“Older Brother,” the superb debut novel by Mahir Guven, unfolds in Paris “the way you drive a car in the banlieue: tires squealing, running red lights and stop signs.” This may be a story from the city’s outer margins, but it’s one that goes to the heart of questions roiling contemporary France.
The novel’s central characters, two brothers whom we meet as young men, are lost. They were raised in the outskirts of the city by their Syrian immigrant father — a taxi driver, atheist (“no more Muslim than a pair of Nikes”) and, above all, self-described communist. Their French mother is dead.
This is not Haussmann’s Paris. Acquaintances of the brothers wear electronic anklets after run-ins with the police, gossip about imams teetering too close to extremism and complain about their shrinking paychecks. They feel they’re “less than zeros in a society that teaches about equality and tolerance and respect.”
The younger brother fares better than most, landing a job as a nurse at a hospital, but isn’t immune from discrimination. At work he feels like a puppet, “playing assistant butcher for guys stupider than me, born in a different universe who treated me like Uncle Tom on some Alabama plantation.” Unlike his father, he is spiritual and curious about Islam, and in time he becomes restless. A young Muslim who feels disenfranchised in the West: You can imagine where this might go.
ImageGuven has a reporter’s knack for balancing a chorus of perspectives about everything from France’s economic tumult to its charged relationship with immigration.
Guven has a reporter’s knack for balancing a chorus of perspectives about everything from France’s economic tumult to its charged relationship with immigration.
But his is not a story of radicalization by YouTube; he doesn’t dream of a caliphate or of waging jihad. He has a naïf’s desire to help the people he believes need it most. So he leaves, wordlessly, for Syria to work with an Islamic humanitarian NGO, which has a far greater stake in the war than he realized. Soon he’s working as a field medic for rebel militias fighting Bashar al-Assad.
Back home, his older brother has been pressed into a different fight. He’s an Uber driver at a time when taxi drivers are in revolt over ride-sharing apps, a war that everyone but the bosses is losing. The boys’ father, who staked his retirement on selling his taxi medallion, has been betrayed by both children. The disappearance of the younger son nearly unravels the family, but it’s his return to France that could put them all in peril.
The brothers remain unnamed until the book’s final pages and trade off as narrators, though the older one propels the story. His voice, expertly translated by Tina Kover, is wry, jaded, insouciant: Driving passengers to Paris’s airports, he notes, is like “taking customers into the citadel, the one we’ll never conquer.” He’s capable of expressing real tenderness, but just as often marshals the fury of others like him, “the angry, screwed-up young people.” He’s cleareyed, too, about the in-between space he and his brother occupy: not quite French but not quite Syrian; not immigrants, but not exactly natives. “Aliens without knowing why.”
Guven was born in Nantes, the son of refugees, and worked as a journalist. He has a reporter’s knack for balancing a chorus of perspectives about everything from France’s economic tumult to its charged relationship with immigration. His book — which won a top French literary award, the Prix Goncourt for a debut novel — accomplishes what the best kind of reporting can do: wade into questions that resist simple answers, while restoring dignity to its characters.
Contradictions enrich the novel, steering it away from the territory of a plodding, dutiful fable. “He was my brother, the man I hated most in the world,” the older brother thinks. “He’s my flesh and blood … my comrade, my ‘whatever you want,’ my everything, my reason for living.”