AUTHOR: HUGO HAMILTON
Dialogue Through Literature
In this memoir Hugo Hamilton tells the story of his youth. Born in Dublin in the 1950’s with a German mother and an Irish, nationalistic, father his upbringing was anything but conventional. Because of his father’s strong and uncompromising views on being Irish and resurrecting the Irish identity it was forbidden to speak English in their house. While the rest of Dublin lived in an English speaking world, Hugo and his siblings grew up speaking German and Irish at home, with punishment awaiting anyone who dared to bring English into their home. They are “the speckled people”, partly from Ireland and partly from somewhere else.
“We are the brack children. Brack, homemade Irish bread with German raisins.”
Because of his father’s views on being and speaking Irish the family found themselves outsiders in the neighbourhood where they lived. Having a German mother at a time when World War II was still a very recent memory only made things worse for the Hamilton children. Teasing, bullying and being left on the fringes of the world they lived in were the result. And there is so much the children don’t understand, things that will only become clear when they are older (and mostly after the story in this book has ended); the past his father is ashamed of and trying to hide, and the pain his mother caries with her always as a result of things she witnessed, was exposed to and had to endure during Hitler’s reign in Germany. This is a family that doesn’t really fit in anywhere. Cultures clash, differences confuse and all young Hugo wants is to be the same as everybody else, to not to be called a Nazi and treated like an outcast.
In many was this was a fascinating book. It was interesting to read about Ireland in the fifties and sixties, and the composition of this family made this into a unique story. Up until fairly recently foreigners were a rarity in Ireland and I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to be one in Dublin during those days, never mind being a German so shortly after the war. And while I’m all for raising children bi-lingual, the set up in this book, with the children not being allowed to speak the language everybody else around them was using, smacks of child-cruelty.
I had a difficult time with the way in which this story was told though. Although the story was obviously written with hindsight by an adult author, the language and images used are those of the child at the time the events take place. This means that a lot is not said or explained. An awful lot of what must have been happening is left unsaid because the child Hugo didn’t understand what was going on. This means that the reader has to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions. Was the father just misguided and overzealous in his determination to only allow Irish in his house or was he actually a cruel man? Was his mother a loving and supportive creature, or was she weak and ignoring problems when she should have been able to deal with them and maybe protect her children better? These questions weren’t answered for me while I was reading the book, and now that I’ve read the last page, I’m still not sure. I will say though that I admire the way the author seemed to have gone with complete honesty and didn’t try to make his younger self look perfect. In fact, at times he seems to actively dislike the person he was back then.
On the other hand, there were some observations that I did recognise and love, like:
“My mother says you can’t be sure in Ireland if people say things with admiration or not. Irish people are good at saying things in between admiration and accusation between envy and disdain.”
And while this book may have been published in 2003, with the story being set in the 1950’s, some things are as true now as they were back then. In fact, the following statement seems to have real relevance these days:
“Irish people were so afraid of being poor that they spent all their money, while German people were so afraid of being poor that they saved up every penny.”
Overall I would call this a powerful story which, unfortunately, was told in a way that just didn’t work very well for me.