Craft Episode 3 Transcript: Daniel Mella
Welcome to Craft.
Each month we bring you one international writer, talking about one of their works, for about thirty minutes.
This month, Uruguayan novelist Daniel Mella talks about his novel El Hermano Mayor. Winner of the Bartolomé Hidalgo Award, and translated as Older Brother by Megan McDowell, the novel, and its events, grow out of the real events surrounding the death of Daniel’s brother, Alejandro.
This episode begins with Daniel reading from the book in its original and in the English translation, and it contains his reflections, over a slightly fuzzy connection from Montevideo, on writing as catharsis and the realness of the unreal.
His death will fall on the ninth of February, always two days before my birthday. Alejandro will be thirty-one years old in the early morning of that day whose light he will never see, the day we’ll go from being four siblings to three. I, the oldest son, will be about to turn thirty-eight. That same morning, Mum (sixty-four), sitting beside me in dark glasses says: ‘Why him when he liked life so much?’ Why Ale, when so many other people go around complaining about things all the time?
On the back porch of my parents house, while dad (sixty-nine) and Marcos (twenty-seven) are on their way to Playa Grande to identify the body, I brew mate for the guests: the cousins, the aunts and uncles, several neighbours. Since no one sits still I have trouble remembering the order the gourd should be passed around in. Mum wasn’t far off the mark.
You’re right, I tell her, it should have been me.
She huffs. She didn’t mean that. But I tell her that it would have been entirely fitting. Right? After all, who’s the pessimist around here? I ask her.
‘Why does everything always have to be about you? The truth is, I don’t know what’s got into you lately. You were better, but lately, I just don’t know.’
I ask her when the last time she saw me happy was. But happy like Alejandro, I say: bursting with happiness. Every stew he ate was the best stew he’d ever had, remember? If he rode a wave, it was the best wave of his life. Have you ever seen me completely happy?
Mum looks at me for a few seconds. I can’t see her eyes behind the glasses. Her hands are resting on her knees and her foot taps a nervous rhythm.
‘I can’t think right now,’ she says.
Because it’s not easy to remember, I tell her. But when was the last time you saw Alejandro happy? I’m sure Ale was happy the last time you saw him. And the time before that, too, and the time before that… Wasn’t he the happiest guy you knew?
‘Yes and no. I always thought that Ale had a sadness deep inside him. The life he led, no commitments…’
But who doesn’t have that? Who isn’t always a little sad, deep down? Really though you can’t argue that Alejandro wasn’t the best equipped for life out of all of us. Who else had those shoulders? You remember how broad his chest was? He was a lion. He was solar.
‘I remember his hugs. I remember how he used to call me Mumsy,’ says Mum.
Everyone remembered his hugs. Alejandro hugged everyone. He liked to wrap you in the immensity of his body. He did it to show off. He’d hug you so you’d feel his muscles. He’d hug you till you felt the bulge through the through his trousers.
Once, when I was four years old, I’d knelt down beside my mother’s bed where she lay with the flu, and I started to pray for her to get well. She likes to say that it made her feel better immediately. It’s one of her classic memories of me. I always liked to hear her recall that moment, even during our most difficult times. She told that story so often — was she asking me in a way to never stop praying for her? I’d never known how to help her. She had never asked me for help. As far as I knew, she’d never asked anyone for help.
She doesn’t like mate. I pass her one anyway. When she finds herself holding the gourd, she hands it back to me gets up and goes inside without another word, pulling the sliding glass doors behind her.
Well, that’s the piece I chose to read because it’s the beginning of the book. It’s the very first chapter, or the very first episode, and I chose it in part because it’s the beginning and I like, whenever I buy a book, I always read the first page, the first paragraph. Sometimes I even read the last paragraph. I like writers who pay attention to beginnings and endings, usually. So I imagined that if I was a listener of the programme, I would like to hear how the book started. And I also chose it because I only started writing the book when I had this first episode, when it came to me.
It’s based on a true memory, on something that happened on the day of my — on the morning of my brother’s death. I had been, like six months had passed since my brother passed away. He was struck by lightning one morning, in February, in a beach. It was actually still dark, like, four or five in the morning, when the lightning struck, and he was sleeping in a – I don’t know, I don’t remember what you call them in English – the little towers where the lifeguards work? He had spent the night there because the next morning there were going to be huge waves and he’s a surfer. And the storm just caught him by surprise, apparently. So six months after, after he died — I had been writing for those months, but nothing artistic, let’s say, more like cathartical, you know, like just express expressing myself and some ideas and some feelings I had that I couldn’t understand and overwhelmed me. So one day, six months after the the event, I remembered that morning, and I remembered that particular scene with my mum. We were sitting at the back porch and she suddenly said, you know, why did your brother have to die when he was, you know, such a happy person? When there’s so many negative people around people complaining about life all the time.
