Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review - The Speckled People

What are holidays, I ask you, without reading and writing, that very comfortable pair of bedfellows?  I have just returned from a week in Sicily - one of my most favourite destinations.  I holiday very few other places apart from the "Bel Paese" because I love its weather, its food and above all its wonderful people.  I also love its language which I get to practise when I travel there.  Anyway, over the course of three or so days I read Hugo Hamilton's wonderful memoir The Speckled People under the shade of the wonderful trees at Letojanni, a seaside resort just ten kilometres from Taormina


I have always loved reading autobiographies, biographies and memoirs because they captivate me personally, bring me into the world of the author, almost into their very head and heart.  I believe that such biographies are a marvellous way into understanding history, albeit a very biased one as it is told from the perspective of only one person.  Hence, it is far from objective and is, indeed, extremely imprecise history.  Nonetheless, it does give a certain perspective and that's all.  Oral history is not objective either, obviously - however, it does give another perspective on history, also very biased - but, in the end, all truths are coloured by the experiences of the subjects thereof.  If I wanted objective history I'd read an historian like Joseph Lee.  Obviously, a straight-forward biography say of De Valera would trace his life from birth to death in chronological order.  An equally straight-forward autobiography would do likewise while a memoir is rather like a short story insofar as it distills the very essence of the life of its author.  It presents us with a world view, with a philosophical take on life, with a distillation of meaning which the author has wrung from his interactions with all his surroundings.  It is rather like a snapshot or rather a sequence of snapshots or better still a short documentary film highlighting seminal events with the author's or director's understanding of the events related intertwined with the whole.  (If we sustain our metaphor we could say that biography and autobiography are more akin to novels as they tell a chronological story over a longer period of time.)  However, maybe I'm forcing these metaphors a bit, but I rather fancy the reader will get my meaning.

The Speckled People:

The Speckled People has been translated into many languages and has sold widely.  No wonder because it is brilliant and I shall outline why in this post.  However, before I start I want to draw the attention of readers to the titles in various languages as each translation brings a little extra meaning to it so that the readers of that particular language will make sense of the title. Gescheckte Menschen (Germany, 2004); Sang impur (France, 2004); Il cane che abbaiava alle onde (Italy, 2004); El perro que ladraba a las olas (Spain, 2005) - The first is a direct translation namely The Spotted or Checkered People while the French means Impure Blood and both the Italian and Spanish translations are beautiful renditions of the heart of the memoir namely: The Dog who Used Bark at The Waves.  Both the Spanish and Italian translators have really read their book and have made it their own.

A memoir is a well structured and well crafted form - a form shaped by the author to suit his or her own personality, his or her take on life, his or her pattern of meaning which they throw like a net over the chaos which often life is for us.  Or to use another metaphor a memoir is an individual map lovingly drawn by the author to trace their journey through life.   Angela's Ashes, a memoir which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, while gripping is far too sentimental and far too self-pityingly self-obsessed for me. It lacks the artist's touch or the touch of brilliance or the very light touch of the very soul of the author.  Hugo Hamilton's book has all this in abundance.  It is a brilliant artistic achievement.  As Nick Hornby puts it on the dust jacket: "The Speckled People is a terrific achievement, thoughtful and compelling, smart and original, beautifully written." 

What can I say about this wonderful memoir?  Firstly, it brought me on a roller coaster ride of emotions - from laughter to anger to pain to sadness to joy to pleasure to the sheer enthusiasm and energy of youth - and then I experienced the sheer physicality of youth, the pain of growing up, the dawning on the youngster that his dad and mam, and especially his dad, are far from perfect.  The young boy's encounters with his mam are mostly loving and life-enhancing while those with his father are more often than not disciplinary solely where the young lad meets his father's innate anger and frustration with life itself.  As the boy grows up he learns to fight against his father's will not physically but mentally, and consequently more powerfully.  However, there are a few redeeming encounters where the father admits defeat to the son and there is a beautifully rendered account of his visiting the Drachenfelz or mountain-top castle with his father where he and his mother had stayed shortly after they were married.  In a moment of truth and disarmed honesty the father says to his two sons: "He said it was not true that he had rescued my mother because it was the other way around.  If it wasn't for her he would have joined the priesthood like his brother Ted... Then my mother came to Ireland and rescued him from the priesthood."  (Op.cit., 216)

