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Dog’s Odyssey: A Review of David Clerson’s Brothers

By Des Barry.


David Clerson, Brothers, translated by Katia Grubisic (QC Fiction, 2016)

Is their father a dog, or a dog of a father? Are the brothers boys or flesh-sculpted changelings that drift between feral states of being? Are they metaphor or inexplicably metaphysical? The elder brother is one-armed, the younger one’s arms stumpy due to his bloody genesis, sculpted from his brother’s amputated limb by the hands of their knife-wielding deaf and half-blind mother. She has mutilated one of them in order to carve the other into being. The logic of David Clerson’s Brothers, translated into English from Quebecois French by Katia Grubisic, is that of nightmare: vivid, visceral, and rich in disturbing images arousing childhood anxieties and obsessions.

Brothers begins in a salt marsh. The two boys wade through muck and brine and are battered by “beating wings and squawks, dozens of birds flapping around them”, the tides having thrown up the carcase of a giant sea dweller that, with “a tear of blood in its eye”, is being devoured by insects, scavengers and vermin.

It was the eye of a monster come from worlds unknown to the two brothers, some abyss swarming with creatures in a universe that was not theirs. Around its soft body, long whitish tentacles floated on the marsh, rotting. Suckers opened and closed like eyes or a row of toothless mouths… “It’s a sign,” the younger brother said. “This isn’t for nothing. Our father, that dog of a father, also came from the sea.”

Brothers evokes those moments in childhood where, in rubbish strewn vacant lots beyond your familiar haunts, you turn a corner to encounter a pack of hostile kids. In the novel, it’s “the leech-boys” – a gang that scours the marshes gathering leeches to sell to urban quacks – who taunt the brothers for their physical deformities: taunts that engender in the eldest brother “a hatred that wracked his entire body from his head to his feet, his brain, his guts”.

But it’s the shadow of that “dog of a father” who came from the sea, and has likewise returned to it, that lies heaviest over the two boys. They interpret the “sign” of the beached sea monster as a baleful and seductive invitation to search for their lost father. To aid them in their adventures they take with them what “the sea had offered up, not only the monster but all kinds of marvels”, particularly a giant puppet and a dead dog. The head and arm of the one and the pelt of the other, seem to possess malevolent life with a capacity to shape and transform the lives of the two boys.

David Clerson

David Clerson © David Cherniak

In its most tender moments, the prose is as enchanting as reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are:

As they neared their boat, the older brother noticed a figurehead at the front of the craft: the head of Puppet… The older brother saw the beauty of the thing and his eyes filled with tears… They pulled the boat out of the marsh and climbed aboard with their three chickens, their stores of food, their too long oar, and a few blankets. A light wind blew on the coast. They hoisted the sail and set out to sea.

But the innocence of that correspondence quickly evaporates in the book’s dark transformations, especially those that occur in the consciousness of the elder brother. Sendak’s child has entered into a disturbed adolescence. When the boys leave behind their deaf, half-blind and violent mother and set off in search of their father, they are subjected to innumerable privations at the whim of the wind and the sea, humans and animals, often through their own ignorance or naivety.

The currents cast up their boat at a coastland village that has slant resonances with the Island of Circe, where “pig-children” imprison the elder brother and subject him to inordinate cruelty. Upon his escape, the vengeance of the older brother on his tormenters is bloody and violent. Nobody is innocent in this book. Continuing the odyssey, the makeshift boat is driven by current and wind to a less fraught world: an idyll reminiscent of the Land of the Lotus Eaters. But the journey doesn’t stop there. Best to find out for yourself the boat’s final landing place.

This book is a journey through and beyond the edgelands between consciousness and oneiric imagery. On first reading, I found myself completely immersed in the story and that was enough, carried along by the book’s unique internal logic and imagistic magic that evoked such a spectrum of reactions. The second reading led me to consider the literary relationships the book awoke in memory: the first was to Keith Douglas’s poem The Marvel, where another sea creature’s eye becomes the lens through which multiple facets of the mysterious world are revealed:

A baron of the sea, the great tropic
swordfish, spreadeagled on the thirsty deck 
where sailors killed him, in the bright Pacific

yielded to the sharp enquiring blade 
the eye which guided him and found his prey 
in the dim country where he was a lord.

This is not a book to be read quickly. The openness of the storytelling leaves room – like a lucid dream – for all kinds of nuanced interpretations, without losing its innate mysteriousness. It is so dense and resonant with emotional and primordial imagery you can only absorb it and process it. It ripples through consciousness, awakening each anxious correspondence in the dark waters of the unconscious, leaving the reader no choice but to succumb to the fantastic and uncanny experience of this nightmare dimension.

The prose can be as ominous and as vivid as Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. It is testament to Katia Grubisic’s translation that such an analogy is not hyperbolic.

He fell asleep to the repulsive image of his dog of a father lying on top of his mother, and his father, that stray dog came to him again in his sleep, the wide head slipping through the doghouse door… His breath turned the air sour, his gums were wet and slimy, and his snout sniffed at the brother, recognising him as his own.

Whatever comparisons may be made to exceptional works of world literature, this is David Clerson’s universe. His elicitation of the nightmarish world of the Brothers is beautifully singular, and singularly mythical, and one is loath to leave it. This is an extraordinary first novel by an enormously talented writer, and a first translation by an enormously talented poet-translator.

Brothers by David Clerson is a carefully wrought work of dark beauty.


Des Barry

Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta, 3:AM Magazine and in anthologies including Sea Stories and London Noir. He’s putting the final touches on a Faustian novel set in New York City. His alter-ego David Enrique Spellman wrote Far South, published by Serpent’s Tail. He tweets from @farsouthproject.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 25th, 2017.