Brazilian author Milton Hatoum’s brooding and atmospheric second novel is set in the Amazonian port city of Manaus, among the cafés, bars and market stalls of the Lebanese immigrant community. The book opens in 1945 as the teenager Yaqub returns home from Lebanon. He had been sent there by his family five years previously following a fight with his twin brother Omar. The enmity between the brothers continues unabated and their unceasing competition for the attention and affection of their manipulative mother Zana forms the core of the book. Yaqub is studious and hardworking but nevertheless seems unable to please his mother who lavishes all her devotion on the wilful and capricious Omar, despite his drunken, wastrel lifestyle. Almost a bystander in this destructive embrace is the boys’ father, the amiable trader Halim, longing for the quiet life he is destined never to have.
The brothers’ rivalry stretches over the decades, and reaches an explosive climax which involves brutal murder, a dockworkers’ strike, military occupation and the loss of everything the family hold dear.
The generational saga is somewhat stale and the plot rather threadbare but the book is redeemed by the wonderful, compelling portrait of Manaus, especially the ramshackle ‘floating city’ beside the harbour. Milton Hatoum transports us to a magical boomtown, full of shimmering light, tropical colour and piquant incident. In a dangerous world of shady deals and shifting alliances, the port emerges as not only a character in its own right but by far the most important one.Peter Whittaker
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