An Amazonian tragedy of jealousy and loss, by Alberto Manguel – The Independent, Friday, 20 December 2002

English, Press

 

Sibling rivalry is as old as the world. From Cain and Abel to the Karamazovs, every man seems to revel in the desire of being the chosen child. Jews and Muslims still quarrel about which brother was to be sacrificed by Abraham – Isaac or Ishmael – because even when led to the slaughter a brother’s cry is a pathetic “choose me!”

Sibling rivalry is as old as the world. From Cain and Abel to the Karamazovs, every man seems to revel in the desire of being the chosen child. Jews and Muslims still quarrel about which brother was to be sacrificed by Abraham – Isaac or Ishmael – because even when led to the slaughter a brother’s cry is a pathetic “choose me!”

The brothers in Milton Hatoum’s novel are twins, pride of an immigrant family in Manaus, in the Amazonian rainforest of Brazil. The father is a Lebanese adventurer, Halim, who falls in love with Zana, the beautiful daughter of a restaurant owner from Lebanon. After the old man dies, Zana, unable to bear the grief of his memory, convinces her husband to open a small shop.

 Zana wants children; Halim wants Zana to himself alone. When twins are born, it becomes evident that Zana favours one, Omar, the first and darker; 13 years later, when Halim suggests sending them back to Lebanon, Zana only accepts to part with blond Yaqub (who will not return until their 18th birthday), keeping Omar at home.

 Zana’s preference and Yaqub’s departure are the two marking moments in the brothers’ split lives, but Hatoum suggests their rivalry has ancient roots, reaching into the history of the Lebanese. Halim loves Zana who loves Omar who loathes Yaqub, who cannot find a place for himself. The Indian maid Dorningas, who arrives as an orphan child, and Rania, the sister who comes into the world years later, complete the circle as suffering outsiders, loving but unloved.

 The rivalry Hatoum describes, in all its archetypal simplicity, affects not only the protagonists but everything around them. Not only their world but also the town itself, perched on the vast, unassailable Amazon, are changed by the struggle for supremacy. Hatoum’s novel is not an allegory, yet reflected in the story is the agony and disappearance of a multitude of spaces: the sprawling Amazonian jungle, the teeming city of São Paulo to which Yaqub retreats but in which he cannot hide, the emaciated Lebanon of poor peasants and long-vanished exiles.

Memory of place crumbles in the violence of the brothers’ combat. The old words are silenced, the ancient images defaced. Neither brother will succeed in his fight for a single identity, and the common past which might reveal to them their ancestral voice and faces will be lost forever. In this sense, Hatoum’s novel is an epic and also an elegy.

Two Brothers is told by an almost invisible narrator, born at the time of Yaqub’s return from Lebanon. His mother is the maid; he suspects his father may be one of the twins. He is an uneasy witness of the sibling tension, uncertain of allegiance, able to follow the unfolding tragedy and yet unable to foresee his role. He is perhaps like the novel’s reader, an engaged but anonymous observer.

 Hatoum’s elegant Brazilian Portuguese is deftly rendered by John Gledson. Bloomsbury is to be congratulated again for making available an important Brazilian author to the English-speaking public – who would otherwise have missed an intensely moving and illuminating saga.

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