Review: My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Gustova Bryson (2021)

My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Gustova Bryson

Blurb

It’s 2096. Scientists work to protect a baking planet. What a drought-stricken Europe needs is rain. What it gets is a messiah.

Eli is born in a suburb of Prague. A rainstorm heralds the birth. Perhaps this messiah is for real. Eli’s father abandons the family to become the dictator’s right-hand man. Eli’s elder brother Marek guides Eli through his short and powerful life.

Can tales of a messiah be enough to heal a ravaged planet in which few babies are born? If so, Marek works with the zeal of a prophet. Aged 72, he’s still going strong. A new follower joins Marek’s community, young Natalia. She awakens the old man to the joys of the body. But what’s the worth of a human love when the environment is collapsing? Marek sets out to find his answer.

My Brother the Messiah is a story about daring to seed the future of our planet.

Translated from the Czech by Anna Bryson Gustova.

Review

Thank you to (the other) Martin at Barbican Press for reaching out and offering me a copy of My Brother The Messiah in exchange for an honest review. I am always delighted to discover a new-to-me indie press, and Barbican has some excellent titles. Do check them out.

My Brother the Messiah would have made a great addition to my long-ago uni dissertation on dystopian fiction, in which I discussed 1984, Brave New World, and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, if I remember rightly (like I say, it was a long time ago!). It is terrifyingly believable to see the planet’s climate ravaged by global warming and the ill-advised attempt to reverse it that follows, and the way society breaks down in pockets, the migration from uninhabitable areas, the collapse of democracy – it all rings scarily true.

And yet, in this novel, the dystopia is a backdrop rather than the main focus. This is, at its heart, a story about the relationship between Marek and Eli, his brother, whom Marek absolutely believes is the Messiah. What I found fascinating is that as I read Marek’s third person narrative, I absolutely believed it, too. For the purposes of this story, yes, Eli is the Messiah. His followers are the only ones who are unaffected by the declining birth rate. Even as an atheist, I didn’t feel that this was a story about figuring out the truth or otherwise of this claim (which isn’t even one that Eli himself makes) – it is about what it means for Marek to be the brother of such a man. And that is SUCH an interesting premise.

The narrative moves back and forth in time, so that Eli’s life story is intercut with ‘present day’ Marek’s struggles to stay true to his brother’s legacy. Natalia, the woman who becomes Marek’s lover, is a wonderful character, and I liked both the past and ‘present’ narratives just as much. The writing is beautiful – taut and spare and at times appropriately biblical. Indeed, despite the future setting of the book, there is a kind of historical feel to it, as if we are being gifted the story of Eli in a similar way to how the story of the previous Messiah was passed on. It is interesting to consider this in the light of the appearance of a note-taking student later on in the book, but I’ll leave that for you to discover if you read this brilliant book (which you should!)

The ending of My Brother the Messiah is perfect – I had no idea how it was all going to wrap up, and I was genuinely surprised and elated by the final pages. This is such an interesting, different novel – it is intelligent without being pretentious or difficult, unnerving yet also enormously tender, a story that will stay with me. I urge you to check this one out. It is a hugely thought-provoking read with love and warmth at its centre.

My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Bryson Gustova is published by Barbican Press and is available to purchase here.

4 thoughts on “Review: My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Gustova Bryson (2021)

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