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.

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