Rein Raud - This Estonian novel draws on the trope of American Westerns in which a mysterious hero shows up on the scene, sets things right, and then disappears. The wry, arch tone Raud adopts throughout the book perfectly reflects the sense of a world in which freedom to act adds up to both everything and nothing
Rein Raud, The Brother, Trans. by Adam Cullen, Open letter, 2016.
The Brother opens with a mysterious stranger arriving in a small town controlled by a group of men—men who recently cheated the stranger’s supposed sister out of her inheritance and mother’s estate. Resigned to giving up on her dreams and ambitions, Laila took this swindling in stride, something that Brother won’t stand for. Soon after his arrival, fortunes change dramatically, enraging this group of powerful men, motivating them to get their revenge on Brother. Meanwhile, a rat-faced paralegal makes it his mission to discover Brother’s true identity . . .
The first novel of Rein Raud’s to appear in English, The Brother is, in Raud’s own words, a spaghetti western told in poetic prose, simultaneously paying tribute to both Clint Eastwood and Alessandro Baricco. With its well-drawn characters and quick moving plot, it takes on more mythic aspects, lightly touching on philosophical ideas of identity and the ruthless way the world is divided into winners and losers. (Read an Excerpt)
“The Brother is like a piece of music played in a sunny room. And only later you realize that the descriptions, as if out of this world, the turns of the story, and its single phrases have been deeply engraved in your mind.” —Marius Burokas
The Brother may be the briefest of novellas, but it is a philosophical gem. The first novel by the Estonian author Rein Raud to be translated into English, within its short length it manages to explore in great depth big ideas about human agency and determinism.
Tipping its broad-brimmed hat at spaghetti westerns, it is essentially a revenge drama. In a small, un-named town, a group of professionals conspire to swindle a young woman out of her inheritance. Unbidden, a mysterious man arrives, claiming to be the woman’s brother.
However, it appears “Brother” is set not so much on righting the wrongs done to his sister, but on evoking karmic punishments. So, unlike a gun-toting Clint Eastwood, Raud’s Brother doesn’t shoot down his targets, rather his mere presence in the town appears to upset the status quo, laying low the various villains.
The overall sense, therefore, is that no one really has power over their own, or over other people’s lives. No one apart from Brother himself. In the opening scene he asks a taxi driver if he’s free. When the driver answers “yes”, Brother says “Then that makes two of us”.
But even Brother’s agency seems nebulous. He appears to do almost nothing, apart from a bit of gardening. And then he leaves. Yet the town and its inhabitants are changed.
The wry, arch tone Raud adopts throughout the book perfectly reflects the sense of a world in which freedom to act adds up to both everything and nothing. For example, those who seem to wield power are unnamed; they are simply known by their professions – notary, lawyer, banker – and are defeated by the end of the book. The powerless, however, do possess names and they are dealt winning hands.
The metaphor of the card game is important in The Brother. Hoping to discover more about Brother, the conspirators invite him to play with two renowned cardsharps. Inevitably, Brother wins, but without appearing to try or to care. He “lacks any kind of resolve to win” yet neither does he “decline a single opportunity that presents itself to him”.
The Brother itself feels very much like a card game, the rules of which are unknown, and in which we as readers are also the players. By the end I somehow felt that I’ve both seen and missed every one of Raud’s masterful feints. Yet still we are winners, but winners of what we’re never quite sure. Perhaps we’ve simply won an exquisite literary puzzle. - West Camel
Karma, comeuppance, what comes around goes around. There are many terms and phrases for the universal of idea of cause and affect. The Brother is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. The author himself has described the book as “a spaghetti western told in poetic prose, simultaneously paying tribute to both Clint Eastwood and Alessandro Baricco.” The plot of this book is a clever structure for the philosophical and existential ideas that the author explores. When a mysterious man, simply known as Brother, arrives in the unnamed town it is a dark and stormy day and the weather reflects the turmoil that three shady and crooked men have caused for the townspeople.
Brother finds Laila, his long-lost sister and explains why they have never met. Brother simply states that his sudden appearance is caused by his desire to fulfill the dying wish of their father by helping Laila out of a tough time. How Brother became privy to this information no one knows but the men who have swindled Laila out of her home and her inheritance are very nervous at Brother’s mysterious presence. Brother’s imposing figure, with his large boots and long, black overcoat certainly cause these three men a fair amount of consternation, but it is also evident that their own guilty consciences are driving their actions.
Laila appears, at first, to be a sad and lonely woman whose entire life has revolved around an ancient family villa where she lived with her mother. She describes her childhood as one in which she spend trying to be invisible. At school she realized very quickly that she was much smarter than the other students but feigned stupidity so that she would not stand out among the others. She felt that being an honors student and winning awards would draw negative attention to her in the form of jealousy so she maintained average grades and a low profile. Laila seems to have been the perfect victim of the notary, the banker and the lawyer.
But Laila doesn’t act the part of a downtrodden victim; she enjoys her new life working in an antique shop and losing the villa allows her to break free and escape from her past. As Laila’s life gets better and becomes happier with a newfound brother, a new job and eventually a new place to live, the three crooks in town experience a significant decline in their own fortunes. These three men all blame Brother for their streak of bad luck even though Brother has in no way tried to exact any vengeance for the crimes against Laila. Brother becomes the symbol for the forces in the universe that divvy out proper fate and just punishments.
But just like in life, people are not always so easily placed in a good guy or bad guy category and there is some gray area. Willem, the banker’s assistant, is tasked with finding out who Brother is and if, in fact, he is Laila’s biological brother. All of the evil characters in the story are known simply by their profession, such as the notary, the banker and the lawyer. The good people or the victims, like Laila, are given real names. It appears that Willem, as the banker’s henchman would fit into the evil category. But in the end he does have more of a conscience than the other villains and finds some redemption. In westerns the bad guys wear black hats and the good guys wear white hats and I think Raud’s use of names or occupations in place of names is a subtle way of using the same type of imagery to point us to the heroes and the villains.
