There is a moment in the Iliad where Achilles has clogged the river Xanthus with so many corpses that the god of the river rises against him in protest. Achilles responds by attacking the river itself. This is the spirit in which the term mythical should be understood when describing David Clerson’s Brothers. Published in its original French as Frères by Héliotrope, Clerson’s first novel was the winner of the Grand Prix Littéraire Archambault in 2014. Katia Grubsic’s recent translation published by QC Fiction came in at number twenty-one in the National Post’s list of the “Top 99 Books of the Year 2016.” Clerson’s second novel, En Rampant, also published by Héliotrope, was released this past September.
In Brothers, two boys set out to find their “dog of a father” in a world of violence and imagination, on an adventure streaked with loss and revenge. The brothers’ understanding of the world and their place in it has been shaped by their mother, an old woman well past childbearing age. The brothers readily accept the fantastical personal mythologies she offers them. They believe that the younger brother has been created from the arm of the elder, which serves to explain why the elder brother is missing an arm, and why the younger brother’s arms are short for his body.
Brothers is a coming-of-age story that develops unusually, moving briskly and capturing the temporal and spatial shifting of a dream. Sometimes the story lingers; other times hasty transitions bring the reader unpredictably from childhood to sexual exploration, or from nostalgia to resentment and retaliation.
The novel’s distinctive dreamlike flavour is strong and well-executed through a collision of fantasy with haphazard symbolism. This makes for an intriguing read, but there are instances where this phantasmagoric quality is complicated by disruptive allusions to other texts. When a “wooden puppet as big as an almost full grown child” makes an appearance, it’s hard to ignore the intertextual baggage it carries with it of Pinocchio. If intentional, what that connection means in the context of Brothers is unclear. The sheer number of familiar tropes suggests that they serve some function, but their appearance is sometimes intrusive to the point of being disruptive.
For example, there is a scene late in the novel during which the older brother is at sea and a raven perches on the bow of his ship. There is a sequence of repetitious dialogue, perhaps a nod to Poe’s “Raven,” followed by the death of the bird, not unlike the albatross in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, after which ravens proceed to follow the brother through the remainder of the novel. It’s when the brother eats the raven that the intentionality of these layers of symbolism and references becomes most confusing. I asked myself: what does the raven mean here? Casual transgression of taboo occurs elsewhere in the text in the form of (spoiler alert) bestiality and patricide, so there is little surprise to be had at the eating of a bird that the Old Testament book of Leviticus declares unfit for consumption. Levi-Strauss’ structuralist model suggests that in mythology, the raven—a scavenger—often acts as a mediator between life and death, so eating it might represent the assumption of power over one’s mortality. Then there’s the English idiom “to eat crow” (which references a different, though confusingly similar corvid) suggesting humiliation as a consequence of having been proven wrong. It’s difficult to say if these perceived allusions to Poe, to Coleridge or to English idiom were intended given the novel’s French origin; it’s equally possible that such perceived connections are rooted in the reviewer’s over-exposure to English literature courses. In any case, the text certainly offers a lot to ponder. This scene is one of a handful that is symbolically charged on the surface, without plot impetus, that will nonetheless leave you thinking for days.
Though the novel seems to read allegorically at times, it unfolds like a quixotic quest, albeit with an absence of idealism. As exhaustion and hunger set in over the course of the journey, the line between the allegorical and the hallucinatory thins even further. Dialogue becomes increasingly sparse as the text progresses, suggesting an inward psychological turn. By the end, childhood imagination has matured into an adult worldview that has not steadied its grasp on reality.
Where Brothers shines is not so much in the story but in the telling. Plot takes a back seat, as it would in a dream, rendering trivial the usual process of cause and effect. Even the title fails to firmly capture what the story is about because although Brothers is about brothers, a fraternal relationship or bond isn’t what drives the book. Nonetheless, the result is a very open, very readable adventure. Reviewers have described it variously as a fable, a legend or a myth that takes place in a setting described as an ancient, rural or post-apocalyptic dreamscape. Grubisic’s translation rolls easily in the unembellished prose of a children’s fable, and at 150 pages, Brothers is a quick afternoon read that would be well worth coming back to.
QC Fiction | 150 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN 9781771860864