Fury in the family – The Sunday Telegraph, June 16, 2002 – by David Robson

English, Press

 

Imagine the story of Cain and Abel transposed to a town on the banks of the Amazon in the mid-20th century and you will have the flavour of this strange and haunting novel.

Neither of the two brothers of the title ends up in the mortuary, but it is more by good luck than good judgment that they remain alive. Omar and Yaqub, the sons of Lebanese ex-patriots, are born identical twins, which gives extra venom to their rivalry.

As teenagers, they have a ferocious fight over a girl they meet at a party. As young men, they are not on speaking terms. In middle age, they come to physical blows with a savagery that bewilders those around them. Their poor parents long for them to be reconciled; but as a reader, you sense that it is never going to happen. There is something implacable in their hatred.

If the plot has a grim, fatalistic quality, Milton Hatoum introduces enough light and shade to save it from being oppressive. The story is told by the son of the family nanny, an inquisitive child tormented by the knowledge that one of the brothers – he never finds out which one – is his father.

Psychological riddles litter his account. Why is Omar so jealous of his brother? He is just as gifted, perhaps more gifted; but as Yaqub prospers, marries and gets a good job in Sao Paolo, it crushes the life out of Omar. He becomes an embittered alcoholic, consorting with prostitutes and other low life. Perhaps his mother is to blame? She does seem to pamper him, in a way she never pampered his brother . . .

Or should the spotlight shift to his father, physically priapic but emotionally null? The complex personalities of the protagonists, and the interaction between them, are explored with skill and sensitivity.

If the human tapestry is rich, the Brazilian ambience is even richer. Hatoum is a prize-winning novelist in his own country and you can see why. Latin passions are umbilically linked to the landscape in which they are played out. You can almost taste the food in the floating markets, almost smell the wild flowers on the banks of the river; the rainy season is described so vividly that your fingers itch for an umbrella. It is an exotic world, a dangerous world, and Hatoum has brought it to brilliant life.

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