And in real life? I didn’t reply. I didn’t say anything. But I did feel. ‘Oh, she’s right. Like it should have been me’. I’m the, you know, the black sheep or the negative one. You know, the pessimistic one in the family. And when I thought about it, when I thought what would have happened if I had told her that if I had said what I didn’t say. And then I realised I had a perfect scene, a perfect beginning for the book. And I think it gave me also the strategy for the rest of the book, which was I’m going to write a book, which is true, but not because I’m going to tell everything that happened, but because I’m going to tell everything that happened and everything that could have happened. Everything that should have happened, everything that that people didn’t say, that I didn’t say I’m going to say it in the book. So in a way, you know — and it was crazy because, writing that first scene, I realised in real life, that I had been carrying this guilt that I wouldn’t admit to myself for like these whole six months. And now that I wrote it, and now that my character, the character that represents me, was able to say what I hadn’t said it’s sort of started working as a sort of reflection, you know? And it’s like everything that I hadn’t confessed to myself until that time, just now I had no other choice but to sort of come to grips with.
I think it was cathartic, also, but I think that I — I mean, maybe it was even more cathartic. What I mean by ‘it was only cathartic’, I think there ‘only’ is the imperative word. Because it’s only really cathartic, in my experience at least, when you give an artistic shape to what you’re trying to express. Expression in itself, in and of itself, is not enough. It’s formless. It’s like a scream or like a, you know, like a vomit, or whatever, like, expressions people use to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I love writing I just like vomit everything onto the page.’ Well good, that’s fine. I mean, it, maybe it has some sort of utility, but it’s not going to have the same result or the same utility as if, as when you try to put it into a certain form. I think that’s what art is, right – giving a shape, giving a beautiful – not any sort of shape or form, like a beautiful one. I think that process of making what is chaotic and formless into orderly, which is art, is what is actually — is where the real catharsis resides, if there is going to be any.
Sometimes people have asked me whether whether I healed the wounds that my brother’s death inflicted upon me by writing this book. I can’t say that there’s a complete healing of any kind, but I can definitely say that it did help me put my emotions and my thoughts into an order that I wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t written it. In a way, writing that book was evidently a way of grieving for my brother, of going through the process, with some sort of help, you know, with a sort of, like going through the darkness with some kind of a light, you know, some kind of torch there that allowed me to see a little bit more clearly. I never expected though, to completely cure me, I can’t really expect that much from writing. I already had, at some point, I think before in my life, put so many expectations on on the writing itself. And just to find out that it was a little bit unfair.
The writing started from that scene, from that particular scene, and it just started developing quite naturally at the beginning, because I just had to sort of follow the events that took place in those three or four days after my brother’s death, which I could remember quite clearly. Some of them had stuck in my head, and many of them, as they were happening, I knew, and I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m going to have to write about this, like, I’m gonna have to, at some point in my life, depict this thing that is happening right now’. Because there were so many things that happened in those days, and they were so vivid, and some of them were so beautiful. I even had a conflict with that like, am I finding beauty in this terrible moment, like is this the writer’s mind? It sort of feels almost immoral, you know, to look at things with, with aesthetic eyes. Later, I forgave myself and took it as an inevitable way of doing things that that’s me, I’m a writer. And maybe that’s my way to get closer to things, while at the same time, maybe pulling back a little and getting some distance, you know what I mean? Because there is a sort of distance that is created when you start appreciating the beauty of what is going on, and everything starts to feel like a story or meaningful and full of resonance.
So in a way that was the easy part when constructing the book. But at one point, like almost halfway through the book, I found myself stuck. And I didn’t know why. It was probably the hardest book for me to write, probably because of the subject matter, and because of what the book’s about and what made it come to, what made it necessary to be written. Because there were so many people that I knew involved, because it was mainly autobiographical, much more autobiographical than the rest of my books. The rest of my books are fiction, with the exception of my first book, which could also be called a mixture of like, it has a great dose of nonfiction, autobiography. My first book I wrote when I was nineteen. And it’s a diary that I kept for a couple of weeks. And I was in the classic existential crisis when you’re entering the adult world and you don’t know where to go or what to do, and you’re feeling quite bleak. And then I started inventing stuff, I started inventing much more than in my diary than what was actually true and I realised it worked. So in a way, the process was similar to this. Only now like I was touching such a sensitive subject, and so many people were going to be affected by it, you know what I mean? So, I think those things got into my head, I didn’t know what, whether it was right, or whether it was wrong to show my parents grieving and my brothers grieving and to talk about my dead brother the way that I was talking about him, so I got stuck.
