Hugo Hamilton: The Sailor in the Wardrobe
D7 THE GLOBE AND MAIL SATURDAY, JUNE 17, 2006 MEMOIR
Trapped between cultures
The Sailor in the Wardrobe
By Hugo Hamilton
Fourth Estate, 263 pages, $38.95
Reviewed By Anakana Schofield.
For complicated historical reasons, an Gaeilge, the Irish language, has on occasion attracted a certain brand of nutter. Rather than being a useful entity for buying a packet of sausages ordescribing how much you love your goats, the language can become bogged down in its purported significanceas saviour of the nation —an impossible task for which it is neither equipped nor intended. It’s odd because, far from being a didactic language, an Gaeilge, when spoken, is an undulating language, in which the combination of words can have many a shade and meaning.
Hugo Hamilton’s dad was a passionate West Cork man for whom the Irish language (and its twinbrother, Irish nationalism) would provide deliverance. The repair of the Irish nation would begin in earnest between the four walls of his South County Dublin home, where his five children were cast as the pioneers to right the malaise of occupation. Anything British would be forbidden in his house, including the English language. He told his children they were “the new Irish, the speckled people,”while he plodded about being a sincere and violent misery guts, decrying popular culture or anything that was any fun, all for the betterment of the Irish nation. Frighteningly, he was actually well intended; fortunately, it did not all go according to plan and, ironically, as a result, his son Hugo has now written two of the most insightful and significant books ever written about Ireland. In English.
We previously met Hamilton’sdad in his first memoir, The SpeckledPeople, a book so emotionally affecting and written in such evocative and poetic tones that the said pedantic dad might have had cause to admit the old Béarla (English) and The Beatles were not so bad for his son after all. On the opposite side of the table sat Hamilton’s mother, a more sensible and feeling German woman,who arrived in Ireland after the war, clearly post-traumatic, distraught with confusion over everything she’d experienced living in Nazi
Germany. She felt it was “time to walk away from the hurt,” that it was “the time of forgiveness and peace.” While one can barely fathom how she put up with her husband, she managed occasionally to curtail some of his more violent lunges at the children and offer them some respite from his angerand eccentricity. Hugo, meanwhile, bore theweight of his parents’ respective histories, finding himself idir dhá domhain (between two worlds), overheated in his Aran sweaters and lederhosen, racially abused and mortified, while longing to relate exclusively to the world outside his doorstep: Dún Laoghaire, a suburb of Dublin in the late 1960s.
The Sailor in the Wardrobe picks up where Hamilton’s first memoir left off. Against the backdrop of onesummer of his adolescence, he describes and questions the experienceof belonging and not belonging in a riveting and relevant manner. It’s a time fraught with battles and mysteries: His boss at the harbour, Dan Hurley, is engaged in a holy war with another fisherman,Tyrone, who eventually drowns; his best friend, the vibrant Packer, without explanation wants nothing to do with him. When a German cousin, Stefan, arrives in Ireland for a holiday and goes missing in Connemara, the entire family is deeply mystified. Members of the extended family sprinkle the tale like condiments.The various situations give rise to other memories, such as the time Hugo’s father tried to invade Northern Ireland with his Aiserí political party and how his mother risked everything to keep bringing food each day to some people in Mainz, Germany, who now want her to return the ancient book they gave her as thanks. In response to his father’s minidespotism, Hamilton retrieves and relates to a photograph of his grandfather, John Hamilton, soft eyed, relegated to the back of his father’s wardrobe on account of being a sailor in the British navy. The great power of this book, beyond Hamilton having a unique and interesting story to tell, is without doubt the voice in which he tells the story, and also that it has a relevance far beyond just memoir.This is no limited woe-is-me-alas carry-on. His particular offers the reader a way into the general. His description of a fisherman trying to remove a fishhook from his hand, or a needle being inserted into his own spine to test for meningitis, will send you reeling. His evocation of the Ireland of the time and the characters he shares with us possess a reassuring accuracy and roundedness, so that, on finishing, you feel you could happily trot through Dún Laoghaire, cross the road and have a satisfying conversation with the neighbours. Hamilton is also the author of five novels and a short-story collection. Somehow, in these memoirs, his prose has lost a certain edginess that had previously propelled it, and more subtle aspects of his writing have risen up and enriched it. He was always an insightful and unique writer, who deserved to have far more people reading him. It is gratifying to see that the seats around the table are filling up and people are paying attention.