Saudi Aramco World / September-October 2007
By Larry Luxner
When Brazil’s Globo television network airs Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) next year as a five-part miniseries, it will likely catapult Milton Hatoum to semi-celebrity status in the land of his birth.
Hatoum, the author of the book the television series is based on (published in English as The Brothers), could certainly use the publicity.
Despite numerous national and international literary awards, the vast majority of the writer’s 188 million countrymen have never heard of him or his three novels.
“People think you have to write wonderful books your whole life. But writers are human beings: They can fail,” says Hatoum, who was born to Lebanese parents in 1952 in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state. “Certainly, praise helps my books sell, but I don’t know if I deserve it. I’m speaking seriously. We have such wonderful writers in Brazil, and that’s one of the reasons I write few books.”
The friendly, soft-spoken author chatted in his book-filled 12th-floor apartment overlooking São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and home to hundreds of thousands of Brazilians of Lebanese and Syrian descent.
Not surprisingly, Hatoum’s novels deal mainly with the Arab immigrant experience in Brazil. His first book, Relato de um certo Oriente (Tales of a Certain Orient), was published in 1989 and appeared in English as The Tree of the Seventh Heaven. It relives the memories of a large, unruly Lebanese family in the northern state of Amazonas where Hatoum grew up.
Likewise, Dois Irmãos, published in 2000, tells the story of Yaqub and Omar, identical twins of Lebanese origin who struggle with jealousy, resentment and displacement as they vie for their mother’s love and affection while growing up in the thriving river port of Manaus.
Hatoum’s third novel, Cinzas do Norte (Ashes of the Amazon), published in 2005, is another family drama, this one set against the lush backdrop of Brazil’s tropical rainforest. Hatoum calls it his most autobiographical work.
Each of the three novels won a Jabuti Prize, Brazil’s most important and best-known literary award. Dois Irmãos has been translated from Portuguese into Arabic and released by the Lebanese publishing house Dar Al-Farabi; Hatoum has also had various short stories published in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Yet when asked if he feels Arab, the writer says, “Not at all.
“We don’t feel Italian– Brazilian or Spanish–Brazilian or Arab–Brazilian,” he replies. “Just Brazilian is enough. Sometimes it’s too much.
“Of course, the Arab community has a kind of affection for its origins. But we don’t have two homelands. Brazilian society is very assimilated. It’s a mélange that dates from the 18th century, from the formation of our country.”
The author’s father, Hassan, was born in the Lebanese village of Beitur. In Manaus, he owned a fabric shop called Esquina das Sedas (Silk Corner) and was deeply interested in Arabic literature. Hatoum’s maternal grandmother was from Batroum, a Maronite Catholic town.
“I lived with two religions in my house,” he says. “My father prayed alone in his room, and it wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I realized he was Muslim, because for years he always dropped my mother at church, so I just assumed he was Catholic too.”
Hatoum also grew up with two languages—Portuguese and French. His grandmother had studied at the French lycée in Beirut and taught him French while he was a young boy. The author also speaks Spanish, Italian and English. However, like most Brazilians of Lebanese or Syrian descent, he is by no means fluent in Arabic.
“My father used to speak Arabic when I was little. The sound, the melody of Arabic is very familiar to me, but as you know, your mother tongue is transmitted by your mother, and my mother speaks Portuguese.... Unfortunately, I didn’t learn Arabic, though I studied with an Algerian professor in Manaus and can follow a conversation.”
Hatoum didn’t always aspire to be a novelist. “When I was young, I wanted to be a singer, and I loved rock and samba and bossa nova. But my voice wasn’t very good,” he says.
Hatoum was also interested in architecture. In fact, he earned a degree in architecture from the University of São Paulo in 1977. But his true love was writing, and six years later he took a graduate degree in Latin American literature from the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris.
Many of his best stories were inspired by his childhood in Manaus and the tales he heard from his grandfather of a time long before the advent of radio, television and the Internet.
“I try to write about human beings and dramas and conflicts,” he says. “Literature helps us to understand other cultures as well as ourselves. When I read Faulkner or Philip Roth, I understand American society more than I would reading an essay on sociology.”
The veteran professor, who has taught at the University of Amazonas in Manaus and the University of California at Berkeley, doesn’t shy away from the critics. “I like to have very tough, very brutal criticism,” he says, adding that he regrets that he hasn’t made more readers angry.
On the contrary, he seems to delight the reading public. In Brazil, Dois Irmãos has sold over 50,000 copies, making it — as Hatoum says—“almost a best-seller” in a country where only a fraction of the population can afford books.
