Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Speckled People

This memoir of the childhood of the son of an Irish father and German mother is an impressionist masterpiece. Hamilton's book has a dark core but the stories and descriptions are intensively burnished so that the book is suffused by the light, smells and sounds of childhood. The past is often starkly immediate in these pages. In a similar but less experimental way than Joyce's Portrait of an Artist we are immersed in a child's understanding and this understanding grows as the book progresses.

"When you're small you know nothing."

His father is a ferocious gaelgoir and will not let his children speak English. They can, however speak German. He seems to have had some sympathy with the Germans as they fought the British and it is intimated that he may have espoused anti-semitic feelings in the past. His personal crusade to restore the Irish language as the majority tongue is subtly paralleled to the Irish myth of Cú Chulainn trying to hold back the waves.

"You can hear a dog barking at the waves. You can see him standing in the water, barking and trying to bite the foam. You can see how long it takes for the sound of the barking to come across, as if it's coming from somewhere else and doesn't belong to the dog at all any more, as if he's barking and barking so much that he's hoarse and lost his voice."

His mother is ashamed of what happened in Germany and carries scars from her own experiences in the war. She is often seen writing her own story and is adamant that her family grow up to be 'word people' and not 'fist people".

However it seems that these two categories of people are not so discreet and the fist is used in defence of the word and the word can lead to the fist. This is a reason why we must be careful about the stories we tell about ourselves. We must also be careful of what we deny in ourselves. The children find a secret when they play with their parents belongings.

"Some things are not good to know in Ireland. I had no idea that I had an Irish grandfather that couldn't even speak Irish. His name was John Hamilton and he belonged to the navy, the British navy, the Royal Navy." 

The book explores identity on many levels and uses the fact that this is a child's growing awareness of the world and how stories are predigested for children and gain meaning over the course of years. Gentle intimations give way to a growing realisation of the truth behind words.

This is anything but a brutal book but it explores brutal territory in a way that is speckled with love and a delight in the nuances of language. The beauty of some of the descriptions is breathtaking and the memoir has the tightly plotted form of fiction, at times almost seeming too perfectly designed to explore identity and Irishness in the context of wider European history.

Hugo Hamilton is the subject of "Hugo Hamilton- How to Belong" an upcoming documentary currently being made by Loopline films. His story is a fascinating one which should translate very well onto film. I can't wait to see it.

I am also looking forward to reading his further memoirs 'The Sailor in the Wardrobe'.

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