the personal costs to the residential Anglo-Irish aristocracy as they find themselves being driven out of their "homes."

Life in this novel takes place within the microcosm of a 300-room hotel on the coast of County Wexford run by Edward Spencer, a conservative Protestant loyalist who, regarding himself as a benevolent landowner, demands total submission of his tenants and the signing of a loyalty oath to the King, something they refuse to do. The hotel, lacking maintenance during the war and its aftermath, is now too costly to repair, and it is rapidly becoming a ruin, as the number of British tourists and summer guests dwindles during the early stages of the Irish rebellion, and the number of elderly permanent guests, unable to pay their rent, remains the same. Sinn Fein attacks occur in and around the property, but they are, at first, merely minor inconveniences and annoyances, and the reader, like the residents at the hotel, never sees any of the revolutionaries up close or personally.

Major Brendan Archer, newly released from hospital where he has been recovering from the long-term emotional effects of his wartime experience, arrives at the ironically named Majestic Hotel on a bleak and rainy day to reintroduce himself to his fiancée Angela, daughter of the proprietor, and, if they agree to marry, to return with her to a home in England. The Major, however, is greeted by no one upon his arrival at the hotel desk, and he must find his own way to the Palm Court, "a vast, shadowy cavern in which…beds of oozing mould supported banana and rubber plants, hairy ferns, elephant grass and creepers that dangled from above like emerald intestines." Despite the claustrophobic and depressing atmosphere, and the lack of an immediate betrothal, the Major remains at the hotel, off and on, for three years, as it begins, literally, to fall around the ears of the inhabitants, and the rebellions and incursions by local farmers and "Shinners" become more ominous.

The Majestic Hotel, with its echoes of His Majesty, is a symbol of British rule in Ireland, which will be obvious to the reader. Perched on the coast of southeast Ireland, it faces England and Wales, but the storms, tides, and destructive winds off the Irish Sea have scoured its façade and undermined its structure. Windows are broken, the roof leaks, and decorative gewgaws and balconies hang loosely, threatening to crash. Within the hotel itself, the vegetation in the Palm Court has taken over the lounge, and the lamp which is its only source of light, has been "throttled by a snake of greenery that…circled up its slender metal stem as far as the black bulb that crowned it like a bulging eyeball." Roots from the plants have worked their way inside walls, floors, and even ceilings, swelling and cracking them. The hotel's ironically named Imperial Bar is "boiling with cats," some of which live inside upholstered chairs and all of which subsist on a diet of rats and mice. The handful of mostly female tenants who remain at the hotel are aged, clinging to the faded elegance of the Majestic because they have no place else to call home.

The decrepitude of the Majestic offers Farrell unlimited opportunities to indulge his formidable gifts of description and wry humor. Conjuring up images from our own nightmares, he selects small, vivid details to make the larger thematic picture more real. Edward's introduction of peacocks to the menagerie, the Major's need to change rooms constantly as he is driven out by the weather or decay, and the eventual takeover of the hotel's top floor by the cats are homely details which enlarge his canvas and bring his symbolism home to the reader. Clearly life at the Majestic would be as intolerable for the reader as it is to the inhabitants, forced as they are to watch their "home" becoming less and less habitable. As the details continue to pile up, the reader's feeling of claustrophobia and the need to escape builds.

When two Irish policemen are killed by Sinn Fein in a distant town, the event has little effect on the inhabitants of the Majestic, and they continue to see themselves as part of the British "moral authority" over the more primitive, uncivilized Irish. But as the reader learns about the earlier Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the number of quick executions by the British administration, along with disturbances at the Peace Day Parade in Dublin, the killing of innocents by Sinn Fein because of their religion, the fighting in Derry, and the continued burnings and raids, the danger becomes more immediate and more obvious.

Injecting small news stories throughout the narrative, Farrell sets up global parallels to the rebellion in Ireland, widening his scope by illuminating that time in postwar British history when virtually all the colonies of the empire were simultaneously agitating for independence. Newspaper stories about the British army's firing on the populace in Amritsar, the laying down of arms by the Connaught Rangers in India in sympathy with the Irish people, a "native" uprising in South Africa, along with the Chicago Riots and the Bolshevist attacks in Kiev give wider scope to the Irish rebellion and its attendant violence. When Edward and the Major finally begin to shoot the Majestic's cats, and Edward shoots his beloved, blind dog, the reader is prepared for a final round of violence at the Majestic and almost welcomes it.

Though Farrell won the Booker Prize in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur, Troubles may be his best-known and most memorable novel, and this new reprinting will make it accessible to a new readership previously unfamiliar with his work. Few readers will be able to forget the humor (and even satire) that is injected here at some of the most emotional moments. And while the reader can develop some sympathy for the Major and for the Majestic's inhabitants, Farrell paints them with such a broad brush that one is constantly aware of their absurdity and never truly identifies with them. Clearly delineating the emotional issues behind the drive for Irish independence, he makes the reader see both sides with empathy. From the outset we know, however, that Farrell believes that independence from British rule is both necessary and inescapable. As violence comes to the Majestic, we see that Farrell has prepared us to recognize that violence is random, its events "inevitable, without malice, part of history."

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About the Author:

J. G. FarrellJames Gordon Farrell was born in England in 1935 of Anglo-Irish family. Academically and athletically gifted, Farrell grew up in England and Ireland. In 1956, during his first term at Oxford, he suffered what seemed a minor injury on the rugby pitch. Within days, however, he was diagnosed with polio, which nearly killed him and left him permanently weakened. After his recovering, which required six-months in an iron lung, he spent two years teaching English in France while working on his first novel.

Troubles was set into motion when he came upon a grand hotel destroyed by fire on Block Island, Rhode Island. Troubles was short-listed for the Booker and won the Faber Memorial Prize. He travelled to India and Nepal to write Siege of Krishnapur, which did win the 1973 Booker award. While travelling in India again for his second novel, his health deteriated and after publishing Singapore Grip he bought a farmhouse in Bantry Bay on the Irish coast in early 1979. Four months later, on August 11, Farrell was hit by a wave while fishing and was washed out to sea. His body was found a month later.

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