261 pages • Fourth Estate • July 23rd, 2009 [PB]
Gregor Liedmann is a survivor. He is also an enigma; to his family, his friends and especially to himself. Hugo Hamilton’s Disguise opens towards the end of the Second World War in a Germany on the brink of defeat, with civilian refugees fleeing the Russian advance and army deserters trying to evade the brutal rearguard efforts of the Gestapo to maintain control. It is a time of chaos, fear and despair but it is also one of opportunity for those determined enough to seize the moment.
Gregor’s mother, Maria, whose husband is fighting on the Eastern Front, is bombed out of her Berlin flat and her two-year-old son is killed in the air raid. Her lovably roguish father, Emil, finds an abandoned boy of the same age and appearance as Gregor and persuades his daughter to pass it as her own child so that her husband, should he ever return, will never know. “‘Promise me one thing,’ he said to her. ‘Promise that you will never, ever tell anyone that this is not your own son. Not even your husband.’”
But is this story true or is it a figment of the adolescent Gregor’s imagination? Gregor is convinced that he is a changeling and that, far from being a German Catholic, he is actually a Polish Jew – so convinced in fact that he even undergoes circumcision in adulthood. The ramifications of his confused identity affect Gregor’s entire circle; including his parents, his wife Mara, son Daniel and close friend Martin. It causes Gregor to disown his parents, separate from Mara and alienate both Daniel and Martin. Mara’s dogged determination to uncover the truth reveals only more levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. It as if this confusion has cast a pall over three generations of one family and blighted its happiness.
Hamilton’s delicately allusive writing holds one in suspense throughout, instilling in the reader the same feeling uncertainty and ambiguity experienced by his characters. His style combines vivid, unflinching descriptions of the horrors of war with hauntingly sensitive insights into human feelings. He understands the conflicting emotions of love and anger, joy and resentment that characterise the bonds between lovers and families.
The characters in Disguise all yearn for stability and security yet their lives have been shaped, and in various degrees marred, by the turmoil of the war and its political and social aftermath. The partition of East and West Germany, followed by the eventual collapse of communism and the tearing-down of the Berlin Wall, which in turn is followed by a reappraisal of the relative merits of the communist and capitalist systems, makes it small wonder, Hamilton seems to suggest, that modern Germany, despite decades of peace and prosperity, is assailed by uncertainty and doubt. Berlin is “A wounded place at the heart of Europe, eager to heal and laugh.”
At the core of this captivating novel is an exploration of the nature of truth and identity, and what Hamilton describes as “the strange human genius of belonging.” Hamilton exhibits a genuine warmth and sympathy for his characters, for all their flaws and failings, which is very life-affirming. He understands how difficult it is for adults ever to be truly ‘grown-up’; however capable and stable they may appear on the surface, a lost, frightened child cowers not far beneath.
Hamilton appears to imply that the only stability in human existence is provided by mutual love and trust, and that the capacity for this is humanity’s ultimate salvation. “While he watched her slicing radishes into minted white coins, while she smiled and lifted her wine glass in both hands, both elbows on the table, he felt for the first time that he was at home.” There is something cathartic about completing Disguise which, in its humanity – and despite the harrowing detail – makes for a truly uplifting and memorable read.
“The only strong statement left is the question itself.
Who am I? Where do I belong.”