It’s hard to know exactly what to call Daniel Mella’s Older Brother – whether it’s autofiction, memoir, philosophical novel – but nobody could dispute it’s an extraordinary piece of writing. It tells the true story of how Mella himself, a Uruguayan author with a reputation for holding nothing back in his writing, lost his younger brother Ale to a freak accident (he was struck by lightning) in the summer of 2014. At the start of the book Ale is already dead: what follows is an extended reflection on a family’s grief, written mostly in a potent first-person present tense, alternately reflective and hilarious and tragic. It’s astonishingly raw and tender, the story of a man visibly coming apart, and it’s up there with the best books you’ll read in 2018.
Early in the book, after the news of Ale’s death breaks, the boys’ mother is in a state of denial, attempting to text her lost son but not able to see the keys on her phone.
‘Could you send a message to Alejandro?’ she asks me…
Alejandro’s not there, I tell her. How could I possibly send him a message?
‘Write, Ale, tell me it’s not you, Mum,’ she says. ‘Maybe it’s not him. Maybe they made a mistake…’
Daniel, eventually, obliges: he texts his dead brother ‘I love you, cocksucker’, a message that of course his mother reads over, before she ruefully intones, ‘you think that’s cute?’ As much as anything, it’s a scene which epitomises what Mella has achieved in Older Brother. It captures the rhythms of a family perfectly, along with the absurdities of shocking grief – how life is somehow supposed to go on, with its texts and swear jars, in spite of everything having changed. It’s the work of a very skilled writer, one with unusually acute powers of observation.
Vignettes like the one above are interspersed with the wider details of Daniel’s life, such as his relationship with La Negra (also known as Brenda), his ex and the mother of his two children. Unusually, these flashbacks are also written in the present tense, lending the whole story a startling immediacy – they also allow welcome glimpses of Daniel’s thought processes before Ale’s death, giving a sense of context. So, after his abandonment by La Negra for a fat man called Fabricio, we read this:
During that time I will have reached the conclusion that, at thirty-seven years old, I don’t know myself in the slightest. Mine though they may be, I don’t know what to do with my mind or my heart, each fighting a battle for itself alone. And my body: it bears up like a beaten animal under the tobacco and the insomnia and my erratic eating, but things can’t go on like that forever. I always go to bed past three in the morning after masturbating to pornography in the living room, the computer’s volume down as low as possible while the boys sleep on the other side of the wall.
Mella’s self-reflection, and the bracing honesty with which he presents himself (the passage above goes on to describe his pornographic tastes in much greater detail, and he does not come out well), really makes it feel as though you’ve slipped through a portal into the head of a man experiencing intense trauma. It’s a rarity to read something that allows you to share another person’s consciousness like that, and Mella does it with such vibrancy that its always compelling, even when it’s not entirely pleasant reading.
There’s a rich vein of philosophy shot through the book as well, from a memorable conversation around the dinner table when Daniel’s father, talking about human beings, says,
“We destroy everything; we’re on a suicide mission… who sold us the idea that we’re the apex? They ruined our lives with that idea. Explain it to me. We’re the only animals that treat the gift of life with contempt. What other creature is capable of killing itself with drugs? We murder each other over football games. We kill ourselves for money. We risk our lives for a little adrenaline…”
It’s a brilliant, bleak reflection, tipped over into a particular kind of absurd, Beckettian horror when another family member chips in that “dolphins can choose to stop breathing… when they’re very depressed, in captivity for example, they can decide to stop breathing and they die,” leaving everyone in stunned silence. Even better is Daniel’s reminiscence about La Negra’s pregnancy with Paco, his first child, and the many kinds of death that all people experience in their lives: “he’s going to experience solitude and scents, which are forms of death, and from the moment when I see him and touch him I won’t be able to carry on as the same man, either.” Later on, too, when he starts out as a writer, Daniel’s writing will be haunted by death, and he’ll muse, about ‘whether it was possible, somehow, to witness one’s own death.’ “I imagined the feeling of that instant as the truest feeling of all,” he says. “I imagined it so much that I started to wish it would happen to me.”
There’s a dozen more scenes I could pick out for comment – how Mella renders Ale’s funeral, for example, or his description of his writing process (and his mother’s sheer disgust at his novels), or the scattering of Ale’s ashes on the beach – all of them hypnotic, startling pieces of writing that made the world around me start to still and retreat. Or I could tell you about the brilliance of Megan McDowell’s clean, precise translation (every bit the match of her great work on Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream), or the novel’s dizzying, bewildering conclusion. But, really, to talk about all those moments would akin to copying out Older Brother in its entirety, and robbing you of the experience of reading it for yourself. And you should read it for yourself. It’s brilliant: it’s fiction at its best, a future classic, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Older Brother is published by Edinburgh’s Charco Press. It’s £12.99 from their website in Paperback (whose cover, as with all Charco Press’s work, is so beautiful it’s hard to resist), and £4.99 in ebook form.
Direct sales make the most money for a publisher, but if you want to buy it cheaper (and not from Amazon) then Hive have it for £9.39, and will give a portion of the sale to an independent bookshop of your choice.
You should also follow Charco Press on Twitter here. They’re one of the most exciting publishers working in the UK today. Nicola Sturgeon agrees.
Thanks to Charco Press for sending a free copy of Older Brother for review.