And the title “Brother” is neither a true name or an occupation but, to me, it seemed more of a term of endearment. Raud doesn’t even use an article and write “The Brother” but simply calls his hero “Brother.” My twin nephews who are eight years-old oftentimes call each other or refer to each other as “Brother”; I have always found it so sweet because they especially use it when they are helping each other or are being protective of one another. Similarly, Raud’s uses “Brother” as a title to set the same tone of kind helper and hero for Laila’s long-lost sibling.
This appears to be the first book of Raud’s translated into English and I was so thoroughly impressed with his language, imagery and characters. I hope more of his works will be translated into English and published in the U.S. - The Book Binder's Daughter
This Estonian novel draws on the trope of American Westerns—Clint Eastwood or Alan Ladd would have been extremely comfortable in the title role—in which a mysterious hero shows up on the scene, sets things right, and then disappears.
The original focus is on Laila, a young woman who’s inherited some property but who lets herself be walked over by almost everyone she encounters. (The narrator comments that “she attracted injustice like bees to heather.”) Most of these characters are presented allegorically (e.g., the banker, the notary, the lawyer), and perhaps to their credit they feel both embarrassed and a little guilty about the way they treat Laila. Enter The Brother—Laila’s brother, that is, though there’s some uncertainty about his parentage. Laila had never met him and never even suspected she had a brother, but she’s happy to see him, especially when he starts to bend Laila’s fate in a more favorable direction. He becomes a gardener at the Villa, a place Laila inherited that had been taken over by Mikk and Milla, a couple who seem to have bought the house from her under shady circumstances. But Laila’s luck begins to change for the better, beginning when she finds 50 gold coins hidden in a chiffonier, allowing her to buy the antiquarian shop where she works. And even more satisfying, the luck of the other characters begins to change for the worse, so that the notary, for example, makes a mistake in trying to convey some property and the lawyer’s marriage collapses and heads for divorce. At the end, The Brother has done the tasks he set out to do, so in mythic fashion he strolls out of the scene wearing his wide-brimmed hat and knee-high boots.
A slim but satisfying novel with archetypal resonances. - Kirkus Reviews
The plot of The Brother is fairly simple: a young woman, Laila, was basically screwed out of her inheritance (and house) by the dubious dealings of a lawyer, a notary, and a banker, and now a mysterious stranger has come to town to set things right. The stranger is Laila's (half-)brother. As he explains to her:
"Inevitably, at some point, in every person's life coms the moment when he has to count up the promises he definitely intends to keep before he goes," Brother said. "For me, you've always been one of those."
The trio who done her wrong realize that 'the Brother' poses a threat, and try a variety of ways of ridding themselves of this problem (escalating all the way to hiring a hit man). Inviting him to play cards they engage the services of a card sharp who is supposed to take all his money off him; the one they hire doesn't succeed -- but it's one who refuses the commission who provides greater insight into the mystery man: "Never before have I seen someone who so perfectly lacks any resolve to win", he realizes from observing him for a while; he understands that he might have beaten him at cards, but that the Brother was the one kind of opponent that could just as easily destroy him.
Meanwhile, as they struggle to rid themselves of the mystery man, each of the three suddenly finds themselves in a spot of professional bother, a spiral that, as it spirals out of their control, threatens to destroy them. So too the new owner of the Villa, Laila's old house, where the Brother takes on the job of gardener (setting the grounds right, like they are supposed to be ...); not complicit in the actual fraud, the new owners get off a bit more lightly than the ones actually responsible.
An added twist comes with the lawyer's assistant, "the rat-faced young man named Willem", taking it upon himself to figure out the identity of the mysterious stranger, adding an additional layer of tension to the story as he comes ever closer to putting together the puzzle of the Brother.
The Brother doesn't exactly ride into town on a white horse, and he isn't simply all swagger, but the resemblance to the Sergio Leone-spaghetti Westerns (especially the ones with Clint Eastwood) that author Raud admits inspired him is striking. The story is almost all atmosphere and style (showing also Raud's other big inspiration, the writing of Mr. Gwyn (etc.)-author Alessandro Baricco), and one can almost hear the (Western movie score) background music.
The relatively short chapters -- each at most a few pages -- are rich but stark, the essentials -- of mood and incident -- sketched but not belabored. Much is masterfully understated, but the full ramifications easily expand off the page for the reader. The book is short, and quite event-filled, but there's an agreeable languor to it all too; nothing is rushed.
There's a woman the Brother seduces -- but he doesn't need to do anything overtly. His is a force greater than nature -- as also suggested by the (almost ridiculous) ease with which fate conspires against the conspirators, as if the Brother merely needed to will their downfall, without lifting a finger.
The woman admits to him:
"I came to you like a lamb to slaughter. Or no, like a moth drawn to the flame. Not unwillingly, but with a will that's completely conquered. Me, who always does only what I please, whenever I can. Why do you look like you've already heard all of this before "
Why ? Because he has heard it often before. Because he lives with this power, this aura.
Sure, it's not strictly realistic. On the face of it, it's almost absurd. But Raud is artist enough that he draws readers into the same kind of trance that Western-movie-goers can feel, belief suspended for ninety minutes in front of the silver screen, as the stranger rides into town, deals with the bad guys -- and the rides off into the sunset.
The Brother is a crafty, atmospheric little story, a B-movie, but of the best sort -- completely enjoyable, and very well done. - M.A.Orthofer
Rein Raud: Official site