Tribal Lays

D.J. Enright

  • The Hill Station by J.G. Farrell
    Weidenfeld, 238 pp, £6.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 297 77922 2

This is seemingly the first draft of roughly half of a novel which, had he lived to finish it, the author might possibly have entitled ‘The Doctor of Confusion’. It is right that it should be published, for it is good work, certainly in no obvious need of revision.

Perhaps, compared with J.G. Farrell’s previous three novels, The Hill Station (as its editor, John Spurling, decided to call it) might be termed ‘light’, but only in that the writing is less dense, less effortful in the reading, than is the case with the Irish Troubles and, more markedly, with The Singapore Grip. Jane Austen comes to mind, and not only because of the relative domesticity of the story, or its rather Austenish adultress, Mrs Forester: ‘We have decided to be friends, Emily and I, because we find men to be such coarse brutes, so lacking in refinement, is that not so, Emily?’ What also evokes that novelist is the limpidity, the lightness of texture which yet supports a sufficient weight of meaning.

The scene is Simla in the year 1871 – there is never any mystery about the dating of Farrell’s stories – and the characters are consequently British in the main. The British not exactly in India, but in a famous Indian hill-station, where we expect to find a mixture of the well-to-do and fashionable, grass-widows, the sickly, the military – and, less predictably, the clergy. In the Scottish eyes of Dr McNab, a man of the plains, Simla is ‘a factitious England’: ‘The Bishop’s half-timbered house, as it came into sight, only confirmed this impression; its Tudor air was familiar to McNab as the back-cloth of a thousand attempts to portray Merrie England. He eyed it suspiciously, almost expecting to see it shivering in the breeze.’ The linchpin of the novel, McNab is a sensible, serviceable man, and it looks as though Simla will require both his services and his sense. It is in such ‘factitious’ settings that the private life tends to throw out grotesque or gaudy blooms.

The ‘local colour’ is skilfully applied: more tactfully than in the somewhat over-researched Singapore Grip. There one had the satisfaction of recognising streets and districts, as accurately located as in the directory of the island published by the Ministry of Culture (and possibly that body’s highest achievement) – a pleasure dampened by rather more information about the production and marketing of rubber than most readers desire or the novel needs. Here the author’s research is more fully assimilated, or more to the point, or perhaps more interesting in itself, and so lends substance and authority to the unfolding story. Thus McNab on phthisis (the contemporary term): ‘Attempts had been made to classify the variety of morbid sounds that one might hear while listening to the chest of a consumptive: the incipient disease might be heralded by slight clicks, by mucous, sub-mucous, and sibilant rhonchus, slight, crepitant rhonchus (that’s to say, a rattle or râle), or even by increased resonance of the voice ... But such sounds might well be produced merely by minor bronchial conditions. As the disease progressed, however, the sounds became more distinctive though no less varied and might include cavernous respiration, cavernous rhonchus, amphoric resonance, metallic tinkling, that ominous clicking and bubbling which McNab had just heard, pectoriloquy (the sound of the patient’s voice heard through the stethoscope) and, though rarely, the distinct sound of fluid in motion on succussion (the shaking of the patient’s thorax)... ’

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