Older Brother: A Novel
- By Mahir Guven; translated by Tina Kover
- Europa Editions
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Warren Motte
- December 26, 2019
This story of cultural hybridity, immigration, and war pulses with humanity.
When the original version of Older Brother appeared in France (as Grand Frère), it won the 2018 Goncourt First Novel Prize, an auspicious way to launch any young writer's career.
When they're successful, first novels are fun and fireworks. Their authors pack everything they know into them, holding nothing back, in an attempt to say everything it is possible to say. And, clearly enough, Mahir Guven has a lot to say.
Born in 1986 in Nantes as the undocumented child of stateless refugees, his mother from Turkey and his father from the Kurdish region of Iraq, Guven's perspective on contemporary French society is not one commonly encountered in the kind of literature honored by major prizes.
He has situated his novel in the suburbs of Paris, the banlieue, where the landscape (both physical and human) is very different from that of the intra muros "Paris" typically celebrated as one of the cultural capitals of the world. Here, people live on the margins of society, left behind and unnoticed.
Not many writers have focused their attention on that place; one thinks of François Maspero and Gérard Gavarry, and (more recently) David Lopez, but the suburbs have been mostly ignored in French literature — as indeed they have in culture more broadly, and in politics.
The protagonists of this novel are two brothers who remain nameless until the end of the book. They are sons of a Syrian-immigrant father and a French-born mother who is now deceased, leaving the family a bit adrift. The elder brother had regular run-ins with the police as an adolescent, and had joined the army and served in Africa until the stresses of functioning as the sharp point of the last thrusts of French colonialism became too much for him to bear.
He makes his living now as an Uber driver — to the despair of his father, who drives a conventional taxi, and who is depending on the sale of his taxi license to finance his retirement. In order to relieve the boredom of his Sisyphean trips between Charles de Gaulle Airport and central Paris, the older brother smokes a great deal of weed and gives free rein to his imagination.
His younger sibling's path was somewhat less tortured, until recently. He trained and practiced as a surgical nurse, discovering a real gift for medicine. Chafing at his subaltern status in a Parisian hospital, he has gone to Syria as a medical technician with an NGO devoted to humanitarian aid. Absent for three years, he has left his older brother to care for their father. He has sent no news about his welfare during that time, and the elder brother wonders if his sibling has been caught in the vortex of war in a role more offensive than that of a nurse.
The brothers share the responsibilities of storytelling here, in alternate chapters, though most of those responsibilities are shouldered by the older brother. He speaks an argotic, fluent language that wryly mocks so-called "standard French," an effect adroitly rendered in Tina Kover's translation. Colored by his immigrant origins, his social class, and his generational status, his language defines him, and he is well aware of that function.
Speaking about his father, he remarks:
"When he gets angry, his French turns broken, and French people can't understand him anymore. It's fine for us, because that kind of French is our native language. We've tried to correct him. Don't try to figure out why immigrants talk the way they do. Their tongues never assimilate as well as they do."
The hybridity of that language reflects the hybrid vision of identity that this novel so eloquently puts on display. Once again, it is the father who serves as an exemplar.
Asked by his elder son whether he is not an "Arab" and a believer, this committed secularist responds with outrage and passion: "What the hell you know about religion? Get your head out of your ass! Syria doesn't mean Arabic. It's nationality, not ethnicity. I'm half Arabic, half Kurdish, but, above all, Communist."
He undoubtedly voices something close to the author's own view of identity, for he likewise rises up against handy, reductive labels. Interviewed upon the publication of Older Brother by J.R. Ramakrishnan, Guven remarked, "There are no French natives, there is no such gene, that is a stupid, racist idea. France is a melting pot of cultures that together form a nation. My nation."
Mahir Guven has many purposes in this book, certainly, but insofar as ideology is concerned, his arguments are consistently and unwaveringly humanist in character, one that vigorously refuses notions based on birth, blood, and fate, promoting instead thought and choice. Yet his novel is not exclusively about ideological engagement.
It is also superbly plotted, with enough narrative twists to keep any reader on his or her toes. When the younger brother returns to France (as indeed he must), the plot thickens in a satisfying manner, the narrative rhythm accelerates, and events in several different registers are set on a collision course.
Warren Motte is Distinguished Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado Boulder. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction Since 1990, Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century, Mirror Gazing, and French Fiction Today.