Translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell
Published by Charco Press
In the summer of 2014, during one of the biggest storms to hit the coast of Uruguay, Alejandro is killed in a lightning strike. Ale, as he was known, was aware that there was an electrical storm brewing. He worked as a lifeguard and knew how dangerous the beach could be in a storm, but decided to spend the night in a lifeguard hut anyway. Did he know the risk he was taking or did he think he was indestructible?
Ale was 31, full of life, and an eternal optimist, and the tragedy of his death ripples out into the lives of those close to him.
One of these is the unnamed narrator of this book, Ale’s older brother, who cannot make sense of his death. Why did it have to be Ale? Why not the narrator himself, who could not remember the last time he was happy? The older brother was convinced he would be the first of the siblings to die. But that is not what happens. He thinks it is because “[i]t’s always the happiest and most talented who die young. People who die young are the happiest of all”. And that has him worrying about his seven-year-old son, Paco, who is a happy kid, unlike his younger son.
He starts to write, putting down thoughts, a mix of memory and invention until, as he puts it, “my life will jumble together with the story of a kid my age who lives in a house like mine”. This develops into a book called Mosh in which the protagonist is horrible to his mother. When the book is published, people assume it is autobiographical. Mosh not only upsets his parents but also loses him some of his close friends who could not understand why he wrote the book.
“Maybe I fell in love with misery. Maybe I had to invent myself some misery so I could seem interesting, play the poète maudit. Maybe I was creating my own myth and starting to believe it. Maybe that misery was my first fiction.”
This gives you an idea of the narrator: self-absorbed and neurotic. “It should have been me”, he says to his mother when they learn of Ale’s death. “Why does everything have to be about you?”, she asks.
The narrator writes in the future tense, as if the events that have taken place are yet to happen, as if he can hold back time. We follow him as he navigates his pain—he was close to his younger brother and devastated by his death. As he speaks at the funeral, he finally comes to terms with his loss. The two brothers are very different, and it feels like it is only then that he understands Ale.
Ale had written a song called “Wherever You Go”: “wherever you go, your home is inside”. His brother had criticized it, thinking it was a pompous phrase from someone who did not really understand what he was saying. (Ale, as always, ignored his criticism.) But, he realizes, that was probably not true.
“I’d accused him of being stubborn, but maybe Ale didn’t really feel any pressure to conform to anyone. Maybe he really had made peace with his imperfection, so long as it was his own. Maybe that’s what it meant to find your inner home. … For Alejandro, joy meant not wasting the chance to live in his house while he was building it, even if it was missing a wall or the roof was full of leaks. Nor did he want to make it out of overly complex materials. He built it with what he had at hand, knowing that one day the wind was going to end up knocking it down like everything else. … I wished him happy travels, as if I really trusted or believed that Ale was in transit towards some other place.”
This book by Uruguayan writer Daniel Mella resonated with me. However, sometimes it feels that he tries to shock the reader, which I thought detracted from the book. But the grief feels very real. Like Mosh, Older Brother is a combination of fiction and memoir: Mella based his book on the death of his own brother Alejandro in 2014.
This is about how people deal with grief and loss, and with the emptiness that is left when a loved one dies. The story is about the older brother, but Ale is very present throughout. It is how we cope with loss: by trying to keep the missing person close to us.
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