Manchán Magan, The Irish Times, 9 January 2010
WHEN A Dutchman decides to write in Irish about his experiences of falling madly in love with a Brazilian and moving to the favela slums of Salvador, even the most fair-weather Gaeilgeoir takes note. Alex Hijmans, who moved from his native Holland to Galway in 1995, spent a decade working as a journalist for TG4, /Foinse/ and RTÉ, before setting off couchsurfing around Brazil in 2006.
On the first page of this book, he explains the term couchsurfing (tolgshurfáil) and by the second, he has married the man he meets while ag tolgshurfáil in the city of Salvador. He moves to the Tancredo Neves favela to be with his husband, Nilton, and from there the book becomes a paean to a misunderstood part of the world and a moving display of the lengths humans will go to adapt themselves in pursuit of their beloved.
The favela, which is too poor to be deemed worthy of inclusion on any map, has the highest murder rate of any in Salvador – 137 murders while Hijmans was there. But he mentions this only in passing; Hijmans’s principle focus is on the lives, culture and spiritual beliefs of his husband’s family and their neighbours. Presided over by the matriarchal Naná, the family is a remarkable collection of characters that would scarcely be credible in fiction. Naná, an indefatigable font of common sense, keeps things going on the €225 a month she earns cooking for others. She is descended from African slaves, and it is her acceptance of this white foreigner from Holland (one of the principle slave-trading nations) that is the key to his favourable reception in the wider community.
As a wealthy outsider, Hijmans is conscious of the economic disparity between him and his in-laws, and with remarkable candour he examines issues such as what one does when one’s mother-in-law can’t afford to have the water supply reconnected; or when one uses up the family’s month’s supply of coffee in just a few days, or how one deals with the fact one’s husband is the only black person in Salvador’s glitzy shopping centre who’s not working there. At certain points, one senses even Hijmans’s sure-footedness beginning to waver: like when he realises his partner has never been able to afford to visit a coffeehouse, while Hijmans (who ran the great Café Bananaphoblacht in Galway for years) is used to spending €6 a day on coffee at home. Or when strangers automatically assume that he’s paying his husband by the hour when they see a black and white man together.
It is a remarkable book, intimate, incisive, with each new page revealing facets of a world that could never be guessed at; most intriguing of all is the insight one gets into the Candomblé religion, an Afro-Brazilian animistic faith involving possession by spiritual entities, of which Nilton’s brother Bruno (also gay) is a “priest”. What elevates the book from travelogue to art is the journey towards enlightenment it captures. Through a series of mysteries and minor miracles, Hijmans is forced to question everything he takes for granted during his time in the favela, and the reader gets to journey with him as his eyes learn to see the world anew, as he shifts from objective observer to believer. Part of me feels sorry for all those who’ll never get to read the book because of the language it’s in, but another part thinks, to hell with them. They had their chance. Hijmans never spent a day in an Irish school, yet after arriving in Ireland age 20, he learnt fluent, flawless Irish. Now, us remaining Gaeilgeoirí, who weren’t content to lay our own inadequacies on the shoulders of poor Peig, get to reap the benefits.