Milton Hatoum’s Tale of a Certain Orient

By Rob Packer

Milton Hatoum's Relato de um certo Oriente

Tale of a Certain Orient (Relato de um certo Oriente) is Lebanese-Brazilian writer, Milton Hatoum’s debut novel, and the second that I’ve read by him (click here for my thoughts on his second novel, Two Brothers). Like its successor, Tale of a Certain Orient tells the problematic story of a Lebanese-Brazilian family in the Amazonian metropolis of Manaus and focuses on representations of a matriarch-figure, Emilie.

The novel’s prose is outstanding in places and some particular highlights were lyrical descriptions of an Amazonian sunrise or the Arabic lessons that a son receives from his parents, learning letters in the shape of snails and scimitars. Unfortunately, these are vivid highlights in a narrative that often comes across directionless: each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member or time and it was never clear (to me, at least) who was doing the narrating. Of course, multiple perspectives are normally a strength in narrative (see ‘La Señorita Cora’ in Cortázar’s Todos los fuegos el fuego for a virtuoso performance); but here the family web is so complex and everyone is referred to as ‘my mother’, ‘my sister’, etc., to make the result frustrating.

Tale of a Certain Orient has evocative, descriptive strengths, but overall, it comes to less than the sum of its parts with a leaping narrative that end up bewildering rather than captivating. Hatoum’s perspective on the Amazon and its inhabitants complex relationship with the forest is interesting, but Two Brothers explores similar subject matter with much greater poise.

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