Aidan Higgins (born 1927) is one of the most important contemporary Irish writers. His work won him numerous awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and although he was once shortlisted for the Booker, he’s not very well known in the UK. John Calder published a few of his works in the Sixties and Seventies, and the brave Dalkey Archive have recently reissued some of them, so there's some hope that his work may be reassessed by the new generations.
Brought up in a landed Catholic family in County Kildare, his upbringing has informed his work, especially his acclaimed first novel, Langrishe, Go Down (1966). An experimental work, it was later adapted as a BBC television film by British playwright Harold Pinter. The extent of his learning, as well his experiences of travelling and living in London, Germany and South Africa, have also influenced his writing.
In Balcony of Europe (1972) he utilises Irish and Spanish settings (also referencing England, Germany, Finland, Russia and America) and employs various European languages - primarily Spanish - and different English dialects (favourite American, English or Irish expressions used by characters are significant throughout). He is clearly intrigued by cultural difference and similarity as displayed through language. References to European culture and history are blended with mythological, religious and poetic imagery, displaying the wide extent of his learning, as well as the continuing influence of his Irish Catholic upbringing.
Balcony of Europe opens in Dublin. Middle-aged painter Dan Ruttle watches his mother decline and die in a few days in hospital. His father is poor, having spent unwisely all his life, and they are both estranged from his brother. Dan eventually responds to his friend Roger Amory’s repeated insistence that he and his wife Olivia come to stay with him in Spain. They arrive in a town in Andalusia, once called the ‘Balcony of Europe’. Dan is soon fascinated by the attractive, sensual Charlotte Bayless, a young American-Jewish woman married and with a young child. They begin a love affair– a relationship that is not much of a secret to Charlotte’s husband Bob or Olivia. The affair consumes them both for a while, causing Dan to lose interest in his work and to become jealous of her flirtations with other men. The natural end of the affair coincides with the Ruttles’s departure. Despite now being dispersed across Europe and America, the community of ex-pats that was formed in Spain still keep in contact for a while – letters that reveal the tenacity of their personal relationships and their occasional dissatisfaction with their lives. Dan and Olivia’s new life on isolated, rural Aran now contrasts with the lives of their former friends.
The supporting cast of characters flit in and out of the narrative – some seen once, others making regular appearances. There is the chess-playing neo-Nazi Finnish baron, still loyal to the memory of Hitler; Charlie Vine and his chatterbox lover Salina; a short, misogynistic homosexual who once travelled to Russia on the Ost-West Express and now loiters in the hope of being seduced by ‘lovely’ boys; Hans Andersen’s stay in Malaga in 1860 contrasted with Dan and Charlotte’s visit a century later.
The novel is ostensibly divided into four parts dealing with consecutive periods of time, but the structure is loose, not especially linear and somewhat akin to that of a short story collection. Different characters, incidents, dreams and meandering trains of thought are focused on in different chapters within a slowly developed and minimal plot. Parallels are formed between Dan’s native Ireland and Spain: the hold of Catholicism, an isolated populace, invasions and expulsions, bloody civil wars. Higgins’s Spain is realistic, not a picturesque travel fantasy: a place where American planes fly ominously overhead, local men spy on foreign women undressing at the beach, men are rumoured to be informers and the rural landscape is beautiful but raw. The rise of tourism outside of Andalusia is ‘hell’.
Religion, sex, relationships and death provide central themes – Charlotte’s sensual nature and her ‘Jewishness’ are focused on in great detail, linked to her New World status and ongoing references to the slaughter of Jews in Europe during the war. Dan’s mother is attended to by chanting nuns in hospital during her dying moments. The baron speaks of a coming apocalypse whilst American planes fly above –the result of the recent Cuban crisis. Surreal dreams come to both Dan and Olivia. Literary, historical and classical references are woven into the narrative at various points, paralleling the characters with figures such as Shelley, and portraying the rise and fall of civilisations and the possibility that our own might be destroyed if the Cold War escalates. This gives way to Ruttle’s isolated, but tentatively more successful later existence on Aran.