Apart from Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz I don’t think I’ve read anything set in Paris’s banlieues which is partly what drew me to Mahir Guven’s Prix-Goncourt-winning debut. Older Brother explores life in these areas, synonymous with poverty and dissent, through two brothers and their Syrian taxi-driving father, still grieving his French wife.
Despite the carefully prepared Friday banquets they share, the older brother and his father are at loggerheads over the former’s work as an app-based driver seen as deadly competition by taxi drivers. Every week the father angrily rehearses the same arguments accompanied by a tirade against Bashar Assad and the war in Syria. Neither speaks of the younger brother who disappeared three years ago. The younger brother was a nurse, encouraged to continue his medical studies by the surgeon who singled him out. As the news from Syria worsened, the younger brother decided he must help his fellow Muslims, contacting an NGO then leaving without a word. The assumption is he’s gone to Syria – some think to fight, others to save lives. The older brother has taken a very different route, smoking too much weed, invalided out of the army diagnosed with schizophrenia and now turned police informant to keep himself out of jail. All three are still mourning the woman who died eighteen years ago leaving the boys motherless at ten and twelve. After picking up a fare at the bus station, the older brother glimpses a man he thinks he recognises.
We were in the Holy Land, the land of the Bible; since the beginning of time, people have been ripping each other to shreds in God’s name.
Each of the brothers narrates their own story in this powerful, taut novel which takes its readers into the Parisian banlieues and to war-ravaged Syria. Each voice is distinctly different from the other – the cocky, street savvy irony of the older brother, who’s not as tough as he might like to appear, contrasting with the quiet, thoughtful younger brother faced with the horrors of war and the tyranny of extremism. There are occasional flashes of sly humour lightening the tone a little – bearded eco-hipsters ride their bikes alongside equally hirsute Islamic fundamentalists to whom cars are haram. Close to its conclusion, Guven’s novel speeds up its pace, hurtling towards what feels like an inevitable conclusion. Suffice to say I thought the ending was very clever although I suspect not everyone will agree.
Europa Editions: London 2019 9781609455491 256 pages Paperback