The Singapore Grip
New York Review Books Classics, 568pg
The Singapore Grip is the third book of J.G. Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, a series of books though unrelated in terms of characters, charts the rise and fall of the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries. The previous books, The Troubles, and the Siege of Kaishpoor, were about Ireland and the uprisings, and British India, respectively. In each, he mixes history with fiction to dive deeper into the Empire, the thoughts of the leaders, people, occasionally the subjects, and doses it with historical research that while not obsessive, can read as history more than fiction.
The action of The Singapore Grip begins in Singapore of the 1930’s and concludes as the Japanese enter the city in February 1942. The novel revolves around the Walter Blackett a rubber baron who is the epitome of the British imperialist, smug about the great civilizing mission of Britain, certain the subject peoples appreciate the British, and too greedy to see any harm in exporting all the profits to Britain. His sole goal is to increase rubber profits and make sure the company he has built continues on. To that end he spends most of the book trying to marry his daughter, Joan, off to the Mathew the son of his late partner. Mathew, though, is an idealist who used to work at the League of Nations promoting peace. He doesn’t know much about his father’s business and Walter tries to lead him into an appreciation of the importance of the rubber trade, but seeing how Singapore is run, and especially spending time with Monty, Walter’s son who is the ultimate imperialist playboy, he turns against the colonial enterprise.
These economic concerns fall to the background after the Japanese begin their invasion—well, for almost everyone, because Walter continues to scheme to increase the price of rubber which the allies need, and at one point even tries to figure out a way to work with the Japanese after the occupation starts. All the other characters, though, turn to war work and goes into great detail about the Japanese offensive, following the battle from both the Japanese and British side. Those who are not solders help in other ways, and Mathew joins the firefighting brigade. Some of Farrell’s best writing follows the fire brigades. While Mathew fights fires he also falls in love with Vera a half Chinese, half Russian woman who his father in the great tradition of British eccentrics used to pay to do naked exercises on his estate.
Farrell uses these elements well to create a society in which the colonials live in imperious privilege, unaware or uninterested in what is happening around them. He is an inventive story teller whose novelistic touches are impressive. His account of the Japanese attack is rich with detail and full of action. The account of the Great World, a pleasure center in Singapore, is quite impressive, with its dingy and smokey atmosphere, the multi-racial mix of clients, and the dark undertones of such mixing in what was a divided city. And in one of his best bits, he shows the history of British occupation in South East Asia through a series of paintings that Walter is all too proud to show first time guests to his mansion. It is these moments that make the book breathe and give life to his large cast of characters.
Yet, even with all those elements, The Singapore Grip can seem a little uneven, as if Farrell’s interest were taking him in too many directions. The first problem is the novel starts with long internal monologues on the problems of the rubber trade. While it does help characterize Walter, business intrigues and strategies seldom make for fascinating reading at length. His use of the previously mentioned paintings was a much more interesting way to get the history and characterization across. The same applies to Mathew who spends the early part of the novel talking politics and theory. Fortunately, Farrell is a good novelist and often leaves Mathew talking to himself amongst a group of disinterested people, but it still a little tiresome to have the conversations go on for pages. His desire to delve deeply into history leads him to spend many chapters examining General Percival’s thoughts and actions. While interesting, those sections break up those of his characters. The same is true for the Japanese solder he follows for 40 pages during the attack. If this were a pastiche novel, mixing fragments from here and there, it wouldn’t seem so odd. It is a shame, then, that he lets characters he builds up so carefully stay in the background for long sections. But this makes sense when the book is about the Empire.
In the end Singapore, like the British colonial enterprise, is doomed and all the characters are dispersed to the winds to survive, if they are lucky, the war. Naturally, as be fitting a wealthy man, Walter escapes into the night as the empire collapses, leaving the rest to their fate and him to enjoy his wealth. It is a fitting end for a novel of a lost empire.