“Like a breath of sadness” is how Edvard Munch felt at the time he painted The Scream. “I stood there shivering from dread – and I felt this big, infinite scream through nature,” he wrote in his diary for 1890­–92. A reader of Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove will inevitably feel the same – will even be made to cry, according to Meike Ziervogel, the publisher of Peirene Press.

The Orange Grove is a thing of rare, awful beauty; a story that encapsulates in microscopic form some of the most viscerally brutal chapters of human history, that keep repeating themselves relentlessly, blindly, interminably, while purporting to have the most tangential attachment to a single historical reality and allowing only for a minimal point of focus. We do not know (we can but guess) where the story takes place, there are only a handful of names all told that one needs to retain throughout the narrative in order to establish connections, relationships, rifts and catastrophic divisions. Underlying every moment, from the most cruel to the unspeakably gentle, is poetry, a yearning for brotherhood, understanding and clarity. Also an almost physical repulsion towards hatred, the force that confers supreme power and ultimate nothingness.

An old man living with his wife, his son and his son’s family on the borders of his nation’s land, on its very outskirts, which are deemed arid, desolate, a lifeless, useless desert, plants a dream. A dream of oranges and symbols. He plants an orange grove that thrives over the years into an earthly paradise. He has given birth to “beauty that is exactly in the middle”. A bomb coming from “beyond the mountain” will raze the old man’s house to the ground, kill him in his bed, while his wife dies in the kitchen. A price of revenge will be exacted from the now fatherless son, himself father to twin boys. In the name of honour, in the name of Allah, as he is told by an armed man who comes out of the desert in a jeep, wearing dusty clothes, he must sacrifice one of his sons. One of his boys must become a heroic suicide bomber, and bring death and devastation to a never seen place across the mountain, demonised as the source of the bomb that brought hell to the heavenly orange grove. Having lost what was created with so much love, Zahed, the father, is to learn to hate, place zero value on life, except the sanctified value of a dubious martyrdom and redeemed afterlife. From a beginning full of elegiac poetry, of images surfeit with an almost hallowed nostalgia, we are thrust at breakneck speed into the heart of the darkest drama.

The orange grove itself is pregnant with echoes, cultural signifiers and national symbols… a long lost memory, almost an ancient pact of peace and co-existence with the unnamed Other.”

The twin boys, Ahmed and Aziz, are like “two drops of water in the desert” – an ineffectual force of humanity, perhaps, but also precious emblems of yearned-for hope, life that might quench the thirst for devastation. The orange grove itself is pregnant with echoes, cultural signifiers and national symbols: the particular, almost seedless oranges grown in this family orchard are Jaffa oranges, which had been first developed and cultivated in the nineteenth century by Palestinian farmers, becoming later the emblem of a different nation. In Mandatory Palestine, they stood for the prospect of prosperity, and for the possibility of cooperation between Arabs and Jews. The old man’s orange grove was in fact a long lost memory, almost an ancient pact of peace and co-existence with the unnamed Other we can almost too palpably speculate about.

Tremblay has said that to name the place, or the people involved in this terrible game of death and life, would have made his novel partisan, Manichaean, a war novel. He has sought to reduce, as he says, “the angle of vision, so that we can only see two small children and their parents… once upon a time.” His aim is to provoke reflection through this impossible convergence of the deepest compassion and the most extreme scepticism – to create a fable of introspection, enquiry and ultimately cathartic wisdom. We are not allowed to look any other way. We are forced to understand, experience directly and unmitigatedly, to empathise against the grain.

This is a novel written with an active sense of the critical value of conscience and of the necessity for bare immediacy, for stark physical and verbal expressiveness that can convey the most unspeakable, numbing horror. There is an animistic undertone to the phrases, as though narrator and characters alike can only retreat into a world of voices and shadows in order to survive. At the same time, there is sharp criticism of insular attempts to make sense of history, horror, pain and devastation from a purely clinical distance or through the dispossession of experience. We cannot understand through detachment, and we will not understand if we focus on the rarefied re-enactment of physical reality – brutality – alone, Tremblay seems to say.

It is a very unsettling, powerful account of the methods of proselytisation, of how through subtle or dynamic psychology the emotionally vulnerable can be manipulated to any desired aim.”

With harrowing equanimity, we follow step by step the process of how hatred is taught and transmitted, how grief and beauty are manipulated to indoctrinate and radicalise those who are true victims, trapped in a net of lies that pose as historical facts – alternative facts, if ever there were some. We hear the militia man, who swoops on Zahed and his family like an almighty vulture, lay claims to a world of higher vision: “Don’t think that because I come to you with a machine gun I don’t have the eyes and ears of a poet.” His poetry is sinisterly powerful, a malevolent incantation of triumph and outrage. He will convince Zahed that revenge is the answer to the bomb that killed his parents and destroyed his home, blasting away the orange grove and its symbolism with the words: “these nameless birds [singing in the] orange grove cannot lessen your grief” – beauty in the hands of the militia man is not allowed to beget more beauty or some sense of reparation.

