Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Hamilton is a journalist, and a writer of short stories and novels. His first three novels were set in Central Europe. Then came Headbanger (1996), a darkly comic crime novel set in Dublin and featuring detective Pat Coyne. A sequel, Sad Bastard, followed in 1998. The Speckled People came out in 2003 to critical acclaim It is an intensely personal memoir about very a political and public issue; what does language mean for national identity in democracies. His was a childhood of "lederhosen and Aran sweaters, smelling of rough wool and new leather, Irish on top and German below” so uniquely lived through two separate struggles represented by his parents. It is also about homesickness; for a dream Ireland, a lost Germany and a homeland of one’s own.

Hugo’s father wanted an Irish speaking self-sufficient Catholic Ireland. English if spoken by the children resulted in punishments including beating with sticks. He adapted an Irish name that no one could spell and pronounce and refused to answer even his work letters if they failed to write using his English name. Yet he also made toys, read stories and took his family on holiday to West Ireland (much to the amusement of the locals who were tired of the Dublin Intellectuals telling them they were the future when all they wanted was a decent inside toilets and jobs. His nationalism was driven by the shame of a father who had served and died in the British Navy leaving a service pension that funded his university education. He was always on the look out for the next big business deal to make Ireland economically free. But from crosses, toy wagons and tragic Honey they are failures, his only success is the size of his family as it grows year by year. They are the secret weapon to challenge the legacy of Empire.

His mother was a German Catholic, whose father was a conservative opponent of Hitler and whose family were passive resisters throughout the war although one sister was more active in being part of a network of safe houses hiding Jews. She herself as being “people of the head rather then the fist” so eventually rebels against her husband and destroys the canes but otherwise goes along with her husbands dreams and teaches her children German so they becomes fluent in three languages. She also has secrets that unravel as the biography unfolds.

The memoir is not a sentimental Irish story of hope crushed by poverty driven by the drink. The children have a comfortable and warm upbringing drawing on the richness of three culture’s music and literature. But being German meant that the children were bullied and taunted as Nazis and they were at a lost to say where they belonged. What drives the story is the voice of the narrator that uses simple sentences and childlike observations, gradually turning to what he knows and understands, as he grows older and so creating a quiet humorous yet honest account of two flawed humans struggling to make a better life for their children in the very different 50s and 60’s. An sequel called The Sailor in the Wardrobe was published in 2006. Highly recommended.

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