Older Brother by Daniel Mella

Charco Press, September 2018, 148 pp

Charco Press, September 2018, 148 pp

Older Brother, Daniel Mella’s fourth novel, although the first translated into English, follows the aftermath of a tragic event in 2014, when the narrator’s younger brother, a lifeguard, is struck by lightning. His death, and the resulting grief, sets forth a process of coping and recovery for Dani, the autobiographical protagonist, whose thoughts and memories we follow through this slim but powerful volume written by one of Uruguay’s most important writers today.

One key to the novel is in the title: this is a book largely about the older brother, Dani, not about the dead younger brother, Alejandro. Older Brother is mainly an autobiographical meditation on loss and grief, a personal catharsis for an author whose previous works of fiction, too, suggest a strong connection to the author’s life. Keeping in mind that this may be based firmly in real life, Mella’s text is touchingly honest, laying bare the fears and sins of a thirty-something man. An addiction to violent internet porn as well as egoistical tendencies are all reported openly on the page, making it harder to make moral judgements of Dani’s character, as tempting as it is. He might, for instance, take advantage of his friends for artistic purposes, as in the following excerpt, where Dani hurries off the telephone call with his mother in order to write, inspired by a tragedy in a friend’s family – Sandra’s son has died, and Dani has recounted it to his mother:

‘How terrible,’ [mother] says, but she doesn’t depress me. It’s good for me to feel her sadness, and how at the same time she’s happy I’ve called. She lets me hear her for a good while. I only perceive the sound of her voice, and I don’t remember what else she said to me, except that I should calm down and support my friend. But what I actually do is drive home unhurriedly, feeling the novel taking shape in my head. […] While I’m writing the book, I’m going to feel dirty, as if Sandra had left my body coated in grime, a muck that will inform my novel. I won’t feel that she’s far away from me. In fact, as I take advantage of her tragedy for my book, I’m going to feel her presence so close by that I’ll be forced to take refuge in the most pitiless corners of my soul.

In such ways, Older Brother asks question about the role of real life in fiction, blending together fiction and reality on many levels. It is a work of our time, considering the success of other autobiographical writers of late, such as Karl Ove Knausgård, whose sixth and final volume of My Struggle sees the light of day in English around the same time with Older Brother. The reader is never sure what is real and what is not, but that is not the point. More important is the thematic exploration of death, grief, and life, big themes that Mella touches quite well upon in this short novel:

Then, when I start to reflect on what I’d like to be done with my body [after death], I’ll realise that it really doesn’t matter to me at all. Burial, cremation. None of it makes the slightest difference to me. It’s all managed by bureaucrats in suits and ties, just like births are managed by bureaucrats in latex. But what will shock me most is the fact that this baby [Paco, the unborn son], who is life itself, is going to be born bearing his own death. That this unborn creature is someday going to die. That this baby will come into the world as a marked being and will have the right, the obligation, to die his own death, which is his and no one else’s.

What turns out, for me, to be the most exciting feature of the novel has less to do with themes and more with form: Older Brother is written in a curious mixture of tenses. Just as reality and fiction intertwine here, so does past, present, and future. It is not always clear to me which of these events have actually even happened, although some of them are evidently only hypothetical (a common feature of postmodern fiction), as pointed out by Dani. “I’m going to tell Alejandro my fantasy. Together, we’re going to imagine that…” begins one long, vividly detailed memory, only to be renounced by the next paragraph: “But the reality is that…” This is something that Dani / Mella is conscious of doing when writing fiction, as he reminisces on writing his debut novel decades ago (notice, again, that he chooses to use the future tense):

I’ll buy a notebook with Goofy on the cover, and I’ll set about writing down everything I do from one second to the next. I’m going to write at the breakfast table, on the bus, in the bathroom. I’ll bring my notebook everywhere, terrified that a single thought might escape me. Half the things I write down won’t have happened, they’ll be pure invention, and soon my life will jumble together with the story of a kid my age who lives in a house like mine, teaches English to pay for his drugs and writes all day to occupy his hands with something less solitary than hanging himself from a beam.

Narrating the past with the future tense brings a certain vivacity to the events, despite occasional confusion that I experienced. An alert reader is rewarded by a deep, thoughtful rumination on life that is Older Brother, a perfect read during the gloomier moments of the impending autumn. It is also an extremely important work to be translated into English: it’s not as if we’ve ever got to read too many Uruguayan novelists, and for this addition we can only thank Charco Press for their consistent work in bringing fresh voices to the English-speaking literary scene. Megan McDowell, whose translations of Alejandro Zambra I have had the pleasure to enjoy, has done a wonderful job in conjuring Mella’s visions in lucid prose – despite the challenges Mella has set with his slightly experimental form.