Rage and decay fester in Manaus – Morning Star, 06/05/2002, by Chris Searle

English, Press

 

There are some places for every reader, faraway places that may have exerted a mysterious compulsion eve since childhood int hte fantasies of a destant geography lesson.

Sometimes, the name of these places are enough, almost by themselves, to draw the imaginaton, almost hypnotically, into an irrational fascination.

For me, such a place is the Amazonian city of Manaus, built on the confluence of immense south American rivers in the depths of the rain forest, which was the centre of the rubber boom in the early 20th century that grew through the steam of Brazil's tropical heat and the need of the US motor industy to find tyres for its cars.

The Brothes has its setting in Manaus, but, int the years following its precocious prosperity, in the post-war era leading up to and beyond the 1964 military coup in Brazil.

It is a family story, in particular, the story  of a Lebanese immigrant family. Halim is an ex-pedlar, struggling to maintaiin dry goods store in the decaying riverside harbour.

In the pre-war years, in the wake of the city rubber ascendancy, he marries Zana, the daughter of a Brazilian Maronite Christian family.

From the union of these two ardent lovers, from within two communities in tropical exile, twins are born. They grow to hate each other almost as a legacy of their parents'own bloodletting communalist heritage.

The twins fight with passion. Omar inflicts a cut with the shape of a “tarantula's leg”on Yaqub's cheek.

Yaqub is sent to spend his adolescence in Lebanon, while Omar grows to live the life of a libertine in the bars and brothels of Manaus.

When Yaqub returns, the botherly hatred is still rife and Yaqub moves away to São Paulo to qualify and practise as an engineer, almost breaking t

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he heart of his mother, who has made her life's work the reconciliation of her sons – one who lives for sheer ambition, the other who exeemplifies  the anti-ambition of the flesh and a life of unleashed passion and anger.

It is a if the equatorial heat of Manaus and humidity stokes this fury. For the houses “stink of cockroaches”, the  rotting debris” on which the city is built and  now expands, the stagnant life of hundres of tedundant and aging rubber-tappers, “the ground covered with dead lizards and grasshopers, fruit and leaves” – it is as if the new generations are growing from the compost of past and dead glories , “bits of dead material insisting upon being reborn through their smel.”

Hatoum, who is from Manaus himself, is a professor of literature at the Federal University of Amazonas, evokes his city with a real and symbolic menace. For, in the reaches 1964, the terrors of the coup rise up from the setting with a special intensity. The brothers see their old French teacher Laval, a veteran radical an poet, captured and murdered during  “a time of fear, the day of a deluge”.

Suddenly, a novel which seemed to limit itself to family and dynastic affairs breaks into a political perspective and is all the stronger through this sense of suddend crisis and surprise.

From being a city imprisioned by its strange and unnatural history, Manaus becomes “an occupied city,”  surrounded by a new violence and jeeps “bristling with bayonets.”

The Brothers is strong on narrative, ripe on the declining lives of those who depened upon the leftovers of history rather than the dynamism of the present, but its most powerful participant is the capital-born tropical metropolis itself – suppurating and corrupting, the habitat of rage and decay.

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