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The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Hugo Hamilton

“When I was small I woke up in Germany… Then I got up and looked out the window and saw Ireland.” And Ireland was a place where people spoke English, a language his father ferociously banned in his house. Hamilton said later, “The prohibition against English made me see that language as a challenge. Even as a child I spoke to the walls in English and secretly rehearsed dialogue I heard outside.”

Primarily, Hugo Hamilton’s intriguing memoir, The Speckled People, is about this: a language war.

“We lived in an imaginary place that my [German] mother had created in her stories,” Hugo Hamilton told an audience in the South Lounge on the Lincoln Center campus in February 2011. “As a child, I knew exactly how to get from my mother’s house where she grew up to the bakery, though I’d never been to Kempen, where she came from. And then there was also this imaginary place that my father had, which was a vision of Ireland as an Irish-speaking country.”

“We are the new Irish. Partly from Ireland and partly from somewhere else, half Irish and half German. We’re the speckled people…homemade Irish bread with German raisins.”

The Speckled People is like no other book I’ve ever read. Firstly it is told, in the first person, not surprising as this is a memoir, but by the author of about 8 years old, and to a person of such a young age whose world is that created by his parents there are things he perceives and understands but there are things he perceives and does not understand. His thoughts are usually long, bumpy, and windy but sometimes short and pithy.

“My mother makes everything better with cakes and stories and hugs that crack your bones. When everybody is good, my father buys pencil cases with six coloured pencils inside, all sharpened to a point …My father also likes to slam the front door from time to time. He sends a message to the world depending who knocked. If it’s the old woman who says, ‘God bless you Mister’, and promises to pray for him and all his family, if it’s the man who sharpens the garden shears on a big wheel or if it’s someone collecting for the missions, then he gives them money and closes the door gently. If it’s people selling carpets he shakes his head and closes the door firmly. If it’s the two men in suits with Bibles then he slams it shut to make sure that not even one of their words enters into the hall. And if it’s one of the people selling poppies, then he slams it shut so fast the whole street shakes.”

And like a child’s idea of what and when things happened different tenses are mixed, matched, and juxtaposed carefully constructed to give the impression of a child’s mind making sense of the world, juggling memory and present action to create an unusual but gratifying picture of a childhood marred by confusion, paternal foolery but maternal strength and self-acceptance.

Secondly, there is very little dialogue; the text is dense but accessible, and the narrative is reduced to chapters like vignettes; riffs on a common theme: a young boy’s memory of how and why he is what he is.

This may give the impression of monotone, both linguistically and metaphorically, but the patches of storytelling are fascinating as children seem to see things, and collate things, that adults either miss, discount, or deny; but given this format, like snap-shots, there is still an over-riding arc of passing-time which sees his father lose the language-wars and die before seeing his Ireland completely Anglicised and lost to his romantic and nationalistic idea of it; and yet his mother, as with everything, anchors the final image of widow and children lost on a family outing, watching the day disappear, vainly searching “to find things”, memories of her past in a new land…

“My mother took out a cigarette because she was free to smoke after my father died. We stood on the road and watched her face lighting up with a match. We smelled the new smoke in the clean air and waited. She said she didn‘t know where to go from here. We were lost, but she laughed and it didn’t matter.”

Hugo Hamilton, born in 1953, lives in Dublin and is well regarded in Germany where his contemporaries tell him he speaks German, softly, like it used to be spoken. So successful was The Speckled People that he continued the memoir in The Sailor in the Wardrobe which was published in 2006, as well as turning the former volume into a stage play that premiered at The Gate Theatre, Dublin, in 2011.

In 2008 Hugo Hamilton took fellow writer and friend, Nuala O’Faolain – also represented on my 2015 ‘to read’ list – to Berlin for a few days. O’Faolain was sixty eight, wheel-chair bound, doped up on Xanax, and in the last stages of metastatic cancer for which she refused treatment. She died 10 days after the journey. Hamilton fictionalised the experience in his 2014 novel, Every Single Minute, another must-read.

The Specked People is certainly not the Irish memoir of poverty and victimhood so universally popularised by Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and its ilk. This is unusual, bold and stimulating, profound and entertaining. Everything a memoir should be but satisfying in ways I didn’t expect.

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