Friday, August 08, 2008

The Sailor in the Wardrobe - Review



There is nothing better to do when it is raining than to read and write - my twin passions.  Mind you, it has been incessantly raining here in Ireland.  It seems that rain and summer are an inseparable pair here - it must be global warming because while we never got hugely hot summers we certainly never got so much unseasonable rain.  Anyway, this is not a rant or a complaint - merely a statement or an observation.  I remember a German tourist informing me rather wisely that "there is no such thing as either good or bad weather - you're either dressed for it or not!"  Brilliant quote, I think, and ever so philosophical and Germanic.

Anyway, returning to the matter at hand, I wish now to write a few comments on the second brilliant memoir from the pen of Hugo Hamilton - The Sailor in The wardrobe (Harper Perennial, 2006).  This volume is equally as good as his first volume namely The Speckled People which I have already reviewed in these pages. Once again this slim book is a tour de force of an emotional kind.  Hugo manages to capture what it is like to be an adolescent so vividly.  One begins to feel and think as if one were in his head or in his heart.  He brings us on a roller-coaster of emotions - all those adolescent feelings of being somewhat embarrassed by one's parents, his struggle for identity as a young teenager, his battles of will with his father, his wonderful relationship with his mother and his desire to be his own man.  If you'd like to recapture what it is like to be an adolescent boy read this book - it is a must.

Also this slim volume is packed with wisdom - mainly from his mother, whom he describes with great affection.  Indeed, his mother had suffered much as a young Catholic girl in Nazi Germany during World War Two.  She had been abused and raped by her boss and could not report him as he was a member of the Nazi Party and had threatened her with a work camp were she to say anything.  This is another brilliant success of this memoir as it is of the last one I reviewed, namely the way Hamilton manages to seamlessly interweave his mother's past life and indeed that of his father with his marvellous realisation of the adolescent world and his struggle for identity.

Once again, I love Hugo Hamilton's direct, simple and so succinct style.  It is a marvel just to take note of the opening sentences of each chapter, for they are a wonder of compression.  I mentioned in my last review that Hugo works almost like a distiller who distills and redistills the facts of his life into the bare essentials.  What he achieves is sheer gold.  There is simply nothing extraneous in his writing whatsoever.  Take the very first sentence - an absolute gem of precision and compression:  "People say you are born innocent, but it is not true."  Chapter two begins "It looked as if everything had stopped moving," while chapter eight starts "The first thing that we noticed about Stefan was that he didn't eat cake."  All chapters have a wonderfully short, crisp and precise sentence to open them.  They grab our attention immediately and bring us to the very heart of the chapter before we know where we are.  This is a masterful technique, bolstered up by a simple, direct and consequently profound style which cuts to the heart of things. 

We have all heard it said so many times - you can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family."  We are born into whatever our circumstances are, for better or for worse.  We inherit both good and bad from our parents - their strengths and their flaws.  Hugo presents his family wonderfully well and very honestly.  We would expect no less from a brilliant author.  After all, honesty is the most important characteristic of any writer worth his or her salt.  Otherwise the work does not come off, does not cut the mustard, simply does not rate and in all likelihood won't be published.  Hugo presents his feeling of being overburdened by his parents - in  the sense that he had as a child to listen to all their sad life stories.  In a sense he is weighed down by history on both sides.  On his father's side, the struggle for Irish independence and for the Irish Language and the sense of hurt and guilt of a German mother who had been abused and raped by the Nazi racist machine.  Here is what he says about this intolerable inheritance for a young boy growing into manhood:

These things I need to forget, things I don't want to think about any more.  I want to have no past behind me, no conscience, no memory.  I want to get away from my home and my family and my history. (Op. cit., 7)

His mother, as I say is ever so endearing and the more we read about her the more we want her to be our mother also.  Indeed, as a would-be psychotherapist, who starts his training in September, I would recommend this book as a wonderful vade mecum for anybody about to embark in the helping professions. Here is a wonderful insight into his mother's way with children:

Whenever we had nightmares in our family, she would get up in the middle of the night to take out a piece of paper and coloured pencils.  Here, draw the nightmare, she would say.  Once you put it down on paper, you will never have to dream about it again.  So we would sit up in bed with the light on, rubbing our eyes and drawing whatever it was that frightened us...But she would wait patiently with her arm around me, until the bad thing was drawn and coloured in.  Look, she would then say, it's there in your drawing and we can put it away.  Now we have un-remembered it and we can go back to sleep again. (Ibid., 12)

Unconsciously, his mother was doing great therapy.  This is what is known as "art therapy" today in professional circles.  I suppose all therapy, to use a metaphor I seem almost to over use in talking about Hugo Hamilton, is as it were a distillation of the best examples of human inter-relations.

