Sunday, 28 March 2021

Brotherhood by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr

Brotherhood by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
First published in French as Terre Ceinte by Presence Africaine in 2015. English language translation by Alexia Trigo published by Europa Editions on the 18th March 2021.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

WINNER of the French Voices Grand Prize, Prix Ahmadou Kourouma, and Grand Prix du Roman M├ętis

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s searing and thought-provoking debut novel, Brotherhood takes place in the imaginary town of Kalep, where a fundamentalist Islamist government has spread its brutal authority.

Under the regime of the so-called Brotherhood, two young people are publicly executed for having loved each other. In response, their mothers begin a secret correspondence, their only outlet for the grief they share and each woman’s personal reckoning with a leadership that would take her beloved child’s life.

At the same time, spurred on by their indignation at what seems to be an escalation of The Brotherhood’s brutality, a band of intellectuals and free-thinkers seeks to awaken the conscience of the cowed populace and foment rebellion by publishing an underground newspaper. While they grapple with the implications of what they have done, the regime’s brutal leader begins a personal crusade to find the responsible parties, and bring them to his own sense of justice. 

In this brilliant analysis of tyranny and brutality, Mbougar Sarr explores the ways in which resistance and heroism can often give way to cowardice, all while giving voice to the moral ambiguities and personal struggles involved in each of his characters’ search to impose the values they hold most dear.

My first Senegalese novel and I was impressed by the way in which Sarr portrayed deeply philosophical conversations between his characters without losing the sense of real speech and style. I wish my French was good enough to have read Brotherhood in its original language, but I felt Alexia Trigo did a good job of the translation. Brotherhood has two linked narrative strands: one recounts the efforts of a group of seven dissidents to publish a journal decrying jihadist violence and oppression in their occupied city; the other is a series of letters between two bereaved, grieving mothers who, unable to leave their separate homes, attempt together to understand the loss of their children. 

Brotherhood starts out with a scene of extreme, but dispassionate violence - a double execution - which reminded me of the opening of The President's Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli. The eponymous Brotherhood imposes their vision of correct Islamic life onto the city through bloodshed and fear, and public demonstrations of their power are an integral part of their strategy. Behind the scenes though, the Brotherhood's foot soldiers are only too keen to indulge in the forbidden behaviours they publicly punish, much to the chagrin of their leader who was probably the most fascinating character in the whole novel for me. He absolutely believes in the purity of the Brotherhood's vision, even while he is also aware of his superiors' corruption of that vision for their own ends. Sarr managed to allow me understand this man.

Brotherhood is a novel that, as I guessed pretty early on, is never going to end with a happily ever after. I found the narrative structure satisfying, however, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the novel even though it doesn't have the kind of rich detail that usually appeals to me. For example, Sarr takes a whole chapter to introduce one character, an incredible chef, without ever identifying a single meal or ingredient more precisely than 'food'! That said, I liked how this work drew me in to this city and its people's lives.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr / War fiction / Books from Senegal

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