In his debut novel, Brotherhood, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr asks what happens when pervasive religious ideology is pitted against clandestine authorship. When society comes under the control of violent extremists, and the very act of composition becomes grounds for execution, how can one reconcile personal moral convictions against the drive to survive? And how is it possible to write anything when language’s very ability to communicate is being called into question? In Brotherhood, writing is both a refuge and a death sentence, a beacon of knowledge and a gateway to fanaticism. In the face of brutal authoritarian rule that destroys beauty abruptly and with indifference, writing is paradoxically both the only source of hope and a completely futile endeavor.
This high-stakes struggle is conveyed through a bird’s eye view of Kalep, a fictional North African town in the country of Sumal. The city has come under the violent control of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Abdel Karim Konaté, a man whose devoted adoration of the Koran leads him to maim and murder the inhabitants of Kalep in the name of God. The third-person narrative follows the interweaving stories of three main groups of people trying to navigate this new authoritarian world while renegotiating their wavering morality and convictions, both secular and religious. The novel opens with the public execution of two young lovers whose only crime was pre-marital sex. We witness the reverberations of this opening violence throughout the novel with numerous chapters written in the form of letters, the clandestine correspondence between Aïssata and Sadobo, the mothers of the two executed lovers. We also follow the story of Malamine, a local doctor, husband, and father of three who decides to risk everything to write and distribute a clandestine journal with a cohort of other Sumalese friends and dissenters.
Brotherhood is the first of Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s four novels. Originally published in 2014, the novel was translated by Alexia Trigo in 2021 for Europa Editions, coinciding with the apex of Sarr’s meteoric rise to the forefront of French letters. Sarr’s fourth novel, La plus secrete mémoire des hommes (literally translated as The Most Secret Memory of Men), won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt in 2021, making the Senegalese-born author the first person from Sub-Saharan Africa to win the prize. In my opinion, literary prizes are often far behind the curve when it comes to talent from emerging or, in this case, well-established literary scenes outside the metropole. That is certainly the case here, but it is worth noting that African-born authors swept the major literary prizes across Europe and North America in 2021, signaling a long-overdue shift to recognizing literature from Africa that is eclectic, experimental, ecological, and exploratory in a way that refuses to pander to an “outsider” reading public (France 24, NYTimes).
In this striking debut work, Sarr oscillates between erudite philosophical reflections, lyrical description, and distinctive dialogue, switching registers fluidly and embodying vivid characters living through complete societal upheaval and chaos. Trigo’s translation, her first full-length published work, brilliantly reproduces these shifts, particularly when it comes to translating Sarr’s poetic lyricism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the letters between the mothers which often take on a stream-of-consciousness style. In one of her letters to Aïssata, Sadobo urges:
Let your pain take you above all this. You can’t change the course of history. Suffer, suffer. But suffer like a queen. Suffer like a mother. Remove yourself from the world. You’re alone, nobody understands you, nobody wants to understand you, nobody can understand you. Collapse alone. Break down alone. Don’t look at the world, it doesn’t understand you and you cannot understand it. (90-91)
The language is simple, repetitive, and poetic, but the overall effect of passages such as this creates a sense of urgency and unease that drives the plot and contributes to the novel’s atmosphere of instability and fear.
While the conflict between the Brotherhood and the resisting locals is the main driver of the novel’s plot, the only actual writing that is reproduced in the narrative are the clandestine letters of the two grieving mothers. The women connect over their shared loss but also over their place in society. Sadobo and Aïssata are now childless, middle-aged, infertile, undesirable in the eyes of their husbands, and altogether worthless and voiceless in the eyes of this brutal patriarchal society. However, in the end, grief has driven them down different paths: one towards action, the other towards inaction. Multiple times throughout the novel, we see references to History with a capital H, begging the reader to ask the question: who is written in and who is forgotten by History? In many ways, Sarr forefronts the narratives of women, children, and the elderly in Brotherhood, juxtaposing public suffering with silent, isolated horrors.
The novel’s characters consume and produce different forms of writing throughout as a way to combat or merely process the chaos of the world. Writing is explored and exemplified in various forms, including the clandestine journal, epistolary correspondence, personal journals, town announcements, and ancient manuscripts. Each side of the conflict values language immensely to the point of weaponizing it, all the while fearing its futility and failure. Malamine and his co-conspirators view writing their journal as the only way to “bear witness to the barbarism” and “to reflect on the madness of terrorism” (59). After the opening execution, Idrissa, Malamine’s second son, reflects on the Brotherhood’s takeover and its psychological implications:
Every authoritarian regime rises in this way: it manages to convince its people of the futility of communication. The illusion of this futility, along with the people’s indifference toward language, becomes an individual and collective value. […] The people become silent because they no longer deem it necessary to speak, since everything seems clear and obvious to them. Of course, in reality, nothing is really clear. And in the face of this false clarity, ideology deafens, grows, and thrives. (32-33)
Speech is certainly silenced or altered in the face of this all-consuming physical and ideological occupation, yet Sarr focuses on writing as the ultimate ideological battleground. As the novel progresses, written word is pitted against written word: close readings of the Koran are weaponized on both sides to carry out unspeakable horrors, all in the service of power:
[…] every war is also, perhaps mainly, an initiative of destruction through the manipulation of language. Words are contorted to comply with people’s passions and used as rhetoric to express conflicting goals, which are all still alike in their allegiance to violence. (199)
Sarr urges us to ask if these various forms of writing actually succeed in bearing “witness to the barbarism” taking place in society? Or will history repeat itself and insidious ideologies take hold again? The original title of the novel is Terre ceinte, which translates to “encircled/enclosed land.” This sense of enclosure and isolation is palpable throughout and, as the tension mounts locally, Sarr widens his lens, bringing Sumal’s place in the global context into view. As Malamine and his cohort fight an internal battle against “barbarism” and “terrorism,” Sumal itself is still trying to disprove its own perceived barbarism by having Western cultural authorities authenticate its ancient founding manuscripts, housed in the country’s preeminent library. For the people of Sumal, the written word, particularly the historical record is “an astounding testimony, a birth certificate, a guarantee of identity.” (216) Instead of immediately meeting violence with violent revolt, Malamine and his co-conspirators turn to the written word, for “the very act of writing is what ideology fears. Because the act of writing freely is an irrepressible extension of intelligence.” (219) Yet in the end, is language enough to combat ideology and fanaticism? Can intelligence alone stand up to local armed conflict and international indifference?
Sarr, Mohamed Mbougar. Brotherhood. Translated by Alexia Trigo. Europa Editions, 2021.
Rebecca Dehner-Armand is a literary translator, teacher, and scholar of contemporary French and Francophone literature. Her translations have appeared in Asymptote, The Massachusetts Review and Delos. She is currently completing her PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.