Book Review

It's a Jungle Out There


The Brothers

Milton Hatoum’s The Brothers addresses age-old themes: incest, jealousy, and vengeance. His setting is the splendid, but run down city of Manaus during the fifties, a place where, despite its urban polish, wild life and vegetation run rampant. So too does rage, lust, and unrestrained violence. In this account of a first-generation Lebanese family and their offspring, protagonists betray each other, are betrayed in return, and plot their revenge. (No soap opera could do justice to a household this dysfunctional.) The themes are ageless, and the vigorous characters add a new dimension to an ancient tale.

Although one can’t help but compare Hatoum’s story to Greek tragedy or Arthurian legend, the most obvious analogy is with the Bible. Yuqub and Omar resemble two sets of Biblical twins, Jacob and Esau and Cain and Abel. While the author strays from the original accounts he evokes portions of both throughout: Yuqub, like Jacob, flees home fearing his brother will do him bodily harm, while Omar, like Esau, is licentious and bellicose. However, at the same time, there are strong similarities with the second set of twins: Omar, like Cain, was his mother’s favorite and a gardener. ” took up searching for rotten fruit in the garden, fruit and leaves he then swept, piled up, and put in bags… He scratched the soil, planted palm cuttings, and pruned rebellious shoots outside the pantry.” But it is his brother, Yuqub, who is permanently disfigured, in an evident allusion to the “mark of Cain.” In a jealous fit, Omar slashes his brother’s cheek with the neck of a broken bottle. In the end, both brothers are cursed, as was Cain, and each, in accordance with scripture, becomes “a fugitive and a vagabond on earth.”

But Biblical allusions don’t end here. The mysterious young narrator, Nael, alludes to Moses when he says, “I knew nothing about myself, how I came into the world, or where I had come from… It’s like forgetting a child in a boat on an empty river, waiting for one of the banks to give him shelter.” Much like Moses led his people out of the wilderness, our narrator leads us through a maze of family intrigues in his attempt to uncover his origins.

The illegitimate son of Domingas, the family’s servant, Nael is a product of rape. But who is his father? Yuqub? Omar? Or their father, Halim? In an account as melodramatic, intense and recondite as any opera, we learn that shortly after his arrival in Manaus, Halim had fallen desperately in love with Zana, the daughter of a Lebanese café owner. An impoverished peddler, he courted her as she waited tables in her father’s crowded restaurant. In a scene as moving as it is believable, he screwed up his courage with wine, recited a ghazal—a passionate Arab love poem— and won her hand. Their subsequent marriage is marked by a frenzied sexual relationship, interrupted only by the birth of twin sons and a daughter. When Yuqub is sent to relatives in Lebanon for five years, Omar, the mother’s favorite, remains at home. Yuqub’s return rekindles old passions, and the ensuing antagonism devastates the family.

Throughout the book the narrator is our only source of information. Yet we learn very little about him—not even his name—until well into the story. The author may have intended to build suspense, but by not developing the speaker’s persona early on, he makes it difficult for us to empathize with him. This tends to drain the book—the beginning at least—of its emotional force.

Our narrator explains that much of his information was relayed to him by the family patriarch, Halim. ” revealed one thing one day, than another much later, in bits, ‘patches in a quilt.’ I heard the patches but the colorful sturdy quilt gradually wears away into shreds.” In spite of John Gledson’s fine translation, the novel also seems to be a dizzying jumble of patches, overwrought and confusing, “gradually wearing away into shreds.” So many of the incidents, in particular the violent confrontations between family members and the passages describing Omar’s drunken debauchery, tend to echo each other, become repetitious and occasionally confusing. Furthermore, because the book journeys back and forth in time, there’s a fragmented quality to it.

Yet, in spite of its faults—for the most part structural—The Brothers has much to commend it: compelling characters, a backdrop of political and historic intrigue, and a vibrant setting.

Once a thriving rubber production capital, Manaus still retains its lush, exotic atmosphere along with its frontier rawness. Sections of the city sprawl along the river’s banks, and the rubber tappers who remain build shanties on stilts at the edge of the creeks, in gullies, and in whatever empty space they can find. The city rides on the river’s back and is controlled, to a great extent, by its Arab immigrants turned traders.

Hatoum, currently a professor of French and Brazilian literature at the Federal University of the Amazon and the author of an earlier novel The Tree of the Seventh Heaven, is a master at evoking the vibrant sounds, colors and rhythms of the city where he was born. This, along with his ability to place his setting within a historic and political context, can be extremely effective. The book begins with Yuqub’s return from Lebanon in 1945 at the same time the Brazilian Expeditionary Force returns from military service in Italy. Although history and politics are not his central concern, Hatoum traces the dictatorships, coups, and the persecution of communists that take place in the course of some 25 years. In so doing, he takes a poke at the corruption, oppression and official policies responsible for the misery and poverty he so effectively exposes.

Yet, he is at his best when creating highly complex characters. Though often obstinate, callous, insensitive, and tiresome creatures, they are, perhaps as a result of their frailties, utterly believable: Zana, the mother, predatory and obsessive, suggests Oedipus’s mother, a modern day Jocasta. Incapable of recognizing the role she has played in pitting her sons against each other, she dies with these words on her lips: “Have my sons made their peace with each other yet?”

Zana’s husband, Halim, is strong, methodical and unyielding on one hand; lascivious, fiery tempered, and excessive on the other. His twin sons, Yuqub and Omar, are both chips off the old block—opposite sides of the block. In fact, this book is, to a great extent, concerned with opposites, and the author alludes to the capacity of two totally unalike natures to attract as do the opposing poles of a magnet: “What religion can do. It can bring opposites together, the earth and heaven, the maid and the mistress.” However, opposites are more likely to repel as exemplified by the brothers’ antagonistic temperaments, the contrast between Lebanon and the Amazon, and—on another level—between reality and perception. (Even the stunning jacket design by Dean Nicastro is a study in contrasts. It depicts the outline of two identical human figures, one composed of foliage, the other of sky, clouds, and the sun’s reflection on water.)

The book’s adversarial elements are apparent in its style and structure, as well, as if it were the product of two writers, one a novelist, the other a short story teller. Much of the book reads, not like the novel it purports to be, but more like a short story where the writer, using a strong narrative voice, can get away with condensing key points. A novel, on the other hand, permits him the leisurely development of characters and story line. Thus, for example, when Hatoum summarizes, in the space of a few lines, one brother’s attacking the other, sending him to the hospital, attacking him again, fleeing, and finally eluding the police, he is, in effect, depriving us of some of the most dramatic action in the story. By taking such short cuts, a practice the author frequently indulges in, he robs the novel of its ability to work on the reader what writer John Gardner referred to as “the extended dream.” This, in turn, interrupts the drift of the story and its ability to suck you in so that you become an integral player in the plot.

This is all the more irritating in the case of a writer as skilled as Hatoum because time and again he demonstrates his ability to develop character and sustain action. For example, in a description of Zana following her father’s death, Halim says: “She wept as if she was a widow… She rubbed herself against her father’s clothes, smelled everything that had belonged to Galib. She would cling to things, and I tried to tell her that mere things have no flesh or soul. Things are empty… but she didn’t hear what I said.”

At the core of this tale lies an overriding sense of frustration and disappointment, resulting from the knowledge that no one is listening: The characters are deaf to reason. Reason doesn’t figure here; only passion does, and only Nael, a poet, struggles to reconstruct the truth. He is a listener and, one would like to believe, a survivor—the sole survivor. He alone “can hear what is said.”

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).