It is a very unsettling, powerful account of the methods of proselytisation, of how through subtle or dynamic psychology the emotionally vulnerable can be manipulated to any desired aim. Those wielding such powers promise strength, lament shame and injustice, erect a phantasmagorical edifice of glory, sacrifice, a transcendental hierarchy of violence and destruction. It is a very forcefully personal approach, which depersonalises the individual, making him a link in a constantly lengthening chain binding him to a hate-driven cause. Landscapes full of wolves and woods, that now only have rocks and snakes, orange groves and cedar trees, even God and His will, are invoked to boost the sense of desperately perverse solidarity –“so that things could come to pass as they must.”

Tremblay does not ignore cultural constants, stereotypes, blind spots and glaring lacunae. Male and female roles are ruthlessly juxtaposed, the power of the father over his household is as supreme as it is inexorable. In many ways, The Orange Grove is a fable in the tradition of Plato’s cave, where the vision of truth is only available to few, who in an ideal world would bring it back to those for whom it is inaccessible. Here the truth can only be glimpsed at in letters between Zahed’s wife and her disowned sister, who has married one of the men from the other side of the mountain and sought a life in Canada. This alternative reality is jarring as it is soothing, a respite of possible escape and salvation.

We are paralysed throughout, expecting the tragedy and crime, incredulous that it will happen, that it does happen every day beyond these pages. That it does so with such inevitability and apparent simplicity and ordinariness.”

The constant displacement between here and there, us and them, good and evil, the normal and the anomalous, the heroic and the appalling, results in a particularly bracing narrative experience. As readers, we are inevitably, atrociously, irresistibly implicated in the impossible ethics of this layer of history, in the moral choice facing Zahed (as well as Ahmed and Aziz) and in the deadly duplicity that undercuts easy categorisations. The twin brothers are also perhaps emblematic of what are essentially twin nations, similar and totally different, twin perspectives that must either converge or be mutually annihilated. We are paralysed throughout, expecting the tragedy and crime, incredulous that it will happen, that it does happen every day beyond the pages of The Orange Grove. That it does so with such inevitability and apparent simplicity and ordinariness – a self-inflicted kismet of unreason, untruth (as the third part of the novel will reveal), unscrupulous domination over thousands of lives on either side of the mountain.

The second part, where one of the boys tells his story to a drama teacher in Canada, is a psychodrama of true muscle and essence, with theatre becoming the way to articulate right and wrong, to integrate trauma, horror, irreparable loss into society in such a way that instead of causing its collapse, the shared dramatisation reinforces its fibre, guarantees its meaning, extends its scope and life. The actor the boy wishes to become is to speak all the voices in his head, conjure up all the lives, especially those of the victims, utter the “heart-wrenching anguish”. We learn even more shocking truths during this confessional ritual of reintegration and remembrance, and this narrative-drama section is a sublime demythologising of politicised theatre, of narrative confections, which in the name of stilted ideals falsify the reality and predicament of human nature: “raw, powerful plays” about terrorism in the Middle East that lack the harrowing simplicity of The Orange Grove, its terrible, quotidian dimension, are exposed as “pretentious and vain”.

Although short, sharp in its rhythm and pace, this is not a fast-moving read. We cannot rush through the pain, aplomb, horror, the emptiness of a future. The question at the heart of this novel is conscience and consciousness. How do we lay claim on them? Can we be murderers (or bystanders) and possess either? The Orange Grove is a must-read (as it has been required reading in schools across Canada), if we wish to redeem any part of our humanity. It is a brave, clean look into an old world, so that a new one of promise and of remembrance may be possible.


Larry_TremblayLarry Tremblay is a Canadian writer, theatre director and actor. He has written thirty books, including two previous novels, The Bicycle Eater and The Obese Christ; one short-story collection, Piercing; and numerous volumes of poetry and plays. He has been shortlisted three times for the Governor General’s Award and his writing has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He lives and works in Montreal. The Orange Grove, translated by Sheila Fischman, is published by Peirene Press. Read more.

Author portrait © Bernard Préfontaine

Sheila Fischman has translated more than 150 Quebecois novels from French to English, including works by Anne Hébert, Gaétan Soucy, Jacques Poulin, André Major, Élise Turcotte, and Michel Tremblay. She has received awards for her translations and for her life’s work, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation, the Columbia University Translation Center Award (twice) and the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize.

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.