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Sep 22, 2010

Troubles: by Farrell

J. G. Farrell's Troubles (1970)is the first novel in his so-called "Empire Trilogy," followed by The Siege of Krishnapur (1973, Booker Prize winner) and The Singapore Grip (1978). Of course "Troubles" refers to the ongoing violence between Irish republicans and British security forces (the notorious "Black and Tans") in the early 20th century after the Easter Uprising of 1916 and during the subsequent Irish civil war, and then later between Protestant Unionists and the IRA in the middle decades of the century and sporadically until the present day.

Farrell, meanwhile, sees the fall of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in the wider context of the general collapse of the British Empire starting with World War I. Troubles is written from the perspective of these Englishmen whose world is rapidly collapsing, the "native Irish" are here seemingly passive but unmistakably menacing townsfolk, mostly offstage. The central allegory, and a brilliant concept it is, is the Hotel Majestic, a Victorian-era grand hotel on the Irish Sea coast near Wexford, the southeastern coast of Ireland (that is, looking towards England). The hotel is huge and was once magnificent, the scene of generations of memories of the grand old days of Anglo dominance, and the abode of a coterie of elderly ladies who have been there so long that they are part of the legacy.

The building, however, is falling down around their heads, as Edward Spencer, the proprietor, hasn't been able to summon either the money or the will to maintain it for years. Algae-filled swimming pools, handball courts used as pig sties, long-empty rooms full of mouldering furniture, and mysterious recesses known only to malingering, half-mad servants and feral cats: the crumbling old pile is the star of the book. Not that the book isn't filled with excellent human characters, in fact there is a large eccentric cast of people, centered around Major Archer, a veteran of the trenches who wanders out to Ireland at loose ends and drops himself off of the earth by becoming Edward's best friend and installing himself at the Majestic, where he whiles away the weeks playing whist with the "old ladies," as they are invariably called.

Of course this is a world out of time, drifting towards the falls, and things are going to end badly. The genius of the book (and this is one of the best Irish novels I've read, and if you look over this blog you'll see that I've read quite a few) is that it is, page after page, hilarious. It's so funny that one laughs out loud again and again. This humor is what makes the book powerful. It brings out the essence of tragedy, that is that it's the simple foibles and limitations of human nature that slowly lead us into inevitable moments of violent upheaval. The imperial madness of the English, defiantly asserting their cultural prerogatives against the background of a subjugated but overwhelming local culture that is only dimly understood, is brilliantly rendered.

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