A story about rivalry between families that blasts through the decades, a tale of revenge and murder that will not let up, a case of hatred that runs so deep it’s hard to say when it really began. Such a story could be an epic, with its ambitious time frame and explosive subject matter. But, at least at first glance, Brickmakers, the second novel from Argentine writer Selva Almada, does not look like one. The book is relatively short, at 197 pages. And each chapter is usually quite brief. Originally published in Spanish, Annie McDermott’s translation lends a robust brutality to the story, a tone that at times transfixes and, occasionally, transcends the story’s emotional limitations.

These limitations might well be inevitable, given the characters who populate Brickmakers. Hardened by the realities of life in a working-class town where money is not easy to come by, people must labour with their hands, and status is determined by the little things. In a description that highlights this fine line, one of the main characters, the dying Pájaro ‘Pajarito’ Tamai, remembers his ten-year old self, about to have his photograph taken. His mother has made sure he’s in his best clothes: a new flannel shirt, and the “blue pants from his communion that are now too tight . . . the hem hovering above his ankles even though his mom’s let it out all the way.” This mismatch is the consequence of there being “enough money for a new shirt, but not for pants.” Later on, his mother recalls how she’d earned her father’s scorn for going with Pajarito’s father, “some lousy, dirt-poor cotton-picker, a half Indio with no family to speak of, and who was cocky as hell to top it off” – it’s a cockiness that will ultimately contribute to the family’s downfall.  

The novel begins with the ending – the Tamais have been brought down, along with their great rivals, the Mirandas. The single event that signifies their downfall acts as the story’s catalyst. Pájaro and Marciano Miranda, who is of a similarly young age, have got into a fight at a deserted amusement park, for reasons the reader does not yet know. The outcome of this fight is that they have both stabbed each other: Pájaro watches his stomach deflate like a balloon (“fffshshshhhh”) as Marciano pulls out the knife, able to take comfort in the fact that he’d also “managed to stab him a couple of times.” The two boys had been with friends, but now Pájaro wonders: “Cardozo, Nango, and Josecito? Where’ve they all gone?” And more importantly, “Why didn’t the police come, or the ambulance?” Because Pájaro and Marciano are dying. “Pajarito coughs and that soft warm sweet whatever leaves his mouth.”

The story of the Tamai-Miranda rivalry is then relayed, told through the lens of this single tragic event. There is a Shakespearean air to the dramatic set piece at the heart of Brickmakers. As Marciano lays stabbed on the ground, his father, Miranda, appears to him. Soon, Miranda is on his knees, “supporting his son in his lap, Marciano’s head resting on one of his father’s legs . . . Around his neck, his father has the same silk scarf he was buried in.” That Marciano is a Hamletesque figure becomes apparent at the start of the book: “His father had been killed and he, the eldest of the children, would have to avenge him.” 

This desire for vengeance feeds into one of the story’s chief preoccupations. On every page, this book addresses, directly or otherwise, a particular form of primitive, performative masculinity. Marciano suspects that Pájaro has encouraged Marciano’s brother’s homosexual tendencies. His solution is to “force the kid to eat pussy all day long . . . till he got over his obsession with sucking dick.” Marciano’s father “was always getting drunk and disorderly in the bars,” and Tamai “was always picking fights with someone or other.” The overtly masculine energy is so fierce that even the women sometimes sound like extensions of Miranda and Tamai, embracing a forthright tone that, in another context, might sound liberating, but in this one seems tainted with the same crassness that grips the men: “[Tamai] had made [Celina] an addict and she couldn’t sleep at night if he didn’t satisfy her. Even when he came home drunk, she made sure he got hard enough for her to ride.” Nevertheless, on the rare occasions when divergent voices break through, they come from the women: At age four, Miranda would take Marciano to “bars, card tables, and the dog track, despite his mother’s protests.” When Tamai tells Miranda’s wife that he doesn’t want his children hanging out in her house, she says, “They’re kids . . . They’ve got nothing to do with whatever problems you have with my husband.” Tamai doesn’t change his position. Later, after Miranda’s death, Tamai’s wife questions whether her husband might be “capable of killing someone.”

But to what extent is this primitive masculinity rooted in the hearts of its practitioners, or the socio-economic conditions of their town? Tamai is infamous for his brutish ways, but his “insolence” is what sets him apart from “the other migrant workers, men worn down by poverty and hard manual labor, mostly indigenous, silent, and ashamed.” Is Tamai a villain, or a victim of circumstance – “a rough hand,” yes, but one “ravaged by work?” Although his actions appear petty and even self-destructive, are they not also motivated by self-preservation? The novel raises the question, but doesn’t necessarily give an answer. Some readers might be left uninspired by the relentless harshness of Almada’s world, the prose that often seems to claw at subject matter without fully catching it. But this relentlessness also gives the novel its powerful sense of place. How can the characters convincingly break through their destructive tendencies when the very fabric of their lives imparts the germs of discontent, want and alienation?

This tension – between nature and nurture – provides the narrative with an ambiguity that grows slowly but steadily as the rivalry is mapped out. Later, it is revealed that “There was a time when Pajarito Tamai and Marciano Miranda were friends.” This was before Marciano’s father introduced him to new faces, and binaries were erected, a clear distinction between “us” and “them” scarring the blank slate. Perhaps this is the answer to the question, then, that nurture is the culprit. But nature isn’t necessarily let off the hook, as the forces that underpin this mode of nurturing might themselves be rooted in nature. The reader is therefore kept in an ambiguous state until this increasingly fragile masculinity – born out of nature, or nurture, or both – is disrupted yet again, by the revelation of homosexuality. Without giving too much away, it is this disruption that causes the dam to burst.

On the surface, Brickmakers is about a rivalry between two families that ends in tragedy. But it’s also about performance. The rivalry is neither grand nor, in itself, compelling, but it isn’t supposed to be. The Tamais and the Mirandas are not the Capulets and the Montagues. Marciano is no Hamlet. This is because Brickmakers isn’t, fundamentally, about people. It’s about the landscapes they inhabit – gendered, classist, sexual. Yes, this novel is a tragedy, but not in the Shakespearean sense, because that would require the characters to have agency. And these characters, although possessing free will, are ultimately no match for the structures that bind them to their prejudices. If there is a ray of hope, it comes from those small moments when the women question the rightness of their sons’ “initiations” into the world of their fathers, or when the sons themselves dare to depart from the path that was laid out for them before they were even born. These blips may come to nothing, crashed like a cigarette underfoot. But they show something more important: that an alternative exists, waiting for the brickmakers to build it.

by Selva Almada
Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott
Graywolf Press, 192 pages

Robert Montero

Robert Montero is a London-based writer whose work has appeared in South Bank Poetry and London Grip, among others. A novel he wrote was long-listed for the Exeter Novel Prize.

Robert Montero is a London-based writer whose work has appeared in South Bank Poetry and London Grip, among others. A novel he wrote was long-listed for the Exeter Novel Prize.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *