Milton Hatoum’s Dois irmãos (Two Brothers)

By Rob Packer

Milton Hatom's Dois irmãos (Two brothers)

Milton Hatoum’s background is both exotic and typically Brazilian, a Lebanese-Brazilian born in the Amazon city of Manaus, and this community features in several of his books; Dois irmãos (Two Brothers) is no exception. The book is an engrossing, Amazonian Cain and Abel told by the son of the maid in a family of Lebanese-Brazilians in Manaus: a story of brotherly jealousy and hatred between Yaqub and Omar, twin sons of Halim and Zana.

Reading Two Brothers, it made me think of modern Indian literature (The God of Small Things or The Inheritance of Loss, for example) where facts seem obscured by the mists of memory, slowly and partially becoming clear with themes like smell or the colour red[1] reappearing like nervous ticks. The hatred between the two brothers seems to stem from Omar being spoilt by the twins’ mother and from a party where the 13-year-old twins both liking the same girl, leading Omar to scar Yaqub’s face with a broken bottle—the mark of Cain—and to Yaqub being sent away to his father’s village in Lebanon for five years. But what’s left unsaid or misremembered seems as important, and the mystery draws you into the story. Is there something else to make this hatred so visceral? Or what about the narrator’s father? It’s clear he’s one of the twins, but even when it’s strongly hinted at, an element of doubt remains.

Although the family is Lebanese and Halim, Zana and Yaqub were there as children, memories of the country seem feint and is mentioned infrequently in the course of the book. In fact, the family seem rooted in Manaus: the book opens with Yaqub’s return from Lebanon, when he finds it hard to communicate with his family in his rusty Portuguese, while neighbours’ faces from his childhood in Manaus seem “as blurred in the photo as in Yaqub’s memory”. Yaqub then refuses to talk about his experiences in Lebanon, making it seem that the past is quickly forgotten, but the wounds inflicted by it are remembered forever. Yaqub soon leaves Manaus for São Paulo, a city which makes him rich and devious, and Omar poor and selfish.

In Manaus, though, Amazonia and the jungle make their presence felt in the enormous wealth of fruit, plants and fish throughout the book, and the ebb and flow of Brazilian history is distant in a city “far from the industrialized era and even further from [its] grand past” as the centre of the 19th-century rubber boom. That is until the military coup; and the run-up to the dictatorship builds almost unseen until an act of violence makes it clear that it’s too late. At the same time, decline of the family and city seems complete: the family suffer madness and the loss of their home, while the city invades the jungle, filling its streets with homeless from the interior of the state.

As the world’s biggest forest, foreigners like me often imagine the Amazon to be the empty part of Brazil with lots of trees and few people. Two Brothers brings the forest to life and is at its most interesting is where what seems like a minor character is shot dead by the military while crossing a square, or where the vastness of the forest seems to swallow people whole or where it spits them out again. Against this background is a jealousy, hatred and selfishness that seem to know no bounds.

[1] A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for Cinzas do Norte, another Milton Hatoum book, makes it seem like the colour red could be an opus-theme.


By Rob Packer

No, not me careering at terrifying speeds across the Lagoa da Conceição unfortunately, but if you’re not in the water—unlike in Puerto Velero near Barranquilla, Colombia where I last saw it—it’s a decent spectator sport. It’s probably time to give it a try, or get my wakeboarding going again.

The shallow water of Florianópolis' Lagoa da Conceição with yesterday's wind made this a little more interesting than the book I was reading.

Two kitesurfers in Lagoa.

Yet more kitesurfing.

Floripa Sunset

By Rob Packer

In one of its tourist slogans, Florianópolis (Floripa for short) is La Ilha da Magia (The Island of Magic). After what feels like a whole week of rain and chilly nights, the magic has been wearing thin. Today, though, the sun came out and ended the day with a great sunset on the Beira-Mar, before heading home to battle exploding aubergines and rock-hard chickpeas to make baba ghanoush and hummus.

The best sunsets are supposed to be the ones where you can see the sun dipping behind the horizon. Even so, this was a good one as the sun ducks into a cloud over the Santa Catarina mainland.

Looking towards the mainland.

The view east to Agronômica.

Jorge Amado’s Captains of the Sand (Capitães da Areia)

By Rob Packer

Jorge Amado's Captains of the Sand (Capitães da Areia)

Jorge Amado’s Captains of the Sand (Capitães da Areia) was published and publicly burnt in 1937.

