Fiction – print. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. Peirene Press, 2017. Originally published 2013. 160 pgs. Purchased.
Twin brothers, Ahmed and Aziz, live near an orange grove established by their grandfather. The orange grove provides Ahmed and Aziz with a shaded, safe place to play-act, as young children are ought to do.
When a bomb falls on the grandparents’ house, the people living on the other side of the mountain – people that Ahmed and Aziz have been told are dogs hellbent on their destruction – feel like a closer, more sinister threat. The orange grove no longer feels as safe as it once did.
When news of their grandparents’ death reaches the local militant group, the family is told that either Ahmed or Aziz must wear a belt of explosives and avenge their grandparents’ death. As the boys and their parents debate which son should carry out this “great honor”, Ahmed and Aziz’s play-acting among the orange trees starts to focus on carrying out a suicide bombing.
Eleven years later, the surviving twin must confront his past – must face the fact that war is nothing like play — when his director, Michael, assigns him the role of a child affected by war.
Tremblay is a Quebecois author. I point this out because there are elements of this novella that play into stereotypes about Islam – jihad in the form of suicide vests, the family and their community seeing murder-suicide as a form of martyrdom for their cause, etc. – and I know some readers will be frustrated with this typecasting.
Certainly, for me, the lack of originality failed to foster an emotional attachment on my part to Ahmed, Aziz, or their mother. This meant that the conclusion of the story wasn’t as impactful as the publisher’s forward promised it would be.
And, yet, I enjoyed the stark, matter-of-fact tone Tremblay struck as the story progressed. The lack of emotion in his descriptions match the detached yet fanciful view of war that the boys and their father must strike in order to move forward with the act of terrorism. The novella also does a superb job of showing how “other-izing” creeps into daily consciousness, especially for children as they play-act and then act in their world.
One other intriguing aspect of the story is Tremblay’s refusal to name the location of his story. The novel is divided into four parts, and the latter two are clearly set in a snowy, North American city (likely, Montreal). But the setting of the first two sections is left a mystery.
At first, the epithets used to describe the “other” plus the mention of walls suggest Israel and Palestine, but the orange grove is set against the base of a mountain. So, perhaps Pakistan and India or Sudan or Lebanon or Syria? The lack of identifiable location certainly helps the novella’s message seem more universal, which I assume was Tremblay’s point.
This is my second book for #20BooksofSummer. I purchased the book in October 2018 as a treat for myself after landing a new job and making the required cross-country move.