An atmosphere of violence, fear, and hostility sweeps through the fictional country of Sumal as an extremist Jihadist group named Brotherhood imposes its set of laws and regulations on the previously liberal country. Public executions, moral policing, repression of freedom, and other ruthless implementations of the group’s own sense of law-and-order lap at the civilians’ life. Under this new regime, they must make sense of their bleak present while their somewhat glorious past peeks at them from a distance.

Amidst all the bustle of terror, a secret resistance group – an “underground newspaper” – tumbles forth with a vision to reinvigorate the mass consciousness of citizens and, thus, sow among them the seeds of relentless resistance. The soaring popularity of the newspaper launches Brotherhood into an investigation that can undo the activists’ efforts, snatching the kernel of hope they have towards Brotherhood’s demise.

Brotherhood, by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, translated from the French by Alexia Trigo, begins with a chilling scene where hordes of people cheer on as two lovers are publicly killed because of adultery. The scene effectively sets the stage for the essential mood of the novel. We immediately become aware of the forces at play here in the capital of Sumal; what gets you in trouble, who are in charge, what kind of power they wield, the kind of violence they can resort to. It is almost reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.

Figures of resistance

Much of the novel centres around the two victims’ mothers, Aissata and Sadobo. The chapters concerning them are written in an epistolary format, where they share their favourite memories of their children and how the dawn of Brotherhood has upended their lives as they knew it. This form lends a visceral and poignant effect to the narrative, and as a result, the readers jump right into the heart of profound grief. The letters reflect both optimism and pessimism in a way that becomes symbolic of the whole country’s mood: some people still have faith in the fall of Brotherhood, some do not.

Besides the mothers, the central characters also include Malamine, his wife Rokyhaya, and their son Idrissa. While Rokyhaya is an example of utmost faith in religion in the face of an extremist group’s inhumane interpretation of it, Idrissa is the total antithesis. His faith in god has withered to dust long ago.

Malamine is a doctor who is reeling from the aching gap that pushes his son away from him. The source of this distance can be traced to a tragic family incident going back to the time during the dizzying emergence of Brotherhood. Unfazed by the group’s atrocities, Malamine’s revolutionary zeal leads him into facilitating the birth of the secret resistance group. He is one of those “who decide to do something with their fear: they fly with the wings that fear has granted them”.

Codou, Dethie, and Alioune are some other significant – although minor – characters we meet through the resistance group. Through these characters, we are able to scan the moral obligations and struggles intrinsic to the resistance of tyranny.

Losing its way

One of the book’s achievements is its unflinching portrayal of a grim world where humanity has only a sliver of space, while brutality stalks in mobs – and of the mastermind behind such a world. Abdel Karim, the captain of Brotherhood, is given enough attention in the storyline for readers to get to view closely the way in which his mind works; the factors that prod him towards Brotherhood, how he justifies violence and bigotry, how he harnesses a sick interpretation of religion to captivate and brainwash the citizenry.

However, the energy slowly gets wrung out of the pacy story as the prose turns didactic. In many of the chapters, the novel is overtly – almost in a cloying and awkward manner – sentimental. Instances of too much sloganeering – about bravery, freedom, failure of communication, and cowardice – also stand unpleasantly.

The strength of the novel lies in its exploration of grief and a dystopian future. But that strength is embarrassingly leached away by the negative aspects. Initially, I was very keen on adding this novel to the list of compelling works that capture life under authoritarianism, such as The Memory Police and The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree, but sadly, I could not. The ending, however, served as a saving grace – it is charged with a satisfying suspense, one that gives you enough clarity to foresee the future of Sumal.


Brotherhood, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, translated from the French by Alexia Trigo, Europa Editions.