I went through like a couple of months, where I couldn’t even look at the file. Like, I didn’t even look at the text that I was writing, because I felt so depressed. And one night I dream. I have a dream with my brother. And in the dream, he says, he tells me ‘Remember, all the things you didn’t like about me?’ And he also said, ‘Remember how much fun we used to have together?’ So, so that sort of opened up this whole new, this whole new highway. And it allowed me, like, he authorised me to, to not make him into a hero. He authorised me to talk about how much, how competitive we were as brothers, about how there were actually things that, yes, I didn’t like about him. There were moments when I didn’t even want to talk to him or see him. And that wasn’t wrong. And that was true. And that was fine. And we also had fun together, he was also a very funny person. Like, if I was gonna write a book about him, I was gonna have to also make it funny. It wasn’t fair, it wouldn’t have been a true book if it was only sad. You know what I mean? Like, he allowed me to also make the book about myself. Like when he was telling me, remember, all the things you didn’t like about me, he was telling me do write about yourself too, this book should be about yourself, not only about me, like, how– can it actually be about me? You know what I mean? Like, you’re not me, like, how much do you think you really know me? Like, the only thing you’re going to be able to do is to express your point of view, your participation in all of this. So that’s when the machine started working again, and I started writing more confidently, allowing myself to enter the book and to actually compete with him for the main role. You know, because he had robbed me of what was my birthright, which was to die first, you know, as a big brother, like I should have been the one. So, now that I’m going to write a book about you, I’m going to compete with you. I’m going to try to rob you of of this main role that you have in my book. And I think I actually probably succeeded. And I think he’s fine with it.
I made some decisions, you know, when, when thinking about how much of the book could I make into fiction? How much should I be absolutely loyal or faithful to the real events, so to speak. It became evident quite early that my loyalty had to be with the work, with the book that was being written not with the actual facts, you know, of what happened. I realised soon that the facts were not as good from the literary point of view, or were not as true as the as they would become, when I sort of tweaked them, you know, like that first scene coming back again, to that first scene, that scene is more true than the facts. Or if they are more, it is more powerful than the actual facts, and it speaks of what really was happening. So in a way I came to the conclusion from the very beginning that I had to disregard, to absolutely disregard the truthfulness. I don’t know if the word is ‘truthfulness’, but, like, to be accurate and precise in remembering everything as it was. Because I realised that there was like this, that allowing myself to fictionalise many of the events, gave me a deeper look into what was actually happening. And it’s not only – it’s not only fictional, in the sense that I made some things up. It’s also like there’s like a fictional – what do you call it? Like a fictional element in the sense that many of the things that happened, or that are portrayed in the book, happened throughout a longer period of time, but I compressed them. So in a way that’s also making fiction, you could be telling many different episodes and scenes that are exactly 100% right and loyal to what happened, but when you compress them all; instead of in six months, you bunch them up all together in three days, well, that’s also a way of lying, it’s also a way of, of not being faithful to reality. So I disregarded the notion that it had to be real or accurate from the very beginning.
I surprised myself being a little superstitious, also, in some respects. Like, my children, I have two girls. But in the book, there are two boys. And that was kind of superstitious, in a way, because I felt like it was a dangerous territory, you know what I mean? Because in the because in the book the narrator that represents me, says that he is really afraid that his older son, his first son, his firstborn will die young because he is also like a very happy person, like the brother of the character, and I was having those feelings for my eldest daughter at that time. And I didn’t want to express them, like literally, because I felt like writing — and this is, when speaking to other writers, I found out that we are very superstitious in that way. You know, that at times, we think once you write something like it becomes real, like there’s a danger that it will actually seep into reality, somehow. So I kind of protected myself in that way, and maybe I tried to protect my parents and my brothers and my brother’s girlfriends, and my girlfriends also by giving them different names. The excuse was they’re not actually doing what they did in real life — like many of the things they are doing in the book they did, but many of them they didn’t. So do they even deserve to be called by their real names? Like isn’t – I felt like maybe that’s where I should have asked a lawyer. But I’m not into that sort of, like I finished the book and I didn’t show the book to my parents or my brothers or anybody before getting it published. You know, I didn’t feel like I needed their permission to publish it. Trusting that, in a way, if you’re, again, loyal to the craft, to the work that you’re creating, everything’s gonna turn out right, like nobody’s gonna be able to complain. You know what I mean? Like there’s no, there’s no other intention when writing that book, than that of creating something beautiful. Maybe it’s a little bit superstitious, too, but well, writing is superstitious.
Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri magazine and Queen Mary University of London, with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music and sound design is by Josh Winiberg. Our logo is by Alaa Alsaraji. Tom Wilson does our editing. Interviews and the introduction are by me, Malachi McIntosh, and Afsana Nishat does everything else. See you next month.