cover image THE BROTHERS


Milton Hatoum, , trans. from the Portuguese by John Gleason. . Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-374-14118-9

Hatoum's well-received first novel (The Tree of the Seventh Heaven) won Brazil's leading literary award in 1990. His second is a painstakingly crafted exercise in restraint and suspense. Set in a Lebanese immigrant community in the Brazilian port town of Manaus, this is the story of identical twins, Yaqub and Omar, whose lives take radically different paths: one toward professional success in Brazil's metropolis São Paulo, the other to drunken dissipation in the lowly port of his birth. Set against the backdrop of a city whose very character is undergoing radical change, it is also the story of a family on the verge of conflagration from incestuous passion and riddled with secrets and guilt. A mystery with multiple levels, its primary device is that of deferral: the entire plot unfolds in flashback, the identity of the narrator is withheld until one-third into the book, and the narrator's very name is not revealed until its final pages. While superficially the story seems to involve the brothers' strained relationship with each other and the misplaced passions of their sister and mother, the central question is really that of the narrator's identity. Purported to be the son of the family servant, Nael suspects that one of the twins is actually his father—but is it the town drunk or the urban engineer? Hatoum suggests much while fully revealing little; he's content to unfold his lush narrative—replete with the dances, exotic sights, smells and fragrances of his luscious Brazil—one vivid bolt of cloth at a time. Atmospheric, passionate, enigmatic, this is a mesmerizing if sometimes frustratingly slow journey to the heart of a family. (June)