Who is Old Filth?

And, the corrolary question: why should anyone care? This question comes because I am a reactionary. So put off by the legions of readers who complain that a given book is bad because its characters unrelated or—worse—personally odious, I hypercorrect against caring for characters at all. Caring for a character is an emotional investment, after all, and hyperrational me tries to ward this off, warning that feelings will not help me think logically or reasonably about a book. But what a strange predicament, to attempt hyperrationality in consideration of a medium designed to produce emotional response. Give over, nicole, and admit that Jane Gardam got you, which is okay because that is just what she was trying to do.

Well, I’ve answered the second question; now back to the first. Filth is most succinctly and most aptly described as a “coelocanth,” but this doesn’t tell you much just yet so I’ll start more basic. Edward Feathers, aka Eddie or Teddy, born to British parents in Malaya, was left by his father in the care of a native servant girl after his mother died in childbirth. Raised among native toddlers, he played in the dirt, spoke Malay, and had almost no contact at all with his father. Reaching the magical age at which Anglo-Imperials sent their children “home” to avoid disease and get education, a missionary lady saw him to a foster mother in Wales. Thus begin his first exile from Asia and the real tragedies of his Raj Orphan childhood, which is worth a post in itself.

He comes out of this childhood ready to enlist and fight in the second World War, only to be thwarted by his father before he reaches the age of majority. At 17, Feathers begins a voyage of the damned: an ocean trip from England to Singapore, with stops in Africa and Sri Lanka. By the time they reach the latter, Singapore has fallen to the Japanese and Feathers must begin the long trip back, very sickly by this time and accompanied by many sick and dying refugees. He ends up spending much of the war studying, setting out in his career as a lawyer just as the peace begins to settle in. Fortunately, for times are undeniably tough, he reconnects with a former shipmate, a mysterious young (and now wealthy) Chinese man who whisks Feathers off to Hong Kong, where his career really takes off. And that’s where the name comes in: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. Filth.

None of these things are Filth; these are the things that happen to Filth—and create him. He is deeply, unmistakably alone. He is quiet and diffident. As a child, he stammered, and though he “overcame” it for the most part, it has a tendency to return (or at least a continual need to be quashed). He is impeccably dressed and brushed, always. He always knows just the right thing to do, if not say. He is completely devoted to his wife Betty, with whom he has not shared a bed in decades. The two of them cry together when, from their retirement in Dorset, they watch on television Hong Kong being handed over to the Chinese. A coelocanth: he should be extinct, but somehow he goes on, noticed every once in a while as an impossible anachronism.

Filth is not a particularly good man, nor particularly bad; he is only full. His fullness is developed and revealed gradually, in both Old Filth and, as I suggested last week, in The Man in the Wooden Hat. Gardam tells a positively ripping story, but I’m beginning to wonder whether her real genius isn’t for character. Or at least in the way she brings the two together; nothing is incidental. The characters who appear, relatively speaking, on the sidelines are also full: we just can’t see parts of them. I don’t pretend to understand even half the motivations of Isobel Ingoldby, who appears throughout both books as a secondary character, but I know there is a fullness to her hidden from Filth and Betty’s story.

If I feel like I still haven’t told you anything about anything here, I will assign that too to Gardam’s genius. The real problem with talking about characters is that if they are really this good, I can’t tell you anything about them. You simply have to read the novel to meet them the same way I did.

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