Friday, March 5, 2010

NYRB Challenge #22: Pack Up Your Troubles. . .


This is why I embarked on this challenge; I knew I'd discover some extraordinary writers who, for whatever reason, had disappeared into relative (and inexplicable) obscurity and J.G. Farrell is just such a one. I picked up Troubles because it was one of the titles that popped up on the longlist for the recently announced Lost Man Booker Prize which recognizes novels published in 1970 that, due to changes in the rules, fell through a timing gap and weren't considered for the prize. I've also had a fascination with Irish history ever since I took a Modern Irish Drama Course - and of course there's no getting away from the "Troubles" when discussing either the history or the literature of that period - or indeed any part of the 20th century.

Major Brendan Archer goes to Ireland to reluctantly fulfill his duty to marry Angela Spencer, a woman he vaguely made promises to during a leave in Brighton. It's 1919 and the war is over but definitely not forgotten, at least for Archer who has recently been suffering from shell shock. Angela lives on the southern coast in a crumbling three hundred room hotel called the Majestic, rather haphazardly run by her father and some old, decrepit servants. Archer is appalled by the deteriorating conditions - holes in the roof and rotting floors, damp sheets and unmade beds, and areas almost completely overrun by cats; he even finds a rotting sheep's head in his bedroom's chamberpot. He resolves to leave as soon as possible. Two years later, even though Angela has since died, Archer is more ensconced than ever in this strange community of stalwart Anglo-Irish Protestants, consisting of the fiercely stubborn and eccentric owner, Edward Spencer, and a group of elderly, single women - apathetic yet resilient guests who remain at the hotel because they have nowhere else to go. And there's also old, blind Mrs. Rappaport, Angela's grandmother who seems to live in a cupboard, released only for meals.

"How incredibly Irish it all is!" thought the Major wonderingly. "The family seems to be completely mad."

And yet Archer feels increasingly responsible for watching over this extended family - perhaps because no one else seems to care. He's also fallen in love with an opinionated and headstrung woman named Sarah - who happens to be Catholic. His timid wooing of her amid the heightened tension in the village between Sinn Feiners and Edward, is played out in a comic way but with very real and threatening undertones of violence - with increasing implications for Archer, no matter how detached and apolitical he tries to remain. There is unrest and disorganization in both the hotel and the country's politics, but Farrell does an interesting job of placing it in context among the "troubles" in other parts of Ireland, the world and in particular the British Empire by randomly injecting snippets from newspaper articles into the narrative. News of deaths in Belfast lie alongside reports on unrest in India and South Africa. And throughout there are constant reminders of the horrors and sadness of the world war that may be over, but still troubles the minds of its veterans. It's a wonderfully written novel that I can't get out of my head. I found it tragically funny, and wistfully sad, and I loved following all of these deluded characters who nevertheless keep their heroic stiff upper lips while the only world they've known trembles around them.

Troubles is the first book in Farrell's loose Empire Trilogy; the other two are The Siege of Krishnapur (which won the Booker Prize in 1973) and The Singapore Grip, both also published as NYRB Classics, and definitely on my to-be-read list. Meanwhile it'll be interesting to see how Troubles fares in the Lost Booker Prize contest.

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