Troubles: the prize at last

Recently JG Farrell’s novel Troubles was chosen by readers as winner of the Lost Booker award, intended to correct the anomaly that befell authors of books published in 1970, who missed the opportunity to be considered for the Booker prize when it changed from being given retrospectively to being handed out for the best novel in the year of publication.  This publicity encouraged me to return to a book I first read in the 1970s (as it must have done many others: when I ordered the reprint on Amazon they were initially out of stock, due to the high level of demand – so the prize certainly represented a successful piece of marketing). And this book deserves to be rediscovered:  it is a 20th century masterpiece.

Troubles is set against the background of events in Ireland in 1919 – the struggle for independence led by Sinn Fein and the atrocities of the Black and Tans – and the story unfolds in the microcosm of the rambling and decaying Majestic hotel run by Edward Spencer, a conservative Protestant loyalist back from serving in India who demands that his tenants sign a loyalty oath to the King and stockpiles weapons to defend the hotel against the rebels. To the hotel in 1919 comes Major Brendan Archer, recovering from shell-shock, to be re-acquianted with the woman to whom he is almost certain he became engaged during the war.  The novel begins in the present, as Archer’s grandchild survey’s the ruins of the Majestic:

Curiously, in spite of the corrosive effects of the sea air the charred remains of the enormous main building are still to be seen; for some reason – the poor quality of the soil or the proximity of the sea – vegetation has only made a token attempt to possess them. Here and there among the foundations one might still find evidence of the Majestic’s former splendour: the great number of cast-iron bathtubs, for instance, which had tumbled from one blazing floor to another until they hit the earth; twisted bed-frames also, some of them not yet altogether rusted away; and a simply prodigious number of basins and lavatory bowls. At intervals along the outer walls there is testimony to the stupendous heat of the fire: one can disinter small pools of crystal formed in layers like the drips of wax from a candle, which gathered there, of course, from the melting of the windows. Pick them up and they separate in your hand into the cloudy drops that formed them.

Another curious thing: one comes across a large number of tiny white skeletons scattered round about. The bones are very delicate and must have belonged, one would have thought,to small quadrupeds … (‘But no, not rabbits,’ says my grandfather with a smile.)

The Majestic is the decaying symbolic centrepiece  of the novel. When the Major arrives in 1919 there is no one at the hotel desk to greet him, and he evenually finds himself in 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’. Storms and neglect have scoured the Majestic and undermined its structure. Windows are broken, the roof leaks, and stonework threatens to crash down. Roots from the plants have worked their way inside walls, floors, and even ceilings, swelling and cracking them. The hotel’s Imperial Bar is ‘boiling with cats’ which live inside upholstered chairs. The handful of mostly female tenants who remain at the hotel are aged, clinging to the faded elegance of the Majestic.

There’s a pervading air of melancholy sadness and encroaching violence in this book; but it is also very funny, with passages of almost surreal starngeness:

Leaping to his feet…Edward seized a bread-knife and began to slash away at  the foliage as if it were a machete.  And it was true that the growth of ferns, creepers, rubber-plants and Good only knew what had become so luxiarant as to be altogether beyond a joke.  Whereas previously the majority of the chairs and tables had been avaialble, here and there, in clearings joined by a network of trails, now all but a few of them had been engulfed by the advancing green tide…

There was a long silence as they sat there in the greenish gloom…A faint rustling sound  became audible, as of someone making his way with caution along one of the trails through the thicket. There had previously been a way through, the Major remembered, from one end of the Palm Court to the other (leading to a spiral staircase down into the cellars). It seemed, to judge by the steadily approaching rustle of leaves, that against all probability this trail was still practicable. The noise of movement stopped for a moment near at hand, and there was a deep sigh, a long exhalation of breath, almost a sob. Then the noise started again. In a moment whoever it was would step into view from behind an extraordinarily powerful tropical shrub which seemed to have drilled its roots right through the tiles of the floor into the oozing darkness  below.  No sound but for the rustling footsteps.. .The Major tried to see past the hairy, curving, reticulated trunk of this tree, to distinguish (between succulent, oily leaves as big as dinner-plates) the tiny figure that slowly shufiled into sight. It was old Mrs Rappaport.

She stopped in the clearing opposite the tea-table and turned her sightless eyes in their direction. ‘Edward!’ Edward said nothing but continued to sit there as if made of stone. ‘Edward, I know you’re there,’ the old lady repeated shrilly.

‘Edward!’

Edward looked agonized but said nothing. After a long pause the old lady turned and began to move forward again. For what seemed an age they listened to the decreasing rustle of her progress followed by a prolonged wrestling with the grove of bamboo shoots. Listening to the interminable thrashing as she tried to escape from the toils of bamboo, the Major wondered whether he should go to her assistance. But at last the thrashing stopped. Mrs Rappaport had won through into the residents’ lounge. Silence returned and it seemed to the Major that the greenish gloom had deepened into an intolerable darkness…

When it was first published, The Guardian commented:

“The evidence of change and decay at the Majestic is no parochial phenomenon and it is this feeling of the particular reflecting the universal, a feeling so successfully pervading page after page of this clever book that makes it a tour de force.”

It is the metaphor of the Majestic’s rapid decay that is Farrell’s triumph here,  supported by his gift for description, characterisation and wry humour. Into the narrative, Farrell inserts small news items that provide parallels to the rebellion in Ireland, illuminating a time when virtually all the colonies of the British empire were simultaneously agitating for independence. Newspaper stories about the British army’s firing on the populace in Amritsar, a ‘native’ uprising in South Africa, along with the Bolshevik attacks in Kiev, provide the context of the Irish rebellion.

Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Man Booker Prizes commented:

Troubles is a novel of such lasting quality that it has never been out of print in the 40 years since it was first published. Had this been the winning novel in 1970, JG Farrell would have gone on to become the first author to win the Booker Prize twice.’ (Farrell won the Booker Prize in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur).

JG Farrell was born in Liverpool in 1935 and studied at Oxford University, contracting polio as a student (an experience which he drew on for his second novel, The Lung). He completed six novels, and was working on The Hill Station at the time of his death, drowned in a fishing accident on the Irish coast in 1979 . Asked why he wrote about the past, Farrell said: ‘History leaves so much out. It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like’.

In Troubles, Farrell speaks about the Anglo-Irish conflict through the words and thoughts of his characters and the metaphor of the decaying grandeur of the hotel. The poet Derek Mahon was so inspired by Troubles that he wrote
‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ and dedicated it to his friend, Farrell.  In the poem, travellers find ‘deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel, / Among the bathtubs and the washbasins’, a disused shed.  They force open a long-locked door to reveal a host of mushrooms crowding in the darkness.

Seamus Deane (whose Reading In The Dark, set in Derry, is another great novel of the Irish Troubles) asserts that, like Troubles, Mahon’s poem, though it has Irish signifiers, is a poem about humanity: ‘It is a poem that heartbreakingly dwells on and gives voice to all those peoples and civilisations that have been lost or destroyed’.

Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels
– Seferis: ‘Mythistorema’

For J.G. Farrell

Even now there are places where a thought might grow —
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped forever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And a disused shed in Co. Wexford,

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.

They have been waiting for us in a foetor
Of vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something —
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door growing strong —
‘Elbow room! Elbow room!’
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

A half century, without visitors, in the dark —
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flashbulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
‘Save us, save us,’ they seem to say,
‘Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!’

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