Voyage into depths of silence

Every Single Minute
Hugo Hamilton
4th Estate, €21.45

THERE is generally an unwritten rule when it comes to using writing as a form of catharsis: don’t do it because it tends to produce self-indulgent, sentimental, codswallop.

The memoir genre, however, may be the one exception to this unspoken gentlemen’s agreement. For those who have suffered the unfortunate business of a miserable childhood, sharing that experience with a popular audience can be one way of making peace with your dysfunctional past.

Both Hugo Hamilton and the late Nuala O’Faolain are two writers that have made sense of their private lives through the public domain. In 1996 O’Faolain published Are You Somebody?, it revealed her impoverished and loveless childhood, growing up in north Dublin in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 2003 Hamilton published The Speckled People, an unsentimental account of a south Dublin childhood that was similarly steeped in repression and denial. This yearning for identity came from the strange dichotomy of his family roots. His mother travelled from Germany to Ireland, shortly after the Second World War, in search of adventure and a better life.

But this German connection ensured that Hamilton was the victim of endless bullying from his fellow classmates. He was known as the German or the Nazi. If the playground was tough, home life wasn’t much better. His father was an extreme Irish nationalist, who flirted with a peculiar form of far-right-Catholic-fascism. He also refused to let any members of the family speak English at home.

As two writers who shared a story with many similarities, Hamilton and O’Faolain found comfort in the platonic relationship they formed. It was a friendship brimming with intellectual curiosity, and conversations about the meaning of life, art, and their own troubled estate histories. With its peaks and troughs, it had the bones of a good novel. And so Hamilton began one.

In April 2008, just one month before she died, O’Faolain, along with Hamilton, and a number of other writers and artists, travelled to Berlin on a humanist, spiritual, pilgrimage of sorts.

All that were present knew that O’Faolain had only weeks left to live, so it gave the trip a strange sense of poignancy.

The novel Hamilton eventually produced is one that was inspired by that trip, Every Single Minute.

The story is narrated by Liam, a middle-aged Dublin man, who travels to Berlin with Una, a famous Irish writer. Using the roman a clef format, the author remembers some past conversations he shared with O’Faolain, and re-imagines others he never had the opportunity to bring up when she was alive.

While set in Berlin in the early 21st Century concerned with looking at painful memories from Ireland during the middle of the 20th the two main characters, who trade stories as they walk around the historical city.

Hamilton begins our conversation by defending his decision to use O’Faolain as a muse for his latest book. “I think because Nuala was such a public person she would be completely okay with this book,” he says with a cautious and slightly diffident tone.

“She went to Berlin with me knowing that I am a writer, so I had a feeling that she was helping me to write the book all the time we were there. Or that she was aware that I would write about the trip in some form at least.”

While both authors shared a similar experience of having a parent who put their own interests before their children’s, Hamilton claims that they disagreed on certain issues when it came to allocating blame for their own familial woes.

“We were both memoirists, but we had a different way of looking at parents. I didn’t like the idea of accusing my father. I wanted to try and understand what made him the way he was. I said this publicly and Nuala disagreed with that. We both had a family story to tell, but she came from it with a different angle. And that is what I am trying to get at in the novel.”

Hamilton speaks about the great admiration he had for O’Faolain. He saw her as somebody who he learnt a great deal from, particularly the way she was fearless in allowing honesty to dictate her writing style.

“Nuala’s big gift was to examine the facts of memory and of the reality in front of her,” he says.

Hamilton also admits that he learned from O’Faolain to have absolute confidence in your own story, regardless of how much shame there might be embedded in the narrative.

“One of the admiral things about Nuala was that she was part of a generation of women who refused to be silenced in Ireland,” says Hamilton. “I think her big breakthrough was that she lifted the roof off the silence that exists in Irish families.”

Hamilton is an incredibly honest writer. He doesn’t cloak his answers in metaphors, ambiguities, or any sense of mystery. I mention to him a passage from his latest novel that depicts how silence, strangely, can be more powerful than words, when it comes to family matters.

He responds by explaining how this is more than just a fictional creation.

“There was a terrible silence that happened in my own family growing up. And it’s quite faithfully drawn in those passages you mention in Every Single Minute: where my father and his brother said absolutely nothing about their past.”

“In my memoir The Speckled People I wrote about this too: how my father hid his own father’s picture in the wardrobe and never spoke about him when I was growing up. So that silence was an incredible mental brutality for me. Ultimately, I think that experience led me to become a writer. It made me want to grasp at some way of putting that silence into words.”

This shame that Hamilton’s father carried with him came about because his own father was a sailor in the Royal Navy.

Although many Irishmen during this period of history fought for the British Empire, it was a narrative that was essentially erased from the national consciousness. This guilt was then exacerbated further after Hamilton’s grandfather returned back from the navy, brain damaged, ending his days cut off from society, in a lonely ward in Cork Lunatic Asylum.

Hamilton’s father, when he moved to Dublin, attempted to erase his own Cork background from his life. And when he did bring his past up, he spoke about it in romantic, mythical terms: distorting it away from the painful truth that really existed, says Hamilton.

“It is something that my father was always trying to escape from. And this led him to denying the past,” he admits.

Hamilton’s story is full of paradoxes and contradictions. And the narrative flows in the opposite direction to the Ireland he was promised by both his father and the state.

“The big contradiction in our lives growing up was that my father claimed we were the real Irish people. But the reality was very different. And that sense of alienation reinforced itself constantly when we went out into the street. We were the Germans, or the Irish speakers in the so-called New Ireland. That alienation never quite goes away.”

“I have been living in Ireland for over 60 years now. But there is always this feeling of not having a true identity, or that I am still not Irish. I don’t know really what being Irish means. It may only be a story as well.

“But my story is one that is full of denial and misrepresentation. I suffered from an inability to tell my own story until I came around to writing my own memoir. And through this current novel I have become much more aware and conscious of my own life and come to a better understanding of it.”

“I think Nuala helped me with that. You could say the novel is a blurred portrait, of both myself, and of Nuala.”


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