A good book really is an object of magic. While a movie is able to instantly provide an image on which to project the story that is being played out, the nature of that image is decided by the director. With a book on the other hand, it is the reader who gets to paint the scene in which the action takes place. An author might provide plenty of hints, but it is the fact that each reader experiences a book differently that makes a novel such a special medium.
If you’re looking for a book that helps paint a rich, evocative picture of Manaus in Brazil, look no further than Milton Hatoum’s novel The Brothers (Dois Irmãos). The story follows two identical twin brothers and describes their life-long feud. They argue over a girl as teenagers and come to blows as grown men. One brother leads a relatively successful life while the other looks on in bitter hatred and jealousy. Hatoum explores the role of the boys’ parents, who look on with sad helplessness as the two men go through their entire life with little sign of reconciliation.
Brazilian Melting Pot
While describing the family tearing itself part, Hatoum also lets us into a world which we would otherwise never know. The characters belong to the Manaus Lebanese community, a small group into which Milton Hatoum himself was born. In describing the changing life of Yaqub and Omar, the two protagonists in the story, Hatoum paints a vivid picture of Manaus from the perspective of a native in a local Arab community. The descriptions of the markets, of the street sellers and of the mixture of ramshackle and grand buildings that make up this Amazonian metropolis all come from the author’s own intimate knowledge of Manaus.
The World in Manaus
It is easy to imagine that the city of Manaus, hundreds of miles from the other major Brazilian cities that mostly pepper the Atlantic coastline, would be quite an insular place. Yet in The Brothers Hatoum vividly portrays the city as deeply multi-cultural with a high degree of tolerance between the many communities that have settled here.
Step out from your hotel in Manaus today and you’re likely to find Lebanese food alongside many other ethnic cuisine from the many communities that make up the rich fabric of life in the city on the edge of the Amazon. And if you hear some angry Arabic shouting, look out; Omar and Yaqub might just be in town!
Photo: Salles Neto via Wikimedia Commons