With two prize-winning novels – Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur (see SF nos. 49 and 50) – behind him, J. G. Farrell felt sufficiently confident to paint his next exploration of the decline of the British Empire on a larger canvas. The Singapore Grip (1978), set in the build-up to Japan’s invasion of the colony in 1942, continues the theme of its predecessors in portraying a complacent élite teetering on the edge of an abyss and then tumbling to its fate. But while the events of Troubles and Siege are experienced by a limited cast of protagonists in isolated circumstances – a decaying hotel in Ireland after the First World War and a besieged British Residency during the Indian Mutiny – those of Grip explore a more disparate society fracturing under stress.
At the book’s heart are opposing notions about the exercise of power represented by the prosperous rubber trader and colonial diehard Walter Blackett and the idealistic son of Walter’s business partner, Matthew Webb. However, as the menace of invasion draws closer, Farrell broadens his vision to incorporate exploited Chinese and Malay workers, incompetent military commanders and invading Japanese troops. He wanted to do more than write about the collapse of power. He wanted to penetrate the darkness that lay behind the acquisition of that power: the rapacity of imperial greed and its corrupting effects.
Farrell displayed impressive zeal himself in researching what his biographer Lavinia Greacen calls his ‘personal War and Peace’. He buried himself in the colony’s commercial, social, political and military life between the wars and pinned a large-scale street map of Singapore over his desk. A bibliography – unusual for a work of fiction – lists fifty-one books from which he culled information. Later, he also visited Singapore and was struck by a powerful sensation of privilege surviving from earlier day
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