"How do you tell a bearded Muslim on a bike from a hipster on a fixie? It's a serious problem."
It also makes for witty and bouncy storytelling by the eponymous, and what one might call senior, narrator of Older Brother, a novel by Mahir Guven. (The junior narrator is, fittingly enough, Younger Brother.) Not that he's always quite so engaging; when the spirit moves Older Brother, a Muslim Frenchman in his late 20s, to recall his hardscrabble upbringing in a Paris banlieue, or suburb, he sometimes lapses into cliché. "You get your bachelor's degree by wearing out the soles of your shoes on concrete," he declaims, "and then your master's by busting your ass for a few pennies," now sounding like any number of rap artists, "and possibly a doctorate the day you take your first hundred paces around a prison exercise yard."
In between the streetwise humor and the badass banalities flows the thought-provoking and topical tale that is Older Brother, which was awarded the 2018 Prix Goncourt for First Novel, and has now been translated from the original colloquial French into appropriately brash and energetic English by Tina Kover. Initially frustrating due to narration that is desultory on Older Brother's part and intermittent in the case of Younger Brother (he is the junior narrator in more than one sense, having been allotted far fewer chapters), the story takes a beguiling turn when author Guven folds the plot back on itself.
After catching sight of him at a Paris bus station, Older Brother goes from wondering what his younger sibling has been doing in Syria to fretting about what he intends to do now that he's back in France. All of a sudden, the author has injected a note of urgency into his tale, and a frisson of alarm into the reader. Naturally, that's when Younger Brother turns up on Older Brother's doorstep.
Yet this novel is more than an adrenalin-generating thriller. By the time Younger Brother resurfaces in France, the author has endowed both his protagonists' narratives with an element of social commentary concerning the plight of young Muslims in the banlieues of Paris today. Moreover, Guven periodically ferrets out the sympathetic qualities of Younger Brother, forever stigmatized by his having absconded to Syria.
To begin with, when it comes to Islamic radicalization, Younger Brother makes for an unlikely candidate. His and Older Brother's late mother was a non-ideological Frenchwoman from Breton. Their father is of Muslim origin, but a lifelong communist with an antipathy toward Islam in particular. The old man, a Syrian immigrant of mixed Arab-Kurdish extraction (Guven, a first-generation Frenchman, was born to a Turkish mother and an Iraqi Kurdish father), refuses to let any form of hardship impinge on his resolutely cartoonish conception of France as "a perfect country where everyone is intelligent".
Even though Younger Brother, who is a couple of years his sibling's junior, embraced Islam back in his teens, he did not become an extremist. Not only that, but – as he makes clear in the chapters he narrates – he went to Syria on a medical mission as part of an NGO. A trained nurse, Younger Brother treated civilians in a rebel-held area suffering from a shortage of doctors and subjected to unrelenting air raids by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally. He describes harrowing conditions faced by ordinary people.
Yet the reader's sympathy for Younger Brother, so carefully cultivated by the author, is chipped away at by Older Brother's anxiety regarding his just-returned sibling's plans. His apprehensiveness turns into trepidation when a police detective informs him that there was a break-in at a Paris hospital and that his younger brother's "fingerprints were found in the medical storeroom […] where they keep products that can be used to make explosives." Meanwhile, Guven stokes the reader's growing dread by juxtaposing what Older Brothers learns from the detective with narration in which Younger Brother recounts but never explains a re-orientation of self that he effected toward the end of his three-year sojourn in Syria.
In that war-ravaged land, Younger Brother time and again successfully resisted pressure to undergo military training. How? "[B]y coming up with something I had to do at the hospital", he explains. Then, following a certain battle, he changed his mind. "I decided to do my muaskar", he recalls. "My military training. I wanted to be a munitions specialist."
What is this all about, and does it relate to Younger Brother's subsequent return to France?
The answer proves intriguing, to say the least. More important, however, is a later revelation, a twist that could easily have undermined the entire story. Guven dexterously pulls it off. In the process, he achieves something counterintuitive with his novel: Older Brother is a shaggy dog yarn whose conclusion, far from constituting the expected letdown in such instances, proves both clever and wistful.