Tag Archives: French contemporary fiction

Older Brother by Mahir Guven (transl. Tina Kover): A tale of two brothers

Cover imageApart 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

The Braid by Letitia Colombani (transl. Louise Rogers Lalaurie): Take three women

Cover imageLetitia Colombani’s The Braid is one of those elegantly structured novellas that manages to pack a great deal into fewer than two hundred pages. Three women’s stories intersect in a way that none of them can imagine when the book begins. They will remain unknown to each other yet each will have played a crucial role in changing the others’ lives.

Smita is a Dalit in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, an untouchable whose job is to empty the latrines by hand. The ostracism of Dalits from society was outlawed by Mahatma Gandhi yet Smita and her rat-catcher husband continue to be spurned. Smita is determined that her six-year-old daughter won’t suffer the same humiliation and is prepared to go to any lengths to protect her.

Giulia works for her father in Sicily, preparing hair for wig makers in a family business that has been established for generations. When her father is left comatose after an accident, Giulia discovers that all is not what it seems with their finances. Her Sikh lover offers a solution which isn’t welcomed by everyone.

Sarah is a partner in a Montreal law firm, a position hard-won and at great cost. She never mentions her children at work, hiding domestic difficulties and maternal guilt behind a mask of calm capability. Illness cannot be countenanced. When Sarah finds she has cancer she tucks the knowledge away, scheduling her treatment to fit in with work.

Colombani uses the conceit of telling the stories of Smita, Giulia and Sarah through a wig maker, interweaving their three separate narratives into a braid. It’s a device that works well: the wig maker makes a brief appearance at the start and end of the book with the occasional interpolation in between. Each of the stories explores the societies in which these three women live: Smita’s abject poverty, locked into a caste system sustained by corruption and lack of education; resistance to Giulia’s innovation in traditional, male dominated Sicilian society; Sarah’s discovery that the glass ceiling hasn’t been entirely shattered in her intensely competitive law firm where loyalty counts for nothing. All three women changes their lives for the better on their own terms, facing apparently insurmountable problems with courage and determination. It’s a heartening story, fable-like in its telling but not sugar-coated, and an appealing one. Proof, yet again, of the power of the novella – not that I needed it.

The Tree of the Toraja by Philippe Claudel (transl. Euan Cameron): Death, grief and hope

Cover imageIf you haven’t yet come across Philippe Claudel’s books you may know his work from I Loved You So Long starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Ranging from Parfums, a sensuous fragrance memoir, to Monsieur Linh and His Child, one of the saddest pieces of fiction I’ve read, his writing is as elegantly understated as his movies, a style which I find immensely appealing. His latest novel, The Tree of the Toraja, is an exploration of death and grief through the voice of a filmmaker who has lost his producer and best friend.

Our unnamed narrator begins his meditative journey with an account of the lengthy funeral rites of the Toraja, an Indonesian tribe on the island of Sulawesi where he’s been on holiday. When a child dies, the Toraja carefully place its corpse within an incision made in a tree so that the tree’s bark will heal and enclose the body. On his return, our narrator finds a message from his best friend, Eugène, announcing his cancer diagnosis. Six months later Eugène is dead. Our narrator talks to philosophers, doctors and scientists about the ways in which we open ourselves to death. He meets his ex-wife every week in the same hotel room, thinks about a new film while watching the tenants of the apartment block opposite, speculating about the young woman who seems happy to live in the public gaze, all the time remembering Eugène and their many conversations. This brief, beautiful novella ends with an unexpected new start for our narrator and the beginning of his first project without Eugène.

It would be easy to cast Claudel as the unnamed narrator given that both are filmmakers and novelists of a similar age but my brief spate of googling became a distraction from the thoughtfulness of this exploration of death, grief and how we respond to it. Suffice to say that it’s an intensely personal piece of writing. Claudel’s prose is characteristically quiet but arresting, often painterly in its evocation:

We spent our evenings drinking vinho verde in the neighbourhood cafés of the Bairro Alto, nibbling at plump violet olives and eating sardines that had been cooked on grills in small yards where the walls were covered in azulejo tiles

We who live on are enveloped by the whispers of our ghosts

Bodies fade like flowers in vases; their corollas droop one day then slump in an irreversible destruction of their colours and their scents

There are striking metaphors throughout: our relationship with our bodies is compared to a love affair; our lives to books – some neatly handwritten with smooth blank pages, others with loose, torn leaves and a multitude of deletions. But there’s more to this piece of writing than its gorgeous prose. Both a philosophical investigation into that which faces us all and a beautiful meditation which ultimately ends with acceptance and hope, Claudel’s novella is a quiet, thought-provoking triumph.