It’s a strange book, unconventional perhaps, charming at points boringly dull at others. The narrative is dense, an unseemly mixture of sarcasm, destruction, sexual desire and comic humor. It is a brilliant portrayal of the upheavals in Ireland during the 1920s and the ensuing disintegration of the British Empire. Inspite of all its qualities, the booker prize seems unwarranted. The narrative is inconsistent and lacks the vision necessary for the work to be categorized as a great historic novel; at best it is not the best work of a wonderfully talented writer.
In those days the Majestic was still standing in Kilnalough at the very end of a slim peninsula covered with dead pines leaning here and there at odd angles. At that time there were probably yachts there too during the summer since the hotel held a regatta every July. As for the regatta, for some reason it was discontinued years ago, before the Spencers took over the management of the place. And a few years later still the Majestic itself followed the boats and preceded the pines into oblivion by burning to the ground — but by that time, of course, the place was in such a state of disrepair that it hardly mattered.
The narrative revolves around a Hotel and its occupants, in rural Ireland, as they undergo the vicissitudes of life in a country struggling for its identity. The Hotel- pointedly named The Majestic serves as a metaphor; its fall from its once regal avatar to its present dilapidated state is a reflection of the degradation of Irish society and in turn of the empire. The inhabitants of Majestic- the Spencers and the few old ladies serve as the last reminders of the fading aristocratic older generation. In the midst of undulations, these residents are a reminder of changing times- times where the old order is fading away to make way for a radically new one. The author brilliantly portrays the rapidly changing and violent social environment of Ireland throughout the almost claustrophobic, frozen life of the occupants. This combination of dynamic flux with stasis is one of the greatest achievements of the author and one that distinguishes this book from others in its genre.
The landscape of the country is broken into divisions and conflicts. There are ethnic conflicts between the rural and urban Irish, there are religious conflicts between the catholic and Protestants, there are conflicts among the unionists and Sinn Fein, then of course there is the small matter of the break-up of the British empire. Amidst this hoopla, Major Brendan Archer serves as a silent observer in the novel. It is the major who provides a sense of calm and reality to the condition of rural Ireland. Interestingly, the time-line of the novel is anchored to the major and not the violent environs; that is the novel follows happening at the pace of major’s life and not the other way round. So, in some sense the author’s focus is not Ireland but the effect of Ireland on the major and residents of the Majestic.
The major serving as the silent observer of the novel provides perhaps the most disconnected view of the happenings in Ireland. While the residents portray Englishmen living in their crumbling ivory towers and the English refer to the irish as extremists, the character of the major is the great balancing act. His stumbling through corridors after corridors of the Majestic as his stumbling through life in search of unknown people and unknown feelings lends a degree of fatalism to the novel. This fatalism abetted with almost claustrophobic feel of the story makes the narrative almost eerie; almost like the eerie calm before the advent of battle. Clearly, the character of the Major is one that the narrator has reserved for himself.
As events heat up, the Major finds it impossible to leave, obsessed with his love for Sarah. It is this fleeting love story, barely a courtship, which continues to baffle me. While on the one hand we have a sweaty half naked major spending his nights closeted in a storeroom, on the other we have a flighty temptress flirting her way with the dominant male characters in the novel. In some ways Sarah represents the modern Irish woman; no longer bound by aristocratic men. But there are ambiguities nonetheless. One could hypothesize that the character of Sarah perhaps serve as a placeholder for a real life acquaintance of the author. In contrast to the stifled advances of the major is the maturing of the twins into women; much more open with their sexuality as opposed to the gentry. Thus change pervades the novel- through the broken façade of the Majestic, the debates over religion and politics but most of all from the radical departure of the newer generations from the ideas of the old. The crumbling of the Majestic is in resonance with the changing conditions of the Irish society.
The only constant in the novel is the author’s attention to detail. From Angela’s letters to Edward’s suit, each and every aspect of the characters is painstakingly detailed. When Edward finds his beloved pigs hacked to death their blood oozes through the ‘eyelets of his shoes’. Be it the golf course, Sarah’s house or the grounds of the majestic, Farrell is the master of detail. The re-creation of Irish life and times is not the result of external happenings or crimes but rather prevalent through the nitty-gritties of the life of the characters. We know that something is amiss not by tales of murder or manslaughter but rather because the roof of the majestic has broken in a spot. This stitching together of a narrative, by piecing together detail after detail is trademark Farrell. Another innovation on the part of the author is the ingenious blending of the civil strife in Ireland with the happenings across the rest of British Empire. Historical snippets (primarily news clippings) from disparate parts of the globe serve to augment the growing disillusion of British monarchy’s subjects. An exemplary illustration of the attention to detail, are the letters sent by Angela to the Major. Each letter is full of details enabling the major to piece together a world he has never seen.
The end of the novel, akin to the end of the empire is brutal; perhaps a little too brutal for the rather quaint tone the rest of the novel adopts. The ending is sudden, incomplete and leaves much to be desired. Major and Sarah’s love story is left broken, so is the life of other minor characters. In my view, the sudden ending is not a shortfall but rather another facet of author’s construct. The majestic is burned down, the residents leave; the major is almost killed – all in order to portray the rapid pace at which Ireland was changing. Whatever it may be, the sudden ending does not do justice to the scope of the novel. In some ways, The Troubles is a peculiar historic novel. For it lacks the scale and breadth often found in such pieces; instead it chooses to take a different pathway- so must the reader if he wishes to enjoy this particular piece.