As I have said somewhere above if one could take one's first 15 years of life as is the case in this memoir and distill and re-distill many times over all one's experiences of that period one might come up with something akin to Hamilton's achievement.  However, I think not.  The author writes from the point of view of a little boy growing up - from his earliest years until he is about fifteen, I guess.  His style is a marvellous achievement indeed.  It is precise, succinct, crisp and direct.  It manages to put across a child's eye view of things and later an adolescent's eye view on the world.  This is a particularly wonderful feat to bring off.  I loved the sentence:  "When you're small you know nothing" which is repeated about five or six times I imagine (I did not count the number of times as I was so engrossed in my reading) and it acts as a wonderful chorus which works at first at a preconscious level and then after several times met more consciously.  However, this refrain is in itself a distillation of a child's take on the world.  It is both subjectively and indeed objectively true.  Adults after all have all the power in the world!

Indeed, the sentence quoted in the last paragraph opens this memoir and it is an explosive opening - it grabs our attention.  Chapter two opens with an equally short clipped sentence which reads:  "I know they don't want us here."  This also grabs our attention and is so clear that we feel the fear felt by a young boy who was an outsider where he was reared - somewhere around Sandycove and The Forty Foot bathing area.  Why was he an outsider?  Well, his mother was German and his father and Irish-speaking Irishman or dyed-in-the-wool Gaeilgóir who hated English and England and who banned the use of English from the house.  Hugo and his brother and two sisters were brought up in German and Irish and forbidden to speak English at home.  The local youths used to call the Lederhosen and Aran Sweater wearing children "Nazis" and used taunt and torment them.  Why?  Simply because they were different.  Their father did not allow them to mix with children who were English speakers to make matters worst.  Hence the title - they were different.  They were the "speckled people" or "na daoine breaca" in Irish.  Like all memoirs this book is the search by a young boy or indeed by the grown up Hamilton for his own identity.  If one has three languages and you're forced to speak two and to dismiss the third, I'd say anyone would be confused as to who one is.  As a search for identity by the young lad Hugo it is a tour de force.

The sentence opening chapter three is also loaded:  "My mother's name is Imgard and she was in a big film once with lots of war and killing and trains on fire." (Ibid.,  16)  This is also a masterfully succinct yet loaded sentence.  The young boy is trying to make sense of the snippets his mother tells them about her experience in war-torn Germany.  What makes this memoir masterly is that it is only gradually that we get information on the mother's experiences - they are fed to us in stages.  This has the effect of allowing the child's view of his mother to be partial and unique and authentic and to grow as it were as he grows in understanding.  The case is the same for the way our author reveals his father to us.  Hugo Hamilton's appreciation of how a child grows in understanding is superb to say the least.  He reveals himself as a wonderful child psychologist.  His mother's frightfully awful experiences had to be akin to a film from Hollywood where one could only see trains on fire and people being killed.

Rural Ireland in the early fifties and indeed later is wonderfully rendered.  I loved his account of his mother looking for lodgings in Ireland on a very wet night before she was married.  She ended up sleeping beside the landlady because the guest house was crowded out and the man of the house volunteered to sleep by the fireside.  This is a story obviously which his mother had told him.  I'll quote this wonderful piece in full:

My mother says you can't complain if you're a pilgrim escaping from Germany.  She says you have to offer things up.  For people who are less fortunate and for all the awful things that happened.  So she just got into the bed with the woman of the house.  She could hear the whole room breathing, until the woman started speaking in the dark.  She listened to the woman talking for a while, and then she began to talk as well, as if there were things that could only be said in the dark.  (Ibid., 23)

