Monday, December 29, 2008

Hugo Hamilton's "Disguise": Book Review.

How we shape our identity, and how we inherit our instability, marked Hamilton's fiction long before his memoir of growing up under an Irish-speaking father and a German refugee mother in 1960s Dublin, "The Speckled People," introduced him to many readers. I've admired each of his books; many today may not know much about his first three novels, all about Germany. (I reviewed this trio along with his stories in "Dublin Where the Palm Trees Grow" on Amazon.)

"Disguise" continues the searches of earlier families where after the war someone seeks his parent or her child. A son learns how his mother accompanied a Nazi officer who may have fired "The Last Shot"; another German mother faces Stasi-era duplicity in her quest to reunite through "The Love Test"; an Irishman delves into the GDR upbringing of his hosts before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in that "Surrogate City."

These novels all satisfy; "Disguise" enriches Hamilton's treatment here subtly, and elegantly. I'd estimate, having read his previous eight books, that he's aiming here for targets closer to the haunted legacies of countrymen John Banville or Sebastian Barry. There's a control of phrase and pacing here that recalls also European models. "Every now and again, an apple falls to the ground with a bony kind of thud, such as the sound of a hoof on the earth. The discovery of gravity each time." (47) Or, as uncertainty advances: "His entire existence was in Mara's hands, in her imagination, in what she agreed to believe and what she would dismiss. She held him like a porcelain figure, at her mercy, waiting to be dropped to the floor in tiny pieces." (148) Hamilton selects his words patiently, mulling over simple phrases. His own tri-lingual upbringing (English, Irish, and German) may account for his style, which attains a filtered quality distinguishing it from his contemporaries.

He takes on the fringes of a topic that's often overwhelmed the talents of imaginative as well as historical talents: the Holocaust. Hamilton, typically, engages the difficult question asked by Gregor Liedmann (note symbolic echoes), with grace and poise. Was Gregor a Jewish orphan who replaced Marie Liedmann's boy, who died in a bombing near the end of the war? She refuses to admit this to herself or her husband, after he returns from Soviet imprisonment.

The plot alternates between Gregor's 2008 day picking apples (with his estranged wife, Mara, their son, Daniel, and some old hippie friends) and Gregor's exploration of his roots while growing up in the GDR. An omniscient narrator does not admit much more that we need to know, but a reader may be assured that the information given beyond the indirect first-person perspectives of Marie, Mara, or Gregor must be compared with crucial expository details given in the first chapter that are beyond Marie's immediate knowledge, if I am correct. Hamilton's skilled in producing a novel that scans very quickly, yet flows vividly, mixing poetry with philosophy.

Sentences, too many to cite (I jotted down eighteen representative references easily), reveal Hamilton's in top form. There's nuance and power evoked by wartime havoc and lasting grief. The tragedy that cloaks Germany burdens all. Gregor comes of age as if, in Mara's mind, he's unable to foster a talent for love. Mara learns from Marie a conflicting narrative that claims her son's always been such. Mara too enters an uncertain realm where the loyalty to present-day family contends against unsubstantial, unsubstantiated claims to the contrary, that tug him back to a vague allegiance. Early in her relationship with Gregor, she resolves: "Together they would work and travel and reinvent the void he had come from. They would reimagine his true origins like a lost part of music that had been burned in a fire." (66)

The tension of Gregor's reinvention stretches until the final chapter. I'm withholding plot points so as not to spoil your experience. Not a thriller, but as emotionally cathartic for more honesty and less melodrama in confronting the legacy of modern German loss, rage, and shame, Hamilton integrates his study, his family's own past, and his authorial observations into a thought-provoking analysis of survivor's guilt. As in his début novel, "Surrogate City," Berlin now celebrates enduring rather than dreams of greatness. Today, Hamilton finds comfort in a humane response, as in apple orchards, to earlier slaughter as faced by the elder Liedmann, Emil, in WWI, when the cows grazed among the dead in other fields nearby. Skillfully, as with armed Emil facing a battalion of enemy (Russian?) women, or when in a few phrases the whole absurdity of GDR behind the Wall sums itself up by a schoolboy's innocent questions, Hamilton's able to compress much into little space.

One small admission: Daniel, his partner Juli, as well as Mara's sometime lover and Gregor's old friend Martin, needed filling out. Their friends on the apple-gathering day also flit about like extras in a film, when perhaps Hamilton's application of the telling detail for each of them might have fixed their roles better for our appreciation. The Irish sojourn, again, as with the dentist Mr Eckstein, could have been deepened or eliminated; as it is there's either not enough substance or too much digression. John Joe could have been a contender for a truly memorable figure, but he, too, lingers in the supporting cast. Gregor wanders about a lot, but you fail to feel his desires on the road when doing so compared with Mara or Marie's own struggles.

Hamilton in his memoirs and fiction has roamed around Germany, Ireland, and Europe. He addresses cultural encounters within larger problems but strives, at his best here, to keep contact with immediate, recognizable people. He does not let ideas take over his major characters. This is a intelligent consideration of how we can all be warped by dreaming rather than loving, by yearning instead of accepting. Perhaps, as Mara wonders, to cope with our turmoil we all need a disguise, an invented identity?

(Posted to Amazon in US & Britain 12/24/08.)


Tony Bailie said...

This was probably my favourite novel of 2008 and it sets Hamilton up as one of the best contemporary Irish writers. There is hardly a word out of place.
I'm a long-time admirerer and this sent me back to his early novels (the first three) although I never quite got into the Pat Coyne stories, although I might go back to them some day

Fionnchú said...

Thanks Tony, I noticed "Disguise" on your blog's shortlist and have been waiting for it to appear on the new acquisitions shelf at my library. I wonder how Hamilton's newest has been received in Ireland and Britain? While I cannot recall the Coyne episodes in much detail, "Sad Bastard" & "Headbanger" to me appear to me perhaps akin to John Banville's foray into Benjamin Black terrain; a Irish-based but continentally inclined writer of finely wrought fiction gets restless and wants to get out of the arthouse into the megaplex, so to speak!