Patricia Craig review of Hugo Hamilton, The Sailor in the Wardrobe, in Times Literary Supplement (10 Feb. 2006), p.29.

In Hugo Hamilton’s memoir of 2003, The Speckled People, there is a moment when the children of the family, in late 1950s Dublin, are playing in their father’s wardrobe and unearth a black-and-white photograph of a sailor, among letters, postcards and a bronze medal dating from the First World War. These items are kept hidden because Hamilton Senior, the sailor’s son, has no wish to acknowledge a British connection in his family. He is an ideologue, an Irish-lrelander with a German wife, and head of a household in which the English language is banned. Irish and German are the only permitted means of communication for the Hamilton children, which does not make for good relations with neighbourhood contemporaries. If it’s not the taunt of “Nazi” flung at them in the street, it is the sense of being at odds with their portion of the world, in a dismally anomalous position. The author’s strong feeling of exclusion takes root at this point, along with the need to evade the pressures of a dual inheritance in which the emphasis forever falls on horrors and miseries, coffin ships and concentration camps, angers and humiliations, the wreck of the GPO on O’Connell Street, and the bombs raining down on German cities.

Speckled people - those not all-of-a-piece, secure in their identities, but mottled and marked by the shafts of genetics and history do not have an easy time of it. For Hamilton in particular, it is as if life has arranged itself as an affair of conflicts, with wars between nations and ideologies (or nations and notions) coming out of the past to afflict the present, right down to the assault in the kitchen, and the bloody nose in the street. In every encounter, you are either winning or losing; there is nothing in between. It is of little use for his charming German mother to deplore what she calls “the fist people”, since fisticuffs is what carries the day. Hamilton - or Ó Urmultaigh as his father would have it, in a rather cumbersome Irish translation of his name - undergoes a bitter upbringing. His ill-advised childhood get-up lederhosen and an Aran sweater - pinpoints him as a target for gleeful Dublin ridicule. His teachers predict a future for him as a waster and a tramp. The park bench - that’s his destination.

Troubles keep coming at him. His ireful father empties a bowl of stewed apple over Hamilton’s head. People look at him as if he were a dead cat. He fails to ingratiate himself with a crowd of children round a Halloween bonfire.---Look,it’s Eichmann,’ one of them said.” He is forced to listen to stories about evictions and burning cottages on an Irish headland, and contemplate in dreadful detail a wartime massacre in the Ukraine.

The Sailor in the Wardrobe is a sequel to The Speckled People, and although it covers some of the same ground, it is composed in a slightly different, more elaborate, key. The tone is still lucid and vibrant, and charged with a childlike clairvoyance, but now a touch of universal adolescent bravado has entered into the special 0 hUrmultaigh brand of alienation. A John Lennon song comes into the picture, a cause of friction in the home. Readers of the first book will no doubt be relieved to learn that the narrator has acquired a friend, a waggish classmate called Packer (though at one point his know-all father puts paid to that resource too, for a time); and that he and Packer, like ordinary unoppressed sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds, get a summer job with fishermen down at the harbour, where a certain amount of jocularity and larking with mackerel is engaged in. But the harbour too is a place of dissension, with ingrained animosity between two old fishermen finally coming to a head in an outbreak of violence.

One of these men, as it happens, is a Derry Catholic, the other a Belfast Protestant, and their role is to act out, in a different setting, the growing tensions deranging their part of the country. Now the Troubles in the North come into play, and there is much talk about civil rights, about police intrusions into innocent homes at midnight, about cars exploding in crowded streets. A visitor from Germany is taken to a riot as a tourist attraction, and given stones to throw at British armoured vehicles.

This young German, a near-contemporary of the narrator, gets himself classified as a missing person when his walking tour of the west and north of Ireland is extended into a protracted absence; he is at one with the young Ó hUrmultaigh in his aim to disembarrass himself of over-freighted psychic inheritances, and his way of going about it is simply to disappear. The episode reiterates the theme of the book: ways of escaping, strategies for effecting some kind of reconciliation. When Hamilton and Packer spout mantras of dissent - “Goodbye to the hurt mind ... Goodbye to the fear and the rules and the punishment, goodbye to guilt and shame …” - it’s with more than the usual juvenile exhilaration at breaking free of darkness and restrictions (letting the sailor out of the wardrobe). The narrative reverberations encompass enormities of the twentieth century and beyond, though the style of the book stays effectively unpretentious. With its predecessor, it adds up to a striking appraisal of a troublesome Irish upbringing.


[ close ]

[ top ]