A word now about the title: The Sailor in the Wardrobe.  It refers to a picture of his paternal grandfather which his father hid away in the wardrobe because he was somehow embarrassed about his father.  Why?  Well, he was an officer in the British Navy while the son, Hugo's father, became a dyed-in-the-wool nationalist and Gaeilgóir.  It did not suit him to admit that his father had taken the British shilling during the First World War.  This beautiful image, taken from actual everyday life, richly illustrates the power of repression in our lives.  Sigmund Freud, sir, take a bow!  No wonder we speak about "skeletons in the cupboard" or being "in the closet" and other such metaphors for covering up or hiding what we do not wish to admit either to ourselves or to the general public. 

The adolescent Hugo gets a job down at the harbour helping with hired boats.  His description of the harbour, his job and his grandfather intermingle in this wonderfully powerful description:

The harbour is a place of nightmares, but it's where I want to be.  I love the sight of the wide open bay and the clouds, like big handwriting in the sky.  I love the moon shining on the water at night, like a soft powdery, white light drifting across the world.  I belong to the sea, like my grandfather, John Hamilton, the sailor with the soft eyes who got locked into the wardrobe by my father.  I know he lost his life when he fell on board a British navy ship during the First World War...I am the same age now as my grandfather was when he joined the navy, so I'm stepping into his shoes.  I work on the boats and go out fishing like his people did in Glandore, on the coast of West Cork.  Sometimes I sneak upstairs to the wardrobe while my father is at work and look at the photograph of John Hamilton in his sailor's tunic.  I wonder if I look like him.  I want to be a sailor and travel all over the world like he did before he died.  I'm going to become my own grandfather.  I'm going to take his name and help him to escape from the wardrobe.  (Ibid., 20)

There is a profundity of wisdom in the above passage, much insight into his father's repression, into the youngster's intuition that hiding the picture is wrong or at least very unhealthy plus his desire to free himself from his own father and in so freeing himself he will have liberated the ghosts that haunt them both.

In another post, I'll discuss in greater detail the character of the father because I would like to try to attempt a psychoanalysis of the man for my own practice as a would-be psychotherapist.   I will look at the running battles Hugo had with his father as he managed to gain his own freedom in the next post.

Hugo's account of his friendship with Packer is wonderfully depicted.  Save for one hiatus, which he feels was initiated by his father's complaining to Packer's mother about her son's bad influence on Hugo, they remained good and loyal friends.  The story of their friendship will appeal to all and it is well told.

His account of his new identity is vivid and strong and lively:

So now he's (Packer his friend) given me a new name ("Vlad the Inhaler" because of my lungs) and a new identity and I go home covered in mackerel scales every day.  There's always a smell of petrol on my hands from handling the engines and all these dried out mackerel scales over everything I touch.  Tiny silver coins on my fingernails, on my shoes, even on the books I read at home.  I feel I've turned into a mackerel myself... (Ibid., 34)

Then his mother wanted to see where young Hugo worked because of all the stories he was telling at home - stories like Packer would tell.  Here, we have the young adolescent's growing identity by copying his more confident friend.  However, when she did come down with his little brother he hid from both of them:

But that didn't mean that I wanted anyone from my house to follow me down there.  It was my place.  It was where I got away from my family.  And now my mother was coming.  I saw them turning on the pier, with my little brother just ahead on his bike, stopping every few minutes to let her catch up. (Ibid., 35)

Gradually Hugo becomes accepted by other boys and Packer helped greatly in this as did his job.  However, he does get into trouble for throwing a clump of grass at a fireman putting out a Halloween bonfire.  Then he describes how he became invisible both at home at at school for a while.  He also stopped speaking for some considerable amount of time at home.  Don't we all remember those times ourselves?  There are things that young Hugo wants to say to his father, but he simply cannot find the words.  Perhaps it's only when the lived experience of years passes that the words do come. (see p. 75)

Then there's the incident of the murdered woman down on the harbour.  After going to the spot many times - the adolescent's obsession with death, dying, murder, mystery and identity - his mother gives him the book Crime and Punishment, a marvellous book which I read years ago at college.  It was written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  He loves the book and comments:

