My favourite book of 2015 was Ivan Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, a story of two brothers trapped in a well, which burns throughout with the fierce anger of a post-crash Europe – the same anger which has since led to Brexit (and Trump). David Clerson’s Brothers, written in the same year (2013) on the other side of the world (Canada) and now available to us thanks to translator Katia Grubisic and new publishing house QC Fiction, not only tells a similar tale of two brothers, but is illuminated with the same rage.
The two brothers live with their mother on an isolated salt march which is swiftly compared to hell (they are “children of the valley of Hennom”, another name for Gehenna or hell). One brother has a single arm; the other “two stumpy arms which are too short for his body.” Their mother tells the older brother:
“…that his brother had been shaped from his severed limb, and born with two stumpy arms, imperfect but attached to a body which was intact…”
We are entering a world where stories have a power beyond their truth, particularly the story of their father, “that dog of a father,” whom they have never met but who came from, and returned to, the sea. The younger brother communicates with the father in his dreams. When they find a wooden puppet washed ashore (the nod towards Pinocchio reminds us that, in many ways, this reads like a tale for children) they take it home, and soon a harness is created to attached one of its arms to the older brother:
“It wasn’t my idea. It was our dog of a father. It came from him. It came from the sea. He gave me the idea in a dream.”
Inevitably they decide to build a boat and set off to find their father.
In the novel’s second part, the older brother literally lives the life of a dog:
“He woke up on wet straw that smelled like animal, and realised he was hungry. On his hands and knees, he crawled out of the doghouse where he had slept, using his wooden arm for support. As he crawled, he felt a leather collar around his neck, and noticed that a chain was attached to it, restricting his movements.”
He is particularly badly treated by the children of the family whom he likens to pigs:
“He was their toy, at the mercy of their whims, a poorly trained beast held captive by a children’s circus.”
In a novel where anger has never been far beneath the surface, this life eventually unleashes his rage in a torrent of destruction:
“In rare moments of sleep, he saw himself as bloodthirsty god, marching over plains of burnt grass covered with cadavers, Puppet in his hand like a mace.”
Whereas The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse ends on the verge of this apocalyptic vision, Brothers goes beyond it. When offered the hope of redemption the older brother seems to reject it. He does not stay where he is safe, and when he leaves he is accompanied by the ravens that have haunted him since he set out on his path of revenge. We are told others are afraid of “the blackness of his eyes, a deep, abyssal blackness, come from the origins of the world.”
The older brother’s rage comes from his poverty and humiliation. Once freed it is indiscriminate. This dark fable tells the story of our times.