Having admired The Siege of Krishnapur about witless Brits at the Indian Rebellion of 1857, I decided to try this one about witless Brits when the Irish were ready for them to leave. Troubles is set in 1919-1920, during the guerrilla war the Irish fought for their independence and was written in 1970, as those troubles were beginning again.
The story focuses on “the Major,” a young British man who during the war had made the acquaintance of a woman whose family had bought a large crumbling luxury hotel on the coast of Ireland. The two maintained a correspondence after the war while Major Archer recovered from shell-shock. Although he was surprised that she signed her letters, “Your loving fiancée,” when he recovered, he traveled to the Majestic to see her. His arrival there put him in a Kafkaesque setting, with no one greeting him, being told to find his own room, sleeping with no sheets, with only fleeting glimpses of Angie before she retired to her room to die some weeks later.
The Majestic had been a wonder in its day; now the description of the Palm Court gives an idea of the whole: “…the palms had completely run riot, shooting out of their wooden tubs” and “…beds of oozing mould supported banana and rubber plants, hairy ferns, elephant grass and creepers that dangled from above like emerald intestines.”
Edward, Angie’s mad father, rages about the Irish and their method of pushing the British out: “Had there been one, even one, honest-to-God battle during the whole course of the rebellion? Not a single trench had been dug, except perhaps for seed potatoes, in the whole of Ireland! Did the Sinn Feiners deserve the name of men?” The connection between the British in Ireland and Edward and the crumbling grand old hotel is hard to miss.
There are a few wonderful (and quite unkind) moments starring the little group of elderly impoverished gentlewomen who stay at the hotel, having nowhere else to go.
…under the compulsion of shortening days the ladies were once more funneled towards the dreadful gauntlet of December, January and February which most of them had already run over seventy times before, reluctantly forced through it like a sheep dip–it was appalling, this ruthless movement of the seasons, how many would survive?
And then one evening there was this commotion during a card game:
The recent rearrangement of opponents had brought Miss Staveley to within a few feet of where Mrs. Rappaport was sitting with the cat on her lap. For the past few minutes the cat’s bitter green eyes had been glued to the plump pheasant which clung defenselessly to the crown of Miss Staveley’s magnificent hat. With each movement that she made the bird’s sweeping tail-feathers trembled deliciously. At last, tantalized beyond endurance, the cat sprang from Mrs. Rappaport’s lap, hurtled through the air in a horrid orange flash and pounced on Miss Staveley’s black velvet shoulders, sinking its hideous claws into the bird’s delicate plumage. Miss Staveley uttered a shriek and sank forward on to the card-table while the cat, precariously balanced on her shoulders, ripped and clawed savagely at her headgear in an explosion of feathers. There was pandemonium.
J.G. Farrell, Troubles, republished by NYRB Classics in 2002, originally published 1970, 480 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa library and from Amazon.