Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Singapore Grip

This is the second of J.G. Farrell's three "Empire" books that I've read. The first was The Siege of Krishnapur, which I finished this summer. The Singapore Grip and Krishnapur follow the same action arc: British imperials realize their danger just a bit too late to avoid getting routed out of their colonial homes-away-from-home. Grip, which followed on the heels of Farrell's prize-winning Krishnapur, is just a bit more ambitious.

Where the entirety of the action in Krishnapur was contained within the (increasingly) harried and cramped quarters of a British magistrate's Residence in rural India (where mutinous sepoys have the English contingent cornered), Farrell gives his readers the run of 1940s Singapore — and, indeed, in some passages a peek into "upstate" Malaysia, where the fumbling British Army engages the advancing Japanese.

The book starts slowly — excruciatingly slowly, as Farrell introduces us to his characters and spins forth their petty preoccupations. Walter Blackett is the middle-aged, self-satisfied entrepreneur planning the 50th jubilee of his company, Blackett and Webb. He's trying to marry off his feisty daughter, Joan. Matthew Webb is newly arrived in Singapore. His father, Blackett's partner, has just died, and Matthew stands to inherit the business, notwithstanding his grave concerns about the workings of colonial capitalism. Might Matthew be a suitor for Joan, or does the American military attaché, Ehrendorf, have a monopoly on her affections? Matthew moves in with "The Major," a restless ex-pat who only dimly remembers his days on the Continent, and the cynical, world-wise Frenchman hanger-on Dupigny (The Cynical Frenchman is always a useful character type).

If you got through that last paragraph, you did better than I did. It took me months to push through the first 150 pages of this book. This is, I think, a difficulty with Farrell's work, as I had the same trouble with Krishnapur. That said, right about the time you're begging for something to break the tropical tedium, the Japanese military swoops in, sinks two British battleships, lands on the Malay peninsula, and commences air raids on Singapore. And the book takes off.

It was a kind of cluelessness that brought Singapore to its knees — and Farrell tells just how with wry humor and pointed commentary. His characters seem like stock characters at first: each one is vested with a particular point of view, and he seems to arrange for them to encounter one another simply so that they might debate the big questions of empire. Blackett's notion is that what's good for his company is good for Singapore — even as his business maneuvers undermine the Allied defense. We're introduced to Singapore through Matthew, fresh off a stint volunteering for the hopeless League of Nations. He's the self-interested Blackett's foil, arguing constantly for a kind of responsible communalism, if not communism outright. Dupigny can't miss an opportunity to roll his eyes at Matthew's idealism. The Major is the stiff-upper-lip Briton who stays above the argumentative fray and, against all odds, pulls a ragged multiracial bunch of dilettantes together into an effective volunteer firefighting corps. Joan, it turns out, is just a bitch (that's not my word: it's Matthew's).

In the end, it's the war that turns these cardboard cutouts into characters, and it's good work on Farrell's part. Farrell describes the particulars of the Japanese invasion and the British withdrawal/defense in considerable detail. You don't need to review the bibliography in the back of the book to know that it's been exhaustively researched. Somehow the history never burdens the plot. Once or twice Farrell's narrative turns away from the Singapore cast to consider the attack from the perspective of a Japanese infantryman. I'm not the biggest fan of these passages. Farrell's shtick is to tell these stories (Grip and Krishnapur) completely from the warped perspective of the hapless colonials, and these brief interludes seem like a bit of a cheat. But I get what he's driving at: while the British generals dither over internal military politics, while Walter Blackett machinates against his business rivals and diverts materials needed for the war effort into his jubilee floats, while Matthew makes and repeats his impassioned pleas for the world's people to come together and care for one another — the Japanese press southward, indefatigably, on a mission, and without distraction.

And that's really how this story goes. If you can survive the brutal build-up to the invasion, this is a worthy read, with some priceless moments (training day for the firefighting volunteers and General Percival and the sound of sawing wood leap to mind). I learned much that I did not know about this theater of the war, and I laughed quite a bit.

UPDATE: I forgot to add, as I intended to do, that I came across the word tarmacadam in this book. That'll be the Word of the Week.

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