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Customer Review

28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Living between languages..., 14 Dec. 2004
This review is from: The Speckled People (Paperback)
I found The Speckled People after encountering a fascinating article by Hugo Hamilton in a UK newspaper on the "Loneliness of Being German". Similar to the article, the book immediately struck a chord with me. Those living within and without their own language will find a special connection to this book. Language as the identification of "home" and "country" and "language wars" are explored here in a rather exceptional way - through the voice and outlook of a growing child. Like a patchwork quilt the vignette chapters of the book come together for the reader to form an exquisitely drawn portrait. His family is pictured against the backdrop of their Irish reality of poverty and want in the fifties and sixties. Complexities are accentuated by his dual identity as a child of an Irish nationalist father and a German mother who left Germany after the war.
While The Speckled People is an intimately personal chronicle of his youth, Hamilton's story has significance far beyond the autobiography genre. There are advantages and challenges in using the language of a child. On the one hand, experiences can be conveyed in a direct and innocent way. Johannes (Hugo) has not yet learned to query all he observes: "When you're small you know nothing". He is a sensitive and perceptive child who intuits that there are more untold dramas in the family. "You can inherit a secret without even knowing what it is." On the other hand, it may be difficult to maintain the language as the boy's capacity to analyze and reflect becomes more pronounced with age. Hamilton succeeds admirably in keeping his style consistent even where he integrates numerous events from the wider world as they become relevant to the young boy. As you settle into his style, the narrative becomes deeply absorbing.
The experiences of life under Nazi rule as part of an anti-Nazi family, continue to haunt his mother. Her painful memories are conveyed to the son in small doses, like selected scenes from a black and white movie in which she had a part. Nonetheless, she is homesick for her native country and all things German. Books, souvenirs and toys arrive regularly resulting in outbursts of happy laughter. Johannes records his mother's mood swings expressed through either laughter or primarily mental withdrawal and silence.

His father feels more Irish than anybody around them. He insists on preserving Irish culture and on "freeing" the Irish people from British influences. His children become "his weapon" against the enemy. He forbids the family to speak English. The children tend to "live" in German as their mother has difficulties speaking Irish. The Irish language has to be protected even if it means losing business. This can mean that cheques are not accepted from people who cannot spell Ó hUrmoltaigh - Hamilton in Irish. The language is your home, "your country is your language", he insists - it identifies who you are. The pressure on the children to speak German and Irish at home sets them apart from people in Dublin at the time. There, English was the preferred language. The children suffer from this enforced isolation. The neighbourhood bullies, responding to their otherness and German identity call them "Nazi", "Hitler" or "Eichmann". They attack them whenever the opportunity arises. While Johannes repeats to himself and to his mother "I am not a Nazi", he does not defend himself against the assaults. One of the rules of the house is to adopt a form of pacifist resistance, the "silent negative " and not to become part of the "fist people". As Johannes grows up, he understandably rebels increasingly against these strictures. In the end, he discovers his own way out of all the identify confusion, his anger and pain.
The Speckled People is a memoir like no other. Any comparison with other Irish memoirs would seem inappropriate to me. While Hamilton chronicles his childhood and growing up, themes and issues beyond the personal play a fundamental role. In particular his exploration of the complexities of "language" as "home" and "country" gives this book added richness and depth. [Friederike Knabe]
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 2 Feb 2014 08:39:16 GMT
JMD says:
A wonderful review which has made me buy the book!

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Feb 2014 11:09:33 GMT
Thank you, JMD. I am glad you discovered this book via my review. Friederike
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