And maybe that's why they gave me the book, because they want me to know that your crime stays with you for the rest of your days, like a partner that never leaves your side.  (ibid., 92-93)

The book is great on adolescent identity and rebellion:

He (his uncle Ted Hamilton, SJ) made the sign of the cross but we both knew that it was too late and I was already lost.  I told him I had been brainwashed by my father into speaking Irish.  I had been brainwashed into being German as well and now I wanted to be brainwashed out of all that as fast as possible...I needed to live outside my family.  I needed to be neutral and I went into hiding, behind Packer.  I started to live inside his life...  (Ibid., 104)

So now I've become sneaky, doing things behind my father's back.  I go up to his bedroom when he is out at work.  I open his wardrobe and look at the big picture of the sailor with the soft eyes inside...I wonder what he did that was so terrible.  Nobody deserves to be locked away from the world like this, and I know what it is like to be in that wardrobe, because I was trapped in there once as a child...I want to rescue him.  I cannot take his picture out, so I do something that will make it less lonely for him in there.  I take the John Lennon disc that my father gave back to me.  I can't ever play it anyway, so I hide it in the wardrobe behind the picture of the sailor...It's John Hamilton and John Lennon talking to each other and whispering in the dark.  It's John Hamilton joining the Beatles and singing harmonies along with John Lennon in the wardrobe at night, while my father is trying to get to sleep."  (ibid., 110-111)

The above is a wonderfully symbolic and healing piece.  What a wonderfully ritualistic thing for the boy to do, to put the two denied souls (both denied by his father) together in the locked wardrobe.  This is a healing act which the boy does spontaneously. We all need ritual which by its very nature is healing.

One of the great episodes in the book is where the young Hugo, becomes a secret hero, when he steals a Christian Brother's leather and hides it on the top of a picture frame in The Municipal Art Gallery.  The culprit was never found but it was thought by all that it was Packer.  The struggle between the boys and the Christian Brother is well described and the boys are the victors justly in the end.

Then the young boys' journey to the Aran Islands is graphically depicted with Packer as the leader of the band.  They learned there the wonderful phrase: "Scaoil amach do dheabhailín" from an old woman.  (The phrase translates as: "Let out your little devil", i.e., your manhood!) Gaeilge is and was always earthy.  The account of this trip is wonderfully interwoven with references to Synge's famous or infamous play The Playboy of The western World, and an equally brilliant account of the importance of story as he saw it so masterfully exemplified in the person of his best friend Packer.  This same Packer had found his voice or identity before Hugo.

This is a deep book and has much wisdom in it from Hugo's struggles to find his identity to his views on life in general, on the struggles between father and son, to which I will return as a single topic, his good relationship with his mother, his great friendship with Packer.  It seamlessly discusses Vietnam and the Troubles in North of Ireland and I simply loved the phrase about the world being a "big hurt factory." (Ibid.,228)  Then Packer's line is wonderful:  "It's goodbye to the hurt mind." (Ibid., 231)  This would make a good motto for a would-be therapist.  I think I'll adopt it! 

Finally, the last line in the following paragraph, which ends the penultimate chapter, is a line simply to die for - it's the sentence that ends chapter 20 and links in with the very first sentence of the first chapter.:  The two great friends - Hugo and Packer - are quitting their job at the harbour and are going their own way in life:

He wanted to look out over the sea to watch the sun coming up.  So we sit on the rocks waiting for the first glow in the sky to the east, yellow, then pink, then orange, then blue.  The tide was gone out now and the shoreline looked exhausted, draped in black seaweed.  We see the curvature of the world.  We could see the grass turning green on the island...We saw the lighthouses fading away to nothing as the sun came up like a hot coal over the horizon, and I knew that one of these days, very soon, I would earn my own innocence."  (Ibid., 244-245)

The last chapter describes how Packer and Hugo go working in Germany during their summer holidays before their first year at college. And so this memoir ends beautifully with Hugo literally finding his feet and a new identity:

Maybe you have to live under cover for a while before you can find your true character.  Now i want to belong to the same country as Bob Dylan and Dostoyevsky and Fassbinder.  I want to be in the same wardrobe as John Lennon and John Hamilton, the sailors with the soft eyes.  I have taken on my grandfather's identity.  I have given him back his name and his life...I can feel the touch of solid ground under my feet.  (Ibid., 263)



Above I have uploaded a picture my father had of his twin brother, James Quinlan, who was a second lieutenant in the British Navy during World War Two.