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Empire and the Son

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, July 4, 2006; C04

OLD FILTH

By Jane Gardam

Europa. 290 pp. Paperback, $14.95

The inspiration for this remarkable novel is Rudyard Kipling -- "Torn from his family at five. Raj Orphan. . . . Hated the Empire, you know." -- but the novel itself is all Jane Gardam. Now in her late seventies, Gardam is best known in this country for "The Queen of the Tambourine," which won the Whitbread novel award a decade and a half ago, but she has yet to find an American readership comparable to that enjoyed by, say, her contemporary Penelope Lively. "Old Filth" isn't going to make her a bestseller over here, but it will bring immense pleasure to readers who treasure fiction that is intelligent, witty, sophisticated and -- a quality encountered all too rarely in contemporary culture -- adult.

The protagonist of the novel, now in his early eighties, is Sir Edward Feathers, but just about nobody calls him that. From Asia, where he spent almost his entire working life, to Dorset, to which he retired a number of years ago, he is known near-universally as Old Filth. This has nothing to do with his sanitary condition, which is impeccable, but with an acronym that has stuck to him for years: "He was considered to be the source of the old joke, Failed in London Try Hong Kong." It may be a slight exaggeration to say that as a young attorney he'd failed in London, but once he left for Hong Kong, he began an eminently successful career, first as lawyer and then as judge. He was respected, admired and even loved, and to an extent he went native:

"All his life he kept a regard for Chinese values: the courtesy, the sudden thrust, the holiness of hospitality, the pleasure in money, the decorum, the importance of food, the discretion, the cleverness. He had married a Scotswoman but she had been born in Peking. She was dumpy and tweedy with broad Lanarkshire shoulders and square hands, but she spoke Mandarin perfectly and was much more at home with Chinese ways and idiom than she ever felt on her very rare visits to Scotland. Her passion for jewellery was Chinese and her strong Scottish fingers rattled the trays of jade in the street markets of Kowloon, stirring the stones like pebbles on a beach."

When he retired from the bench, they returned to England. "And why ever Dorset? Nobody knew. Some family tradition somewhere perhaps." And now the Scotswoman, Betty, is dead. Filth is alone except for the man and woman who tend his place and the memories that crowd in on him. "Remarkably well preserved," a fellow judge says of him. "A great man," says another, to which the first replies: "Pretty easy life. Nothing ever seems to have happened to him."

Gardam knows, though, that there is no such thing as an easy life. Behind Filth's placid, confident, even arrogant exterior hides the boy who became the man, the boy whose mother died two days after his birth in Malaya and whose father loathed him ever after. At first he farmed the child out to locals -- "the baby's first years were in the Long House among brown skins, brown eyes, scraps of coloured clothes, the Malay language; often sleeping, sometimes making musical singing, dreamily passing the time against the roar of the river and the rain" -- and then shipped him back to England, "where he would live with a Welsh family until he was eight" and then "go to his father's old Prep school and then his father's old Public school."

It was a miserable childhood, dominated by an absent, uncommunicative father and a bullying foster mother. As an old man, Filth remembers: "Betty and I were what is called 'Empire orphans.' We were handed over to foster parents at four or five and didn't see our parents for at least four years. We had bad luck. Betty's foster parents didn't like her and mine -- my father hadn't taken advice -- were chosen because they were cheap. If you've not been loved as a child, you don't know how to love a child. You need prior knowledge. You can inflict pain through ignorance. I was not loved after the age of four and a half."

Filth and Betty wanted no children and had none. Their marriage was companionable and happy in its fashion but almost entirely devoid of passion: "He had not shared a bed with Betty for over thirty years. Double beds were for the bourgeoisie. Sex had never been a great success. They had never discussed it." Yet now, after her death, Filth is consumed by lust, by "memory and desire." Longings reawaken, longings so far in his past that he had forgotten their existence. He discovers that there's "too much litter in old brains" and that much of it can't just be swept away. Not merely are there this unbidden lust and these painful memories more than three-quarters of a century old, there are other memories as well: his beloved school-days' friend Pat Ingoldby, killed in World War II before reaching his 20th birthday; Pat's strangely alluring cousin Isobel, who years ago entangled Filth in a complicated relationship; his own equally strange cousins, Babs and Claire, each of whom feels a powerful attraction to him; his old headmaster, known only as "Sir," whose discipline and wit helped rescue him from the damage done by his father; his archenemy back in Hong Kong, Terry Veneering, who "was all that was wrong with the British masters of this divine Colony -- jumped-up, arrogant, blustering, loud, cynical and common. And far too good at games."

Now, to Filth's horror, Veneering appears almost literally at his doorstep in Dorset, living in the house next door. To be sure, plenty of space separates them and they do not have to see each other, but of course they do, with consequences that astonish Filth. They are two old agents of empire, cast ashore together in the most unlikely of places as the empire breathes its very last.

Gamely, Filth struggles to retain his presence of mind and his dignity. "All my life," he says, "from my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me," and now "I am old, forgotten and dying alone." Yet even as the light begins to flicker out, he does something foolhardy and brave, something that takes him, just in time, to the one part of the world he genuinely and deeply loves. It closes this lovely, humane book on exactly the right note.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company