Tuesday, November 01, 2011

J.G.Farrell - The Singapore Grip

The Singapore Grip is a different novel to the others in J.G.Farrell's Empire trilogy. At just of 675 pages in length it is by far the longest and sadly at times, it has a somewhat bloated feel. But its length is not the only difference. The two earlier novels dealt with the end of the British Empire, through the lens of two moments of Imperial collapse. The first, The Siege of Krishnapaur, deals with the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the follow-up, Troubles, with the Irish Rebellion of 1919.

The Singapore Grip, as the name suggests, deals with the invasion of the supposedly impenetrable base of Singapore during World War II. Singapore, the jewel in the crown of Britain's South-East Asian interests, is, at the beginning of the conflict, seemingly untouched by the troubles of the home country. The Second World War has barely impacted upon the lives of the British characters here. In Singapore, most Brits lead a life of luxury, lording it over the natives whose lives are destined to serve and create profit for the British.

Here is the crucial difference. Rather cleverly, Farrel spends the vast majority of the novel dealing with metaphors for the end of the old order, without dealing with the war itself. Reflecting the period he is writing about, the novel is dominated by the business of making profits from rubber. The characters who he concentrates on, are those intimately connected with big business. Even their love lives and weddings are about sealing the future of profits. Rubber is a business that is doing well from the war, in high demand for the tanks, planes and ships that the Allies need. There appears to be a high demand, much higher than the rubber being sent abroad. Yet the industry is barely operating at capacity, much more rubber could be produced, but that would reduce its price and effect profits. Despite their protestations of loyalty, these rubber barons stand first and foremost with their shareholders.

So here is the decline, a metaphor for the changing world itself, the power of big business to override all other ideas and principles in the search for higher profits. Farrell challenges this of course. The main spanner in the works is Matthew, a young heir to a vast rubber fortune, whose ideas of human fraternity, clash badly with those at the dinner parties around him.

As with Troubles and Siege, the principle characters steal the show. We know what is coming, so we can guess the threat they face. But Farrell spends much more time filling in the faces of the supporting cast. Here are native workers from Singapore, refugees from the conflict between China and Japan and servants. Few of these are as obnoxious as the establishment figures that we follow, but they had, as history shows, far more to lose.

The ending is ambiguous. Delightfully so. We do not know what happens to most of the characters, though Farrell leaves us some hints. Singapore was liberated eventually, but the refugees who had escaped there and been trapped as well as many of those soldiers taken prisoner, suffered dreadfully. But the British experience was never the same. The last of the Empire Trilogy, is a fitting end to a story that spans a period of a century - the gradual decline and fall of the British colonial rule. The ambiguity of the ending of this novel, perhaps being a further metaphor for the continuing imperial ambitions of a small island off the north-west of Europe that cannot seem to realise that its glory days are over.

Related Reviews

Farrell - Siege of Krishnapaur
Farrell - Troubles

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