Pól Ó Muirí in The Irish Times 2 April 2011
God love the poor novelist in Irish and God love the poor novelist in Irish who forsakes Dutch to learn Irish and give something both unexpected and wonderful to the language. Alex Hijmans, Dutch by birth, Irish speaker by choice, is a journalist who has, in the best journalistic tradition, turned his hand to something more enduring than today’s headlines. His novel, Aiséirí (Resurrection), is set in a bilingual coffee house in Galway where a frustrated visual artist, Rebekka, finds personal salvation and, eventually, resurrection in serving coffee to Galwegians. Using the customers who come into the shop, Hijmans offers little commentaries on language, love, gender and national identity. The work is by turns intelligent, bitchy, sarcastic, engaging, insightful, witty and moving, an affectionate glance at contemporary Ireland in all its triumphs and failings. It’s an espresso of a story, something slight that gives you a welcome jolt, and the reader leaves the book behind feeling quite cosmopolitan.
Pól Ó Muirí
The Flying Dutchman - The Galway Advertiser 16 March 2011
Dutchman Alex Hijmans spent 12 years in Galway and they were perhaps the defining years of his life, at the very least they were among the most formative, opening up for him whole new directions and possibilities. It was in Galway that he learned to speak Irish, became passionate about the language, opened an Irish language café - the fondly remembered and much missed Bananaphoblacht - and began a career in writing as Gaeilge, a career which continues with his debut novel Aiséirí, which was launched in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop last Thursday.
Alex is originally from Heemskerk, a small town about 30 minutes from Amsterdam, and now lives in Brazil with his husband Nilton, but he was back in Galway last week for the launch. “It’s nice to come back to Ireland, walk into places, and people still remember you,” he says as we sit in Kelly’s for the interview. “There is this 12 year chapter of my life that is Galway and I look at my life as being like chapters from a book, and the nice thing is you can always have a look back.”
Alex speaks Dutch, English, and Portuguese, but it’s his Irish that is the most striking. He speaks and writes perfect Irish, and he has what is called ‘the blas’ - that way of enunciating every word with a naturalness that you would expect from a born and bred speaker. ......
So what led him to embrace Gaeilge? “I did the Dutch equivalent of the Leaving Cert when I was 18, I wanted to study a language that none of my friends were doing,” he says. “I had been on holidays to Ireland with my parents in ‘88 and I was the one reading the map when we were in the car. I noticed all these town names and placenames with the Irish in italics that I couldn’t pronounce the right way, but now I knew Irish existed.” Alex applied to the University of Utrecht to do a degree in its Celtic Studies programme, part of which was an exchange year in NUI, Galway, which took him to the city in 1995. “I got a place in Corrib Village and back then it had an Irish block so I was with all the Irish speakers and they got me involved in the Irish language drama society, An Cumann Drámaíochta, and I got to know a lot of people who are still my friends. I finished my degree and then did the applied media course in the college as Gaeilge and got a job with Foinse.” [a weekly Irish-language newspaper]
It was around this time that he came into some money through an inheritance and coincidentally the lease on his favourite café, Apostasy on Dominick Street, was up. Alex bought the lease and for the next five and a half years ran the Bananaphoblact café. The café was a place which actively encouraged speaking Irish and was popular with young Gaeilgoirs. Its strong colour scheme and funky interior also made it popular with the alternative, hippie, and arty set. “One of my aims with the café was to drag the Irish language kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” he says. “TG4 was only set up a few years before and the language had a very old fashioned image.”
Café life is the inspiration behind Alex’s debut novel Aiséirí, published by Cois Life, which centres on Rebekka, a young Dutch artist who comes to live in Galway and who works in the Irish speaking Aiséirí café. Apart from the gender of the main character, we are surely talking about the novel being highly autobiographical? “It’s fiction, not autobiography,” smiles Alex. “One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is ‘write about what you know’ which is what I did. In Aiséirí, Rebekka is challenged to seek a deeper understanding of herself and of what brought her to Galway, so what kind of ideas is Alex exploring in the book? “‘Birthplace of dreams, graveyard of ambition’, is the label Galway has got stuck with and it’s true to a certain extent,” says Alex. “In Galway it’s easy to become a big fish in a small pond but there is a certain ceiling you reach and if you want to grow you have to go somewhere else."
“Rebekka comes to Galway as a painter who was successful in Holland and thinks she will make her life here but finds out that it’s not that easy so she has to get a job in a bilingual café. She promises that she will learn Irish and she knuckles down and gets to it, but working in the café doesn’t leave her any space for her art.”
The novel is written entirely as Gaeilge, a brave move considering that it would have more commercial appeal if written in English. “I was writing with an Irish language audience in mind,” says Alex, “and I don’t think it would work as well in English. I love Irish. It’s a beautiful language and it’s a language I enjoy expressing myself in.”
Meeting a non-Irish person who can speak fluent Gaeilge and who is so enthusiastic about the language is quite an experience provoking feelings of admiration, but also of ‘You’re putting us natives to shame!’ “It’s one of the reactions I get a lot and it’s always difficult to hear,” says Alex. “I never went through the Irish education system so I have no first hand experience of it and why and how it puts people off Irish. I just wanted to learn the language and don’t understand why people should feel ashamed that I learned something they hadn’t.”
Although Aiséirí is his first novel, it is not Alex’s first book. That honour belongs to Favela, in which Alex described life in the Brazilian slums of Sao Paulo. Alex and Nilton have been living there for a about four years - the couple were married a year and a half ago. So how is he finding life in the largest city, not only in Brazil, but in the southern hemisphere? “After four years of living in Brazil I am fluent in Portuguese,” he says, “but it’s taken me those four years to become confident in it. However I don’t plan to open a café or report news in Portuguese though!” So one up for Gaeilge then? Alex probably wouldn’t want it any other way.