I’ve no background. I’ve been peeled off my background.
I’ve been attached to another background like a cut-out.
I had never heard of Operation Pedro Pan — 14,000 unaccompanied minors were flown out of Cuba to Miami in 1960-62, dispatched by their parents in order to escape life under a dictator, creating a Cuban Diaspora. Carlos Eire, one of the children, writes about it in his memoir, quoted above, Waiting for Snow in Havana.
I had never heard the phrase “Raj Orphan” — English children born in the outer edges of the British Empire and shipped to England for education around the age of five years—before I read Old Filth.
The displaced orphan, a stock character in literature. One boy raised in Cuba until he was exiled in American at eleven; the other fictional boy, Eddie Feathers (FILTH = Failed in London Try Hong Kong), was born in Malaya—his mother died at his birth—, raised by an native family until he was five, then sent to North Wales to a couple who fostered on the cheap.
Both are compelling stories that snagged me like barbed wire. Both are a lamentation of abandonment. This will sound strange, but negligence of one’s children in order to serve a higher cause is a theme that holds my attention.
Midway through the second chapter of Waiting for SnowI needed to know who constructed such delectable sentences. Ta dah! He is a professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale, specializing in late medieval and early modern Europe. Phrases like the tropical sun knifed through the gaps in the wooden shutters; a Mariana Trench of the soul; and a suit as wrinkled as his soul stirred my appreciation. And this:
I have always inhaled with abandon. The world is so full of wonderful smells. Roasted peanuts. Olives. Popcorn. Bus exhaust. Turpentine. Kerosene. Talcum powder. Gasoline. New tires. Glue. Shoe polish. Bubblegum wrappers. Gunpowder. Thinly sliced potatoes and hot dogs frying in olive oil. When I matured, the strangest things began to emit pleasing fumes too. Freshly baked bread. Single-malt Scotch whiskey. Cigars. Roses. Bordeaux wines. New wallets. New cars. The back of a woman’s knee after a hot bath. Fumes are the fifth dimension, I’m convinced.
He tells the story of going to a boy’s birthday party. The parents, owners of a sugar plantation, put on a lavish extravaganza. Carlos brought a last-minute birthday gift, something taken from the house and quickly wrapped.
A foretaste, I hope, of The Final Judgment, the ultimate party, when we show up bearing crappy gifts and, instead of being tossed out on our ear, to wail and gnash our teeth, are instead overwhelmed with superabundant largesse, with eternal gifts beyond our wildest dreams.
I’ve never been to a Catholic confession, but I confess the same pride:
What a neat little list of sins I had. But I don’t think pride was anywhere on that list, not even in disguise. Just the opposite, in fact: I was so, so proud of the list.
Carlos Eire became my focus. I ordered the second memoir he wrote, Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy. I typed “Carlos Eire” into YouTube and started marathon listening. I added him to my mental list of authors I would unhesitatingly invite over for dinner and conversation. I started to care about Cuba.
Old Filthcarried the weight of sadness, but I viewed it from a distance. There were a few narrative elements that made me grimace and quickly turn the page. Gardam deftly encapsulates the abandonment in one short paragraph when Eddie is five.
“Take this. It was your mother’s.”
“Does Ada [the native girl that raised him] say I can?”
“I say you can. I am your father.”
“You can’t be,” said Edward.
Silence fell and Auntie May’s hands began to shake.
The servants were listening.
“And why not?”
“Because you’ve been here all the time without me.”
Eddie spends his holidays with Jack, a boarding school friend, and is considered a member of Jack’s family; but when they face a crisis their circle closes and Eddie is again excluded.
It turns out that Rudyard Kipling was a Raj Orphan. Now I want to read a RY biography with that perspective in mind. I may or may not read the other two books of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy.
*the well-loved boy in my photo is not orphaned; used with parents’ permission