Older Brother

Daniel Mella wrote his first book in five days instead of killing himself:

“I’m not going to shoot myself. I’m going to fire the bullet with my name on it into the sky, and some months later when I start to feel another fit coming on – that’s when I’m going to become a writer.”

The book was a success, and a second soon followed, but, after writing a third, Mella took a ten year break, only returning to writing in response to further crises in his life. Older Brother, for example, (now translated by Megan McDowell) tells of the death of his brother Alejandro, killed by lightning during a storm. The book (like so much contemporary writing) lies somewhere between fiction and non-fiction – as Mella has said, “Direct experience changes when written” – neither a memoir nor a novel. Though it takes place over a short period of time, from the day of Ale’s death to the day his ashes are scattered into the waves he lived to surf, but encompasses much more, including not only the story of how Mella became a writer in the first place, but how he began to write this book:

“I can only really start to write about Alejandro when I start to write about myself.”

Like most auto-fiction, the narrative is focussed through the lens of the author / narrator, whose feelings are the conflagration on which the experience of the other characters are thrown. In this case, the book is as much about the narrator (Dani’s) relationship with death as with his older brother. He later describes the key to opening the novel as recollecting his mother’s comment, “Why him, when he liked life so much?” and replying:

“You’re right, I tell her. It should have been me.”

These are not the words he said at the time but the thought prompted by remembering (throughout the narrator’s speech is presented without punctuation leaving it stranded in the no-man’s land between thought and dialogue). Reflecting on his mortality is nothing new, he tells us: “thinking about death had been the norm for me since 1982, when I was six years old.” Observing his parents’ grief, he recollects thoughts about his own son, remembering that when he was still in his mother’s womb:

“…what will shock me most is the fact that this baby, 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.”

This unconventional use of tense – moving further into the past but presenting it in the future tense – is not unusual: “Death,” Mella has said, “has this quality which makes time collapse.” Not only does the narrative itself move freely back and forward in time, but the shifting tenses create the impression that the connections are not entirely causal, and that the various points in Dani’s life on some level co-exist.

Ale’s death brings the family together and pulls it apart. The narrator’s brother, Marcos, decides to leave his wife:

“I should have done it sooner… It was already done… How many things have I been depriving myself of over all these years? I deprived myself of going to Chile with Ale.”

The narrator, too, re-evaluates his relationships, having recently fallen back in love with his ex-wife, Brenda (or La Negra), and being unable to accept their relationship was over. When he meets her on the day of Ale’s death his first thoughts are to move on:

“I want her to forgive me for being an idiot. The calls, the messages, the invitations. I lost control.”

The story of his relationship with Brenda reveals Dani as unsettled, unstable even. As he questions himself, he probes others, often appearing insensitive in his efforts to find an answer. He possesses the writer’s selfishness, where the examination of his own feelings predominates over concern for anyone else’s. Though present throughout, this is best exemplified in an astonishing final scene in which the themes of life, death and grief unite.

Older Brother asks uncomfortable questions, both metaphysical and emotional. Thoughtful rather than reasoned, it refuses to settle for an easy truth.

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