Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman
(Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2016)
A mother gives her child life. She cradles him, loves him, feeds him and nurtures him. The death of that child is a mother’s worst fear. She will do anything, deceive anyone, including her husband, to keep him alive. As a mother, I know this to be true.
But as an American, I know not what it is like to live in a village plagued by war. I do not know what is like to raise a child in the shadow of death.
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay is set in one family’s orange grove located in an undisclosed country. Not knowing the specific area makes the novel more powerful in that we are not weighted down by history, culture or the bias of our own media. Tremblay offers us a window into another society, allowing us to glimpse a world that many of us will never know. And a result, he prompts us to pause, and perhaps reevaluate our understanding of things that we only think we comprehend.
The novel begins simply, yet poetically: “If Amed cried, Aziz cried too.” The boys are identical twins, inseparable since birth. Always together, their grandmother called them “her two drops of water in the desert….Someday, there won’t be any more drops, there will be water.” Following in the wake of this comment, the narrator observes, “She could have said: ‘One day there will be blood. That’s all.’” These haunting words prepare the reader for what’s to come.
We are first introduced to the war when a bomb strikes the orange grove. The bomb came from the other side of the mountain, a mountain located in the west, the direction in which the sun sets. This metaphor for death is not incidental. Trapped in a war mentality, the offense that killed two people must be avenged. Zahed, the twins’ father explains, “Entire villages are destroyed every week. Our dead grow in number. The war gets worse, Amed. We have no choice.” Unable to see beyond retaliation, it is impossible to break the cycle, to weed through the devastating debris and uncover a more peaceful way. Violence can only be countered by more violence, each side out-doing the other, creating a multitude of atrocities. In this, Tremblay offers a keen commentary on society today. The orange grove becomes a microcosm of what we read about in the news.
It is the living who must somehow come to terms with the carnage of conflict, a task complicated by the intricate layers of a deliberately constructed “truth”. Truth in this novel is shady and suspect, devised of lies carefully woven to convince others of the necessity to seek revenge. Zahed’s parents were killed; therefore, according to Soulayed, a militant soldier, one of Zehed’s son’s must accept a suicide mission to allegedly even the score. Souylayed presents Zahed with an explosive belt, a belt that “was so heavy he needed both hands to lift it.” Zahed struggles not only under its physical weight, but also under the pressure of its psychological strain. It is up to him to decide which son will be sacrificed to this “glorious” cause.
To stress the importance of this mission, Soulayed takes the twins on a short excursion to the mountain in the west. There he illustrates for the boys a scenario intended to convince them that evil resides in the hearts of their enemies. He then cunningly presents the mission he has devised, one he presents as a fulfillment of God’s wishes. The boys embrace this narrative and soon incorporate it in their childish play. In this scene, Tremblay eloquently depicts how the seeds of hatred poison the innocence of childhood. Writing about the twins’ new game, he says, “The trees became enemies, endless rows of warriors poised to launch their explosive fruits at the slightest suspicious noise.” In the culture of war, even life sustaining fruit becomes the enemy; men debase their neighbors, making it impossible for them to work together to bring about a more favorable future – one that supports life instead of inflicting death.
Only Tamara, the twins’ mother, spurns Soulayed. She alone questions the purpose of her son’s appointed mission: “What’s the use of bringing children into the world if it’s just to sacrifice them like poor animals being sent to the slaughterhouse!” Through Tamara’s voice and actions, Tremblay reveals the bias of a mother’s heart. The propaganda of war may be strong, but love – especially the love a mother feels for her child – is inarguably stronger. While Zahed bows to religion and cultural pressure to determine which child will be sacrificed, Tamara calls upon devotion to her boys to manipulate her husband’s will.
Sadly, the twin that survives can find no peace, no relief at having been spared. Eleven years later, while a student in Montreal, he must confront his past. Guilt, anger, and a feeling of betrayal weigh heavily upon him. He can not move forward in life until he confronts the truth that had been denied to him in his youth.
Through an artistic lens, Tremblay demonstrates the awful impact of war: the damage it creates, the families it destroys, and the impossibility of always distinguishing between victims and villains. The Orange Grove is a haunting novel, a reminder that despite what we read and what we hear, there is always another side, another voice that beckons to be heard. Often, one needs to sift through pain and regret in order to discover the truth. Only then might we find the courage to forgive and the strength to move forward.
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Elizabeth Jaeger is currently finishing up an MFA degree in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is an assistant editor at The Literary Review and her work has been published in The Drowning Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. An essay of hers has been featured on the podcast No, YOU Tell It!