‘Older Brother’ by Daniel Mella (Review)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on anything from Charco Press, specialists in writing from South America, but I had one more book hanging around that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while now, a novel that actually has a lot in common with the last Charco book I reviewed.  Julián Fuks’ excellent Resistance (translated by Daniel Hahn) looked at a writer examining both his past and his relationship with his brother, and today’s selection treads similar ground.  Sadly, there is one subtle difference – this relationship is all in the past…

*****
The start of Uruguyan writer Daniel Mella’s Older Brother (translated by Megan McDowell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) plunges us into the midst of a family tragedy.  The narrator’s younger brother, Alejandro, has died at the age of 31 after being struck by lightning in a beach hut during a huge storm that hit the country overnight.  Now the family must come to grips with what seems almost surreal, the sudden loss of a happy, larger-than-life character, leaving a huge gap in their lives.

Over the course of the novel, a picture of Ale is gradually built up, describing a caring, generous, talented man, but Older Brother is actually more about those left behind.  The novel describes the different generations of the family gathering after the death, along with friends getting in touch as they hear the news.  At the centre of it all is Dani, our writer/narrator, and much of the story is his reaction to a family and personal tragedy.

Older Brother is an autofictional work based on Mella’s own personal loss, and even if the reader is unaware of this at the start, the name, along with mentions of other books of his (Mosh and Melt, neither of which are available in English) soon makes that clear.  Of course, that’s not to say that this is how it all happened in reality.  In several passages, the narrator describes his method of writing, explaining to his parents how his books take aspects of his life and twist and distort them, creating fiction.  Nevertheless, this is obviously a rather personal work, giving the reader a sense of Mella working through his grief.

The approach to writing is a major focus of the book.  Having written nothing for years, the narrator experiences his brother’s death as a catalyst to begin writing again, and mid-way through Older Brother, the action undergoes a sudden, almost abrupt, shift, moving our attention from Alejandro’s death to Dani’s early writing, and his success.  The connection between these two strands are the writer’s views on his work, explaining how it stems from pain and loss, and the need to work through his family and personal issues.

While it may not appeal to most readers, death is the main topic pervading the novel, forcing a reevaluation of life.  It’s a subject the writer and his family continually return to, with every conversation seeming to circle around it, and when they sit outside on warm nights, it’s never long before their talk takes a serious turn:

To get back to the subject at hand, I ask them all why people die.  I ask them to think about it a little: why do we die?  They sit there looking at me.  What kills us? I ask.  Having been born: that’s the reason.  What did we do when we decided to have a child?  What did we bring them into the world for?  We brought them into the world to die.
p.52 (Charco Press, 2018)

The family is already hurting from a recent untimely death, and this latest blow merely serves to confirm their beliefs that only the good and the happy die young.  Dani can’t help wondering why it isn’t him who died, the messed up, bitter, emotionally crippled older brother…

As you’d expect, a major part of the story is concerned with the family’s attempts to cope with the aftermath of the tragedy.  Dani’s father blames himself and his influence for Ale’s death while his wife is unable to accept it, sleeping with Ale’s phone under her pilow.  Dani’s view of the effects of his brother’s passing is both chilling and accurate:

I can’t stop thinking about how Ale’s death is like a bomb, and Maca its first victim.  Images from some film come into my mind: people being hit by the expansive waves of the nuclear blast.  The wave catches up to them as they run, fleeing the explosion, and a nuclear wind X-rays them for an instant.  Their black skeletons show through their skin, and then they fall to dust. (p.76)

This idea of emotional fall-out is an apt one.  Death turns lives upside-down, but the initial grief is just the start of the family’s problems.

And yet, what also comes across strongly in Older Brother is the positive effect Ale’s death has on the family.  Some of the most memorable scenes in the book are the most uplifting, too, such as the outpouring of emotion at the funeral and the mourners bidding farewell to the happy-go-lucky lifeguard by surfing with his ashes.  Another unexpected effect of Ale’s death is Dani’s decision to let go of his resentment towards his ex-wife, deciding that it’s time to move on.  However, there’s always a lingering doubt as to how long all this goodwill will last, and whether the writer’s plans are anything more than temporary resolutions.

For a short novel, Older Brother has a lot packed into it, examining life, death and writing, and it can be slightly disorientating at times.  There’s an odd tendency throughout the book to use future forms to describe the past, which can cause occasional, momentary confusion.  In addition, the content is often confronting, with some violence, the sudden mention of aggressive pornography Dani watches and the discussions about death, not to mention the narrator’s total inability to keep his mouth shut at inopportune times, his words pouring out and upsetting people.  It makes for a book that can be blunt, raw and disturbing, yet it works well, the many parts coming together to form a novel that explores the dark side of death.  It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed it – another great discovery courtesy of Charco Press 🙂

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