The Last Brother
by Nathacha Appanah
Translated by Geoffrey Strachan
On 26 December 1940 a ship landed at Port Louis, Mauritius with 1,500 Jews on board. Having fled from the scourge of Nazism this collection of Austrians, Poles and Czechs were denied the sanctuary they sought in Palestine due to incomplete paperwork and deported to Mauritius to be interred in the prison at Beau-Bassin. During four years of exile there 127 of them died.
From this shameful and little-known piece of history Appanah has spun a tale of one boy's childhood forever altered and of another boy's childhood ended. One boy called Raj, the other David, both from different cultures with different languages, thrown together by history and events that force them out of childhood into 'the terrible world of men.' Sixty years after that boat landed the elder Raj is disