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What a bastard!
by Asa Butcher
2006-12-01 10:48:24
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Author: Irvine Welsh
Vintage Press, 1998

Never in my literary life have I encountered such an offensive main character as Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, a Scottish police officer who embodies every negative aspect of a human being. He is a corrupt, sexist, racist, homophobic, sex-obsessed drug addict that systematically preys upon women, his colleagues and anybody unfortunate enough to cross his path. He truly is a bastard.

My previous experience with Irvine Welsh began and ended with the movie Trainspotting based upon his novel, so I had an idea about his style. However, if you thought a tale about heroin addicts was dark, then Filth turns down the contrast and the brightness plunging you into a world you hope only exists in books or the mind of Mr Welsh.

The novel begins with the racist murder of a diplomat's son and the case is assigned to Bruce Robertson, yet, conversely, the murder investigation has little to do with the plot. The story is narrated firsthand by Bruce as we follow him on his trail of destruction, including the craving for cocaine and violence, his sexual perversions and the worsening of the eczema around his groin. There are moments of redemption for our anti-hero, but you can never bring yourself to bestow forgiveness or sympathy on this…bastard.

In another first for my literary life, I have never experienced a tapeworm as a narrative device. Yes, a tapeworm, the parasite that lives in the digestive tract. At first, you can't understand what the tube-like structure that interrupts the text is supposed to be, but the tapeworm eventually becomes self-aware (yes, self-aware) and appears at random points throughout the story revealing information about Bruce and his past. It is an ingenious idea and will make you shudder occasionally.

The story is not all doom and misery, thankfully. There are a number of parts that will make you smile and even laugh, especially when you are not expecting something humorous to emerge from a particular section. One of my favourite twists comes from when Bruce borrows a police video surveillance camera, picks up a new prostitute and takes her to a farm to create some homemade bestiality scenes with a dog (sorry to those who Googled one of those words and found this).

Welsh's style employs the Edinburgh dialect when the characters speak, which certainly takes getting used to. It took me a few chapters to work out the ‘kens’ means ‘to know’, while the other uses of the Scottish dialect were quite familiar to me in the form of ‘tae’ is ‘to’ and ‘dae’ is ‘do’. Despite the accented language being difficult to follow in the early chapters you do quickly learn the language, so to speak, and the final chapters contain some heavy usage yet the story flows – perhaps you could say that you have learnt some Scottish.

After reading Filth I am unsure whether Irvine Welsh will appear in my reading list again soon, but one day I may find the courage to pick up another of his novels and enter another world of sin and debauchery…I mean, I get enough of that at home!

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