Saturday 20 July 2019

Dublin Palms: Hamilton's intensely readable novel is a quiet triumph

Fiction: Dublin Palms

Hugo Hamilton

4th Estate, €16.45

Hugo Hamilton's fictional memoir 'Dublin Palms'. Photo: David Conachy
Hugo Hamilton's fictional memoir 'Dublin Palms'. Photo: David Conachy

Ronan Farren

STARTING to read John McGahern's That They May Face the Rising Sun when it was published in 2002, I found myself wondering if he had finally escaped the shadow of his father, whose ghostly presence, often malevolent, had hovered over so much of McGahern's work, both novels and short stories. He had. And that book turned out to be his last and, I would suggest, his greatest novel.

The thought came to me as I started to read Hugo Hamilton's Dublin Palms while remembering his searing and splendid memoir, The Speckled People published in 2003. The father in that book, an Irish language fanatic who treated his children with gothic insensitivity, had much in common with McGahern's raging fathers - the Sergeant in The Barracks, and Mahoney in The Dark, Moran, the embittered patriot in Amongst Women. All self-centred, compulsive-obsessive figures, dour and violent and prone to self-pity.

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Hamilton's portrayal of his father, who didn't allow his sons and daughters to speak English, is more sympathetic: it is a subtle portrait, showing a more intellectually sophisticated figure than McGahern's bombastic gallery.

He turns up again, in the background, a somewhat milder, retrospective version, in this novel. Bearing in mind the established fact that fiction writers hate it when reviewers find autobiographical elements in their work, I still find it significant, to put it mildly, that the narrator here speaks with something close to derision of the Irish language (though he still sings in the kingly and melodious Gaelic in a bar in Berlin), calling it "the ghost language" and at an early stage startling the reader with this: "I can no longer hide the fact that I am partly dead myself. Half alive. Perhaps undead. As dead as a dead language refusing to die." And recalling the grim father and the gentle German mother, he says he "grew up in a language nightmare" which left his viewpoint unstable.

The novel is impressionistic rather than rigidly chronological. So the narrator and his partner, Helen, live in Berlin, before the Wall has come down, and appear to be blessed with the elusive gift of happiness.

Later, back home in Dublin, life is less blissful as a business project run by Helen gets into financial distress and the couple are pursued by creditors, some of whom are quite vicious.

The narrator has given up his job which entailed working in a basement and organising the recording of the voices of Gaelic singers on vinyl, a project that fails to fill him with enthusiasm.

All is not gloom, though, and the presence of two lively young daughters adds some joy to the couple's lives. The prevailing note, though, is disquiet and the reader is constantly aware of the narrator's sense of displacement.

There are early hints of physical illness: his teeth feel like glass; he is driven to take long, solitary nocturnal walks. This strains his relationship with Helen. Eventually he is diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a mysterious and incurable ailment that affects the lungs.

Imprisoned in the stresses of his existence, he contemplates with some degree of envy the chatty insouciance of Helen's mother and her substantial flock of extrovert relations: there is another life out there if only it could be grasped.

Paradoxically perhaps, the overall feeling I got from this highly original novel was of a character with a fundamental optimism that might eventually burst into bloom. Dublin Palms is a quiet triumph, elusive, cerebral and, page for page, intensely readable.

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