Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 288 pages; 2009.
Disguise, the fifth novel by Irish writer Hugo Hamilton, is a story about lost identity.
It opens in war-torn Germany at the height of the Second World War. Mara Leidman’s young son, Gregor, is killed during the bombing of Berlin — “He was almost three years old and went straight from his dream into death” — and so, bereft and shocked, she flees south, into the arms of her father, Emil, a war deserter who drives a delivery truck collecting defective weapons. When Emil presents her, shockingly, with a refugee orphan (given to him by an old woman he meets on the road) to replace her dead son, Mara looks at the boy with revulsion.
He was frightened and cold, snivelling and coughing. His eyes were infected. He was holding his ear and sucking a button on the shoulder of his woollen jumper at the same time, staring into the dark outside the windscreen, worried what was keeping his mother and why she was not coming to collect him.
Mara does not really want anything to do with this new replacement who understands little German, but when she is unexpectedly interrogated by the Gestapo, circumstances force her to pretend that this is her real son, for to suggest otherwise would surely result in her own execution.
The book then fast forwards 60 years and Gregor, now an elderly man, with an estranged wife and adult son of his own, reflects on his life living in the “borderlands”, never quite sure of his roots and never feeling like he belongs anywhere in particular. Over the course of a day, surrounded by family and friends, picking fruit on an orchard outside Berlin, he sifts through his memories. As the narrative flickers seamlessly between the past and the present, we learn about Gregor’s lonely and complicated life.
As a 17-year-old he deliberately cuts himself off from his parents, when his Uncle Max accidentally lets slip that Gregor had been “found” as a toddler. But his mother, who hasn’t even told her husband about the “swap” (he was fighting on the Russian front at the time) denies all knowledge.
Over the course of the next 40 or so years, Gregor becomes a musician, reinvents himself as a Jew (he even goes so far as to arrange a circumcision), and drifts from Berlin to Ireland to Toronto.
Gregor had turned his life into a search for belonging, though it always remained a distant thing, a vague, utopian memory.
His marriage slowly flounders because he cannot truly open up to his wife, Maria, about the things that trouble him. Then when Maria makes contact with his “adopted” mother behind his back, she begins to doubt his claim that he was a Jewish foundling. Surely his mother isn’t lying? Could it be that Gregor’s convinced himself he’s Jewish in order to alleviate some kind of German guilt?
There’s a lot of big themes and issues in this book about memory, loss, belonging and the ways in which Germans dealt with the aftermath of the war. And while Disguise had the potential to be absolutely heart-wrenching in places, I found the prose style so distant and removed — there’s a lot of telling and not much showing — that it made very little emotional impact at all. This is a shame, because the opening chapter is one of the saddest and most exciting, and morally troubling, pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. But the rest of the book fails to live up to this promise and, as a result, Disguise, while an enjoyable read, doesn’t deliver the truly emotional wallop that would have elevated it to something really special.