This now-legend is the opening of both the blurb of the copy I’ve just read and the afterword by modern Brazilian author, Milton Hatoum; and was what attracted me to the book. For a first-time reader, like me, Jorge Amado is a writer better known for folk novels depicting Bahian and Afro-Brazilian culture, than for book burning. From the start of Captains of the Sand, though, it’s clear that Amado’s political message—he was a long-time member of the Brazilian Communist Party—drives the story of a gang of a hundred orphans and runaways, the Captains of the Sand, stealing for a living and sleeping in a run-down warehouse in Salvador’s docks.

The book transcends politics, though, and is a bitter social commentary from its opening where the city authorities blame each other for the crime wave; while the police and the children’s court squabble, the Captains of the Sand get on with their business of clearing out rich patrician houses. Amado doesn’t glorify crime, but throughout the book, it seems by far the best option and Pedro Bala, the gang’s leader, equates their life of crime with freedom, when compared to solitary confinement and forced starvation in borstal (the reformatory). Crime is created by Bahia’s unjust society: rather than children born or predisposed to being criminals. In the afterword, Milton Hatoum, says that the most enduring part of the book isn’t its historical picture of child crime and violence, but that the social issues of wasted youth are the same ones that Latin American cities face today. But more importantly, he says, are the love and tenderness, the recurring and desperate desire to belong to a family and gain a decent place in society.

Whenever the boys are confronted with kindness, the idea that they’re inherently criminal seems meaningless: they’re just as in need of love as anyone else but the gang’s code of honour prevents them from receiving it. When the lame Sem-Pernas, haunted by memories of being tortured by the police, arrives at the house of Dona Ester in an attempt to live a few days off the kindliness of the rich while scouting the house for valuables, he’s unprepared for being treated as a lost son—genuine kindness—and must choose between repaying kindness with malice or staying loyal to his comrades. Meanwhile, the gang’s code says that girls are objects to be shared, and the arrival of the orphaned Dora nearly destroys the gang, before she turns into a mother figure.

The Bahian culture that Jorge Amado is famous for is very much present with the boys’ capoeira moves to escape the police and the orixás of candomblé, the African spirit religion of Salvador. But while I was reading the book, it kept making me think of Italian neorealist film, like the 1948 Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette), often focussing on the difficult moral choices at the bottom of society with characters that seem all too real. It’s this, as well as the idea from the afterword that the book seems so up-to-date. It is, in short, an enduring classic.

Abacaxi, Pineapple, Piña

By Rob Packer

The Brazilian pineapple, the abacaxi, is really just like any other apart from its shape. Rather than being the squat, roundish variety I’ve seen almost everywhere else, the abacaxilooks like it’s been stretched into a cone shape and its crown compacted.

Pineapple crown.

Abacaxi, like a stretched pineapple.

The pineapple goes a long way in Brazil and there are lots of ways of eating or drinking it, whether as a juice with mint or as pineapple tea, similar to Colombia’s guarapo, made by boiling the parts you don’t eat (the skin and maybe the core) and as far as I’ve seen, drunk hot—unlike guarapo.

Suco de acabaxi com hortelã. Pineapple juice with mint.

Maybe roasted the best way of eating pineapple though, like I’ve seen at churrascarias (Brazilian steakhouses). The roasting process (either wrapped in aluminium foil or roasted with its skin, which is then cut off) caramelizes the sugars and takes away the acidity.

The only thing that’s missing is the chopped, raw, ripe piña with chile and lime that I used to eat in Mexico.

Pineapple skin

Carambola, Star Fruit, Carambolo

By Rob Packer

I must have been six or seven, the first time I saw a star fruit (carambola in Brazilian Portuguese, carambolo in Colombian Spanish). I had just (re) discovered the fruit salad and wanted to make one with the most interesting fruit I could find in the slimly-stocked fruit section of late 1980’s British supermarkets. The star fruit, a fruit whose name I could only understand once we started to make the fruit salad, seemed the perfect addition, but it disappointed and I still remember my mum’s verdict: it tastes like cucumber.

Star fruit - Carambola - Carambolo

It was 15 years before I tried it again in Colombia last year, a carambolo this time. Unlike the star fruit that made it to the UK, this one had a definite taste: it was sour like a lemon, the kind of fruit that tastes best with salt and lime. The carambola in Brazil still has the citrusy tartness of the Colombian version but without the acidity.