I also loved the sheer simplicity of this description of his father, again from a child's eye view of the world:

My father is different to other men. He has no moustache, but he has glasses and he has a limp, too.  He swings his briefcase and his leg goes down on one side as if the ground is soft under one foot.  It's the same as when you walk with one foot on and one foot off the pavement.  My mother kisses him and puts her arm around him.  he looks into the pram at Maria to see if she has her eyes open.  Franz tries to carry the briefcase and I try to walk like my father, but that's not allowed... (Ibid., 27)

His mother is forever telling stories.  The ones she could not tell she wrote up as a diary with her typewriter.  What wonderful therapy for herself and what a wonderfully healing way of rearing children - by telling stories.  See my many entries on stories.  Here's a wonderfully beautiful sentence on the power of stories to captivate a child's mind: "I wanted to go down and tell him [his father] that my mother fixed Franz's nose with a story."

Again the opening sentence of chapter 5 is equally succinct and loaded:  "My father's name is Jack and he's in a song, a long ballad with lots of verses about leaving Ireland and emigrating."  In one sentence he has managed to give a wonderful pen picture of his father - a nationalist who loved song and story and the history of the Irish people.

I also feel this book would make a wonderful study for those who wish to rear their children in Irish. It is better by far to rear them bilingually or trilingually.  However, that's a topic for another post - perhaps over in my Irish blog.

The father has his secrets like his mother as Hugo discovers when he and his brother discover the picture of the sailor - his father's father who had died while serving in the British navy - hidden in the wardrobe.  This was something the father wished to forget or at least to blot out of his everyday world by hiding these memorabilia.

Gradually we are introduced both to the father's and mother's extended family.  Again stories here are centre stage.  They again are told skilfully from a child's eye view of the world. Against the background of both the Nazi holocaust and the Irish famine the young boy Hugo learns to grasp the rather heavy and sad history of both Germany and Ireland.  He also learns to stand up for himself because as he says:  "I am the boy who slapped the teacher in the face [his first day in school].  I'm the boy who's not afraid of anything, my mother says." (Ibid., 75)

For those of us with an interest in World War II we get wonderful little insights into that period of history with succinct sayings like: "Onkel Gerd said people thought Goebbels and Hitler had rabies because they were always foaming at the mouth." (Ibid., 79) 

We get his father's views on the Irish language throughout the book, on Irish and poverty (102); on too much drinking of alcohol in Ireland (102) and much else.  We read about his mother's rape many times by a seemingly upright Nazi business man for whom she worked as a girl.  If she were to complain she would be sent to a concentration camp.  

Once when little Hugo was sick from asthma and his mother was nursing him he remembers the following.  You will get a sense of the way the history of Germany during the Second World War is distilled and intertwined carefully and resourcefully in this memoir:

My mother says I'm a dreamer and it's true what they say about me at school.  I'm the boy who lives a million miles away in outer space.  She smiles at me with all her new teeth and says goodnight.  But she's the one who is dreaming and still hoping that some things didn't happen at all, because she stays in the room after she's switched off the light, just to stand at the window for a while before she goes down stairs again.  The light from the street outside makes the branches of the trees blow across her face.  It's very quiet and she doesn't say a word for a long time.

"Nobody can force you to smile," she says.

"What?" I ask.  But I know she's not even talking to me, only to herself, as if she's the last person left in the room.

"They can make you show your teeth, but what good is that?  Nobody can make you smile against your will."

