How Nuala's last trip restored her enthusiasm for life
Hugo Hamilton's novel re-creates Nuala O'Faolain's final adventure in Berlin, writes Books Editor John Spain
Published 22/02/2014 | 02:30
JUST a fortnight before she died in May 2008, Nuala O'Faolain made one last journey – a two-day visit to Berlin with her fellow writer Hugo Hamilton.
Nuala was terminally ill with metastatic cancer and already knew that the end of her life was near.
Hamilton's new novel 'Every Single Minute' re-creates their final journey, giving a unique insight into what Nuala was thinking and feeling as the end approached.
A week before, in the famous interview with Marian Finucane that gripped the nation, Nuala had said she did not want more time. "As soon as I heard I was going to die, the goodness went from life," she said.
But on the trip to Berlin, her spirits revived. "What I remember most is the intensity of that journey," Hamilton says.
"In her radio broadcast, Nuala described the shock of finding out that she was dying and described the world as black, wondering if there had been any point reading all those books.
"But on the trip to Berlin, she seemed to revise that view. It was sad and final, but she wanted to see everything and she spoke with extraordinary optimism.
"She said things like 'this is different', or 'I won't forget this', as though she was going to take the memory with her."
In spite of being very ill and in a wheelchair, she and Hamilton toured Berlin in a taxi, bringing her big plastic bag of medicine everywhere with her. "It was a strange contradiction, that closeness to death gave a great urgency to living," Hamilton says.
"What I remember most is her voice, that childlike way that Nuala had of asking questions, seeing everything for the first time, even though it was the last time. She wanted to hear stories, she wanted to see new things."
Nuala insisted on them staying at the Adlon, the majestic hotel beside the Brandenburg Gate. "The locations described in the book correspond for the most part with the real journey. The botanical gardens, the Berlin Wall, the Pergamon Museum," Hamilton says.
In the novel, the writer is called Una but, in reality, it is a portrait of Nuala in her final days. "It's Nuala's voice, her way of saying things is what I was after, more that the bald facts. This is not photorealism, it's more like a blurry portrait of her and of myself," Hamilton says.
He decided to write the book as a novel rather than a memoir, because he wanted the freedom to delve behind what was said between them.
"Nuala was always a very public person. Nobody could tell her story better than herself. It would make no sense as a writer and a companion to go back over her life without searching behind the facts. A memoir would have left less room for me as a writer to explore our lives."
Hamilton is best known for his memoir 'The Speckled People' and his difficult relationship with his father.
He had that in common with Nuala, who wrote about similar problems with her own father, the famous 'Evening Press' Diary writer Terry O'Sullivan, in her memoir 'Are You Somebody?'
Nuala had never forgiven her father – whose selfish behaviour she believed had wrecked their family and who she blamed for the death of her younger brother.
In the novel, Una strives to understand the tragic death of her brother as she tours Berlin. At last, at a performance of the opera 'Don Carlo', which tells the story of a father who kills his son, she realises the true cost of letting memory dictate the course of her life.
"As memoirists, we had much in common, Nuala and myself," Hamilton says. "But there were things we argued about. She could be difficult and would never agree with me that you had to try and understand your parents, instead of accusing them.
"I suppose, that was Nuala's nature, that argumentative instinct. So at the heart of the novel is that argument we have between us about fathers, how to remember and not to remember.
"I don't claim to have been her best friend. There are other people who knew Nuala far better than I did, but this is my honest response as a writer to an unforgettable final journey in her company."
The book paints a portrait of a woman who loves people and life, books, art, music, and food. They had a wonderful last lunch together in Berlin with a small group of friends.
The lunch was in The Paris Bar, once a favourite of Marlene Dietrich, and Nuala loved the white asparagus soup and lamb cutlets, which she picked up and ate by hand.
It was a joyous event. But the woman in the novel, like Nuala, knows the end is not far away. "She bought a sheet at a department store, referring to it as 'the winding sheet'," Hamilton remembers.
'EVERY SINGLE MINUTE' IS PUBLISHED ON THURSDAY BY FOURTH ESTATE AND IS REVIEWED TODAY BY DEIRDRE PURCELL ON PAGE 21 OF 'REVIEW'.