Years later, though, I can still see what my mum meant: it seems more of a vegetable. You might be able to make a juice out of it—like I did this morning—but it doesn’t really work on its own except as a shape-based novelty. For me, its tart, vegetal flavour works better added to (savoury and fruit) salads.

Suco de carambola: stick it in the blender with some water and sugar.

Anything’s possible if you have guascas: Ajiaco in Brazil

By Rob Packer

Ajiaco, one of the most famous dishes of Colombian cuisine, is a soup of three types of potato, chicken, maize, avocado and—most importantly—guascas, a herb that gives ajiaco its flavour. I didn’t make it, but there’s been a packet of guascas from Colombia in the apartment for a few weeks, so why not make an ajiaco for Saturday lunch? The results were good, although it was missing two things: capers (due to laziness) and papa criolla, a small, delicious, yellow potato that’s hard to find outside the Andes.

Today's ajiaco with avocado.


Fruit in Brazil

By Rob Packer

Your first trip to the juice shop in Brazil is an intimidating experience: firstly, the range is so large—30 to 40 options seem to be the norm—that trying something you already know seems like a waste. Secondly, you have no idea what anything is, which makes your first problem worse.

A stall in São Paulo's Mercado Público, where you can find every fruit you've ever dreamt again (except durian)

If you learn Portuguese from a Spanish-speaking background, you quickly learn that lots of words are similar and lots of words are very different: fruit names are the latter. You reason, for example, that guanábana and Guanabara, the bay where Rio sits, look pretty similar, so you guanábana must be the Portuguese word, rather than the pregnant-looking graviola. And this is before you get to cajá, caju, guaraná, acerola, or pitanga, some of the many that barely seem to exist outside of Brazil.

As one of the world’s megadiverse countries, Brazil, like Colombia or Mexico, has an incredible range of fruit going from European staples like apples to açaí: it would take years to get to know all the fruit of Brazil, so I’m not going to try; what I will try, though, is to use a few blogs to scratch the surface of the fruit available in the country.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

By Rob Packer

Roberto Bolaño's masterful 2666

Without a doubt, Roberto Bolaños’s enormous and mysterious novel, 2666, published posthumously in 2004, is one of the greatest works of fiction of the past ten years. I don’t know any other works, but it’s not hard to see why this is widely considered the masterpiece of this Chilean author: the prose flows across the book’s 1100 pages and the author is at his best when he tricks the reader onto a tangent, only for the red herring to turn out not to be one after all, or to become ever more fascinating.

The book is really a series of five (loosely) connected novels with a recurring theme in the hundreds of unexplained murders of women in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, similar to real events in Ciudad Juárez since the 1990’s. Throughout the book, Santa Teresa is a disquieting place where shantytowns grow cojos o mancos o ciegos [the English translation of “hobbling, one-armed or blindly” doesn’t quite match the Spanish], the sunset looks like a “carnivorous flower” and even approaching it through the desert, it seems like “the inhabitants had died that very night with the smell of blood still hanging in the air”.

Hanging in the air in the same way are the mysteries of the book, including a German author’s disappearance, the effects Santa Teresa has on a group of European academics or the ever-present murders. And even when it seems that a journalist does get close to the murky links between Mexican politics and drug-traffickers, the truth seems to be too dangerous to know. Or, maybe it’s another red herring? Or, maybe there is no answer after all?

And characters in the novel seem unwilling or to lack the moral commitment to resolve these mysteries. For example, Santa Teresa’s police appear either too inept or too lazy to connect or investigate the killings, and the section about the crimes is full of evidence going missing and murder victims being nonchalantly thrown into unmarked graves. While the characters in wartime and post-war Germany sometimes appear indifferent to the context of the war and the phenomenon of Vergangenheitsbewälting (struggling to come to terms with the past) that followed.

In this bleak landscape, it comes as a surprise to find the book’s comic moments, such as Amalfitano’s dream with ‘the last Communist philosopher of the 20th century’ or a ventriloquist on a talk show convinced his dummy wants to kill him—for me, showing Bolaño’s years living in Mexico and his coming to appreciate what Andre Breton called the most surrealist country in the world, where everything “is homage to all other things in the world including those yet to happen”.

2666 is far from an easy read: it’s a very disquieting book, but ultimately it’s a thoroughly engrossing read that I can’t recommend highly enough.

Update: In the first version, I forgot to thank Cameron, my erstwhile Mexico City cuate, from recommending me this amazing book.

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