Oh Brother where art thou – Sunday Tribune, April 21, 2002 – by Tom Widger

English, Press


WITH Milton Hatoum's second novel, this reviewer did something that is a rare thing nowadays, reflected a while and began at page one again. You simply luxuriate in John Gledson's translation from the Portuguese (Hatoum was born in Brazil, the setting for the novel) and it makes you wonder what it would read like in the original.

The book teems with the colour of the setting (a supplied glossary explains words such as cupuacu, gazal – erotic poetry – jaraqui, tamtaqui), the exotic language is matched by the wonderfully delineated characters who could only have emerged from such a landscape, or a similar one, in this case the Lebanon.

Yet, despite the colourful cast of characters, the landscape, the themes – smothering mother love, unfulfilled longing, displacement and eventual acceptance, the story never boils over into the surreality of magic realism.

The period is 1945. One war is ended and, inevitably, another about to restart.

Twin brothers, Yaqub and Omar, fight as only some brothers can. In 1938 Yaqub is sent to the Lebanon, where his parents were born before they emigrated to Brazil. Omar stays in Brazil with his parents and is treated like an only child.

Another theme within the main theme is the strength needed not to exploit the kindness of others.

Within this family of Halim, the father, Zana, the mother, their daughter Rania, there is great love, warmth, the small-time manipulation of all family life, the jealousies, the corrosive effect of a mother's persuasion that noone is good enough for her sons or daughter. But there is also venom and coldness in the family, the source of which the reader least expects.

While all this is taking place, Brazil is changing; though the army seems to be as brutal as ever. The country's new capital, Br

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asilia, is about to be opened. The future means newness, the past is just dregs to be discarded. Beautiful old buildings and traditions are destroyed.

And the old people? Old people are a hindrance to progress. Yes?

Zana is a mother who sucks the courage and fibre out of her son, Omar.

She it was who persuaded Halim to send Yaqub to Lebanon alone while Omar remained in Brazil with her. Of course both will, given time to reflect, come to resent her for this. Omar because she weakens him and Yaqub for her indifference towards him.

Halim, the father, is one of the few loveable characters in the book; Rania becomes embittered and because of maternal interference, she never marries.

All Halim ever wanted was to enjoy married life with Zana. When the twins are born, the fun-loving though faithful Halim is told by Zana that she is in quarantine for two months. He argues this is “absurd”. And, furthermore, he argues, her devotion to Omar “even more ridiculous.” By the time Rania is born, Halim's space and marital privacy are becoming more limited. Shenanigans are confined to the bedroom where previously it was anywhere. And yet the great humanity of the man is exposed when Zana is prevailed on by a nun to take in and adopt Domingas, a native girl.

Indicative of the times and the domestic situation, one of the twins makes Domingas pregnant. The macho '50s of South America is no place for a servant girl. Yet there is a place in the home for her child. Halim wasn't going to throw his grandchild out into the street. His fervent wish to have a grandchild will be fulfilled by the humanity he showed to a waif.

The Brothers,  By Milton Hatoum Bloomsbury £15.99 (UK) 272pp

Tom Widger is a book reviewer and radio critic for 'The Sunday Tribune'. April 21, 2002


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