It's hard to find out what she means sometimes, but I know that she's talking about the bad film in Germany when the houses and trains were on fire.  She's standing there with the black and white branches moving across her face and across the wall behind her, as if she's stuck on the screen, standing under the light waiting for somebody. (Ibid., 145-6)

All through the book we get a sense of Hugo's being an outsider, of having to establish an identity because he was so different from the other boys at school.  We also get a sense of his strength and that of his brother who were told not to fight back with their fists.  Rather, they were to fight back with the strength of their words.  This was no mean task.  In fact it was often a humiliating and bloody one for them.  However, he learned great strength of character from standing his ground, albeit in a pacifist way.  He tells us over and over again in different ways that his mother and father were not afraid to be different.  We feel instinctively that neither are Hugo and his siblings.  When Franz came home with blood on his shirt and face here is what his mother did: she brought Franz into the kitchen and began to clean up the blood on his face.  She got some chocolate out of the press to make things better.  She said it was good that we didn't fight back because we are not the fist peopleWe are the word people and one day we will win them over.  One day the silent negative will win them all over. (ibid., 223)

Ah yes here we have the power of the mighty word over the power of the sword or over the power of violence.  It is the very thesis of pacifism.  However, methinks it did not work against Hitler or Stalin or any of their ilk.  But it is a simple and pure truth even if Utopian.  Both Hugo's parents were romantic Utopians at heart.

Now, I'll finish with the story of the dog who used bark at the waves and explain why this is a wonderful rendering of the title of the book in Italian and Spanish because it gets to its very heart.  Hugo, when he grows into adolescence, begins to fight his father and to become very stubborn.  "Didn't we all ad infinitum back in human history?" I hear you question.  Very true indeed.  He becomes an angry young man.  He is not allowed stand up for himself with his fists.  He has to take all the insults as well as the punches on the chin and not fight back.  Anyway, like all children he loved dogs.  Around his area there was a placid old dog who used love fighting and barking at the waves.  This was a dog of exceptional spirit and kindness.  One day when Hugo was very angry he ended up kicking the dog into the sea off the pier and now allowing him to come back onto the land.  Hugo eventually fled from the scene and was sure the dog had drowned.  He now felt guilty and deeply ashamed of his pointless anger against an innocent animal.  After all, his tormentors had always called him a Nazi or Eichmann.  Now Eichmann in Hugo's persons had murdered an innocent dog.  The book ends with the young adolescent Hugo having gone for a swim in The Forty Foot.  He was the best swimmer of his age group in the area.  Having come out of the water, he is attacked by bullies:

Then they started the execution.  One of them kicked me so hard I had to bend over.  There was a black pain spreading up into my stomach and I thought I was going to get sick...One of them punched me in the face and I saw blood on my towel.  I knew they were learning to hate and that you're allowed to hate Germans.  They wanted me to surrender.

I looked up to show that I was not afraid to be silent.  And then I saw the dog.  I nearly forgot about the execution when I saw the dog behind them, the dog that barks all day until he's hoarse.  I couldn't believe it at first and I had to wipe my eyes to make sure.  The dog with no name was coming down to bark at the sea as if nothing was wrong and he had never drowned.

"Jaysus, what the Jaysus," I said. "It's the dog."

They looked around at me as if I was trying to play a trick on them and get away.  They said all the Germans were gone mad because I was calling the dog over to save my life.

"It's the dog with no name," I said again.

(Ibid., 294-295).

After this Hugo learns that he is afraid of no one anymore.  He has learned to find a new strength from the wonderfully kind and stupid dog who only knew how to bark at the waves. 

(I might add here that animals, especially domesticated ones, are very close to humankind.  Also, in dreams they represent our inner or gut feelings.  If you are starving a little dog in a dream, you are starving your emotions.  If there is a fierce dog there in your dreams, you are not expressing your anger etc.  I remember once being asked to play whatever animal we wished at group therapy some ten years ago.  I remember a whole room of adults going around acting as if they were cats, dogs, pigs, cows, sheep, butterflies, bees etc.  It truly was a liberating experience.  Also children who are reared with animals learn a lot about unconditional love.  Who says animals have not got emotions?  Yes they have, and many of them make wonderful friends!)

I have always loved dogs. This is Max - the community dog at St Augustine's Ballyboden, 1985/6.

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