Liam Harte, review of Hand in the Fire by Hugo Hamilton, in The Irish Times (20 March 2010).

Source: The Irish Times [online; accessed 05.04.2010.]

One of the most notable aspects of Hugo Hamilton’s 20-year literary career is his refusal to limit himself to a single genre or narrative style. His best-known work, the memoir The Speckled People  (2003), chronicles his extraordinary Irish-German childhood in ways that brilliantly reinvigorate a form that too often trades in hackneyed sentiments and scenarios. Eschewing stock victims and villains, Hamilton eloquently anatomises the contradictions of a dual heritage that left him hovering perilously between two cultures and three languages. No one nation can lay claim to this “speckled” hybrid. Rather, nation here is narration, “a place you make up in your own mind”.

Although aspects of Hamilton’s macaronic origins were hinted at in his early fiction, nothing quite prepared readers for the faux naïf  voice and perspective that makes the memoir so affecting. In fact, The Speckled People was preceded by works of a very different style and tone, the fast-paced Dublin thrillers Headbanger (1996) and Sad Bastard (1998), which segue from comedy to seriousness. These novels were themselves a radical stylistic departure from the trilogy with which Hamilton first established himself. Coolly meditative and carefully modulated, Surrogate City (1990), The Last Shot (1991) and The Love Test (1995) explore the deep-seated schisms of post-war Germany from the perspective of protagonists who are decentred spiritually as much as physically, caught between a dispersed historical inheritance and a disorientating present.

Yet for all his eclecticism, core themes recur: a preoccupation with history’s secrets, the shaping power of memory and the way identity is changed by the journey. The mood of heimatlos  evoked in the opening chapter of Surrogate City  stands as a kind of overture to Hamilton’s work as a whole. There is a certain archetypal quality about the young Irishwoman who stands breathless on a Berlin pavement, lost, needy and not knowing the language. Versions of this troubled outsider reappear in the later fiction, most recently in Disguise (2008), the hero of which is a bohemian musician whose life consists of “departures and comebacks”.

Vid Cosic, the narrator of Hand in the Fire, is cut from the same cloth. Vid is a recently-arrived Serbian migrant eager to build a new life for himself in Dublin. Far from wanting to maintain a sense of cultural distinctiveness in his new environment, he is keen to acquire a “true certificate of belonging” and assimilate as quickly as possible. His opportunity comes when his discovery of a lost mobile phone brings him into the social orbit of affluent young lawyer Kevin Concannon, who gives him occasional work as a carpenter.

The speed with which Kevin befriends Vid proves decidedly double-edged. On the one hand, it gives this newcomer a much-desired sense of belonging; on the other, the suffocating intensity of Kevin’s bonhomie makes Vid party to a violent attack in which a man is left for dead. The legal machinations that ensue transform Vid’s relationship with Kevin, yet he will not easily relinquish the satisfaction he derives from being treated as a trusted insider.

The all-or-nothing nature of Irish friendship - summed up in Kevin’s insistence that “a true friend was someone who would put his hand in the fire for you” - is one of the many cultural peculiarities that fascinate Vid. Whereas Kevin relishes transgressing the limits of acceptable social and sexual behaviour, Vid lacks the cultural knowledge to judge Irish people and their motives, to tell “where the boundary lay between a joke and an insult”. However, while Hamilton skilfully evokes the mixture of curiosity and gullibility that makes Vid vulnerable to exploitation, he occasionally tests the limits of credulity by creakily manoeuvring him into situations - such as his abrupt excursion to Belfast in chapter 17 - that serve as pretexts for Irish history lessons.

As the narrative unfolds, deeper correspondences between the two central protagonists emerge. Like Vid, Kevin is in flight from a troubled history - he disposes of his biography in a single sentence, “like something he needed to leave behind” - and he too knows what it feels like to be an outsider. Born in London, he “did his best to be Irish” when his mother returned to Ireland with him when he was nine. His Connemara father, who is a mysterious absence for much of the novel, is another misfit, a refugee from a time when Irish people “mistrusted success, when they laughed at enterprise, when they could not even trust friendship because emigration spread so fast, like contamination”.

This web of multidirectional journeys gradually expands to encompass virtually every character in the novel, making Hand in the Fire  a slow-acting meditation on the entanglement of histories and genealogies that constitute Ireland as a diaspora space. Neither old nor new worlds offer any stability but rather appear to be constantly changing, and it is not only those with foreign accents who are forced to outrun the shadow of intolerance.

The story of a young woman from Furbo whose drowned body was washed up on the Aran Islands comes to haunt Vid, drawing him westward. Pregnant and unmarried, she was first condemned from the altar and later mysteriously “expelled into the sea”. The story has the power of a folktale; Synge might have forged a tragedy from it. To a refugee from eastern genocide, the fate of this vilified outcast encapsulates a truth that is very close to home: all that is fearful comes from within ourselves. Hand in the Fire  is an uneasy but rewarding read, offering us a fresh perspective on Irish society through only partly comprehending immigrant eyes.

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