The novel, set within the close-knit Lebanese immigrant community of Manaus, chronicles the life of twins whose hatred for each other leads to the disintegration of their family. Readers also learn, through a series of flashbacks, how the twins’ father, a Muslim named Halim, fell in love with their mother, Zana, a Maronite Christian, and how their romance became a local scandal.
Yet Hatoum admits that, even in his parents’ time, such a mixed marriage wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in Brazil, which has always been noted for racial and religious tolerance.
“People here don’t ask your religion. It’s not a question in Brazil,” he says. “I invented this situation only to dramatize the plot. In fact, there was a tendency in Muslim families to marry within their community, and the same with Catholics —but in my family, nobody married Brazilians of Arab origin.”
Hatoum, who writes six to eight hours a day on his word processor, concedes that he drafted 23 versions of Dois Irmãos over five years, creating “mountains of paper” before he was satisfied with the final product.
One unusual aspect of Dois Irmãos is that the story is told by a narrator who only reveals himself to the reader one-third of the way into the novel.
“This is one of the strategies of the narrative,” Hatoum explains. “I want to keep the identity of the narrator hidden for 70 pages, because the problem of identity is one of the themes of this novel.
“The narrator is a poor boy,” he continues. “The only salvation for him is education. He belongs to a generation when Brazil’s school system was still good, in the 1960’s, before the military regime destroyed public schools. This is also the story of my generation. His grandfather Halim wants him to study. He doesn’t know who his father is, but at the end he writes the story of his family.”
Hatoum lists late 19th- and early 20th-century Brazilian writer Machado de Assis as one of his most important literary influences, but he’s not the only one. Others are García Marquez, Kafka, Borges, Conrad, Guimaräes Rosa, Graciliano Ramos, Carlos Drummond de Andrade and—above all—William Faulkner.
“I think Faulkner was a master,” he says. “Faulkner wrote about a boiling world, with tension and racial conflict everywhere. When I was teaching literature at the University of California in Berkeley, I took some time off and traveled to Mississippi and New Orleans and Alabama—and I felt as though I were back in the Amazon.”
Hatoum says he’s excited by growing interest in Arabic literature around the world, a trend he says began in 1988 when Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
So far, Dois Irmãos is the only one of Hatoum’s novels that’s been published in Arabic. The translator was Safa Jubran, who—along with Mamede Mustafa Jarouche and Paulo Farah —is considered among the best in the business. (Jarouche won a Jabuti Prize for his translation of The Thousand and One Nights into Portuguese, while Farah recently translated Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley into Portuguese.)
In addition to his Jabuti prizes, Hatoum has earned several other honors, including the Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture—endowed by the Government of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and awarded by UNESCO —as well as the 2006 PT Award for Brazilian Literature, sponsored by Portugal Telecom.
“Every university in Brazil has a list of books which the students are required to read, and in the Amazon they always include one of my novels on the list,” he notes.
One of Hatoum’s biggest frustrations as an author is the low level of education in Brazil, and the resulting general lack of interest in literature.
“I think politicians aren’t interested,” he says, calling for the federal, state and city governments to raise teachers’ salaries. “It’s a shame that a high-school teacher in São Paulo, the most powerful state in Brazil, earns only $500 a month. You can’t live on such a salary.”
That’s not the only problem, says Hatoum, who quit the University of Amazonas in 2000. He cites the lack of libraries in cities, high unemployment and poverty as other obstacles to learning.
Hatoum says Brazil should have an institute similar to Spain’s Cervantes Institute or Germany’s Goethe Institut to promote Brazilian literature.
“It’s very unusual for a Brazilian author to be published in other countries,” he adds. “That’s why I was very surprised to read reviews of my books in Le Monde and The New York Times. The American reader is not very interested in Brazil, or in literature out of Latin America in general.”
Last year, Hatoum was an author-in-residence at Stanford University; he may return next year. He would also like to travel to the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. He was in Lebanon once, in 1992, for two weeks.
“I planned to go back there in 1998 with my father and mother, but in the end I couldn’t go, and he died after arriving in Lebanon,” he says. “It was his last trip.”
Meanwhile, in between regular columns for the Brazilian literary magazine Entre Livros, Hatoum is writing another novel on the myths of the Amazon, entitled Orfãos do Eldorado (Orphans of Eldorado).
“I have to publish more,” he explains practically. “I have a three-year-old son, João, to support — and a new son coming — and life in Brazil is very expensive.”