Older Brother by Mahir Guven

Older Brother opens with a line that echoes Albert Camus (“Mother died today”) and, more recently, Leïla Slimani (“The baby is dead”): “Death is the only true thing.” That specter of death looms large over the entirety of the slim volume, which is set in the Parisian banlieues and shifts between the perspectives of an older brother, a soldier turned Uber driver, and a younger brother, an inner-city nurse turned humanitarian worker.

By the time we meet the two brothers, their mother has long been dead. The older brother jokes about dying from the boredom of his job, wonders about jumping off the balcony where he smokes, and fantasizes about his getaway car flipping on the highway, down to the detail of a friend reading about his untimely death in the papers the morning after.

The younger brother works at a local hospital, assisting with sutures and other surgeries. He too is bored, enduring “each day as if in a half-coma, aware that life was going on without me,” and dreaming of devoting himself to something larger than himself. He gets his chance when a humanitarian NGO called Islam & Peace, working with Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross, takes him on to work in war-torn Syria.

Fog of War

In my previous life as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, I encountered the men and women who worked in similar field hospitals, and I recall their sense of mission well. They alone appeared not to suffer from the unsureness that plagues the rest of us. They had worked all day among the ruined bodies. And so, at night, they would retreat to their compounds with an intoxicating sense of levity that accompanies moral clarity. They had been saving lives all day. What had I been doing?

It is into this world of clean-cut virtues that the younger brother disappears “like a whore before the sun comes up.” He goes, goes, and is gone. He does not return for three years.

They had been saving lives all day. What had I been doing?

The book does not say so explicitly—the book says nothing explicitly, but still manages to read like a thriller, in part because the lives of the marginalized are inherently full of suspense—but we suspect that the younger brother has joined an ISIS-like militant group. Meanwhile, the older brother drives around Paris picking up passengers, or else drinks coffee in cafés, reading the sports pages. Every Friday, he has dinner with their father, a self-professed Communist who is “no more Muslim than a pair of Nikes.” The father identifies as half Arabic, half Kurdish, but this latter part, the older brother notes, is a recent addition. “It gives him style, like white people who make up their own ancestry.” It’s a light jab and a sharp commentary on the fluid nature of identity.

The book is filled with similarly light, sharp remarks. There is commentary on intra-group racism (“Only Arabs from the Middle East count; the rest are only photocopies”), how capitalism interacts with racial hierarchies (“Money has no color; it’s the best defense against racism”), and the externalities of immigration (“A banquet for ten but there’s only two of us left”).

There is also what the older brother has observed about the social tensions in French society, still smarting in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and November 13 attacks: “Allah forgive me, but Muslims shop for shoes the same way as the rest of us, bro. They find a pair they like, in the size that fits, to walk toward whatever they’re looking for.” There are other, more brilliantly rendered lines that speak to the impossibility of class solidarity under capitalism, internalized oppression, and sexual politics in the hood. The humanist screeds, delivered in lowbrow speech, come off not as moralizing but revelatory.

What inspired the younger brother to upend his First World life and retreat into tradition, religion, back toward the Old Country? Was it his not feeling at home in France, a need for belonging, the promise of 72 virgins?

The father identifies as Kurdish: “It gives him style, like white people who make up their own ancestry.”

Many a taxpayer dollar has been spent in trying to address the question of what radicalizes marginalized young men. We can guess, but we’ll never know the innumerable course corrections that make up a life. What we do know is that few set out in life with grand designs. Instead, what many of us do, including disaffected Muslim men from the French banlieues, a place where “nobody’s life has turned out the way they wanted it to,” is choose the life that is available to us.

And for banlieusards, the options are scant. There is the thug life, the Uber life, the Salafi life, and, maybe, if you are unlucky—or lucky, depending—the snitch life. “We were all living the same factory assembly-line life. Mass-produced for struggle,” the older brother observes. When the police siren goes off, he wonders, “Was it for me?” And we are made to wonder, What is it like to live in that world? The book allows us to stay with him for a while, smelling the smell of camphor and sweat and old scab and dead skin. Meanwhile, their lives careen in and out of boredom, doom, and occasional ecstasy.

When Older Brother was published in France in 2017, it was praised for its convincing use of the banlieue vernacular. There are traces of that original genius in the translated edition, but much of the cadence of the language is lost—such is the tragedy of translated work. In its wake, there are American colloquialisms—characters want to “have their cake and eat it too,” and have “other fish to fry”—which distract, taking us away from the entirely believable world that the author Mahir Guven has constructed.

Wits’ End

I was wholly unprepared for the book’s ending. So much so that the first thing I did after finishing it was to call the publisher. I needed more answers. She politely explained that the text was left intentionally unclear. That, yes, of course it was a work of fiction—yes, including the epilogue.

But who was this man who had written this book?

In asking, I was committing a banal offense. White writers can create whole worlds and inhabit them without readers questioning their right to that world. Writers of color, however, are often expected to write about their own lives. They are repeatedly assumed to be drawing from a single well, as if the act of creation is the sole property of their white counterparts.

“Allah forgive me, but Muslims shop for shoes the same way as the rest of us, bro.”

From cursory research I learned that Guven’s publisher had wanted him to write his own personal story, but that he had declined the offer. I also learned that when he began research for what would become Older Brother, he saved his research under a folder called “Ceci est une enquête pour un roman” (“This is an investigation for a novel”) so that he wouldn’t get into trouble with authorities. That his mother was Turkish; his father, Iraqi Kurdish. And that he lives in and writes from Paris. As for the rest, I am not sure, and I have come to not care.

Guven makes elegant and confident connections between the lack of choice in the banlieues and the civil war in Syria, between immigration and terrorism. It’s a prodigal-son story, told increasingly from the perspective of the son that stays. The two brothers are, in their own ways, trying to simultaneously excise the past and give it meaning. Along the way they discover that so much of growing up is accepting that which you come from. The older brother is unsure, as I am, whether this is wisdom or submission. But it suddenly occurs to me that the two may be one and the same.

May Jeong is an investigative reporter living in New York City