By Jane Gardam,
Chatto and Windus, ' 9.75
Edward Feathers alias Filth was a raj orphan born in the then Malaya in the second decade of the Twentieth century. He was then sent 'Home' to Wales in England so that he could study English and learn the ways of the world. After completing his studies at a public school there, and then at Oxford University, Filth started practising law. But, for reasons best known to him, he left the London Bar and headed for Hong Kong. At the ripe old age of eighty, one sees Filth settled in Donheads, a quiet and nondescript English county, and having lost his wife, Betty, he, is now perilously close to suffering a mental break down.
In her novel, Old Filth, Jame Gardam chronicles an exceptionally 'long, untroubled and uneventful' life of this 'Filth' (which is actually an acronym for 'Failed in London Try Hong Kong), and in doing so, the novel points out how an individual's life is determined by the state on the one hand, and by historical developments of his time on the other.
Filth has numerous names; Eddie, Fevvers, Teddy and so on. This multiplicity of names and nicknames suggest a vortex of fused (and confused) identities Filth's character gets caught up in. His names signify the many relationships he has had, each of which came to be marked with a particular name. Filth, unfortunately, lacked control in any of his relationships, except the one in which he rejected Miss Isob'l Ingoldby's overtures. Filth takes in the eccentricities of his time, which inevitably find their way into his relationships.
Gardam acknowledges her debt to Rudyard Kipling's autobiography and also to a short story written by the same author, the story being Ba Ba Blacksheep. Gardam admits to have been influenced by a Christopher Hudson novel as well.
The use of Gardam's language has a distinct poetical flavour to it. The book is also a sensitive exploration of Filth's schizophrenic world. A world whose reality is suffused with volatile, and often, contradictory identities.
The trauma of Filth's homecoming, his anxiety with orphanhood and the diaspora angst ' themes which are now accepted as metonymic markers of the post colonial consciousness ' permeate the non-linear backward and forward movements of this particular narrative. The book also captures Filth's senility, and his adolescence, almost simultaneously. The author's delineation of the protagonist's forced travels during the War and after may be interpreted as a strategy to hint at the shifting co-ordinates of time and space which determine the ambiguous yet inescapable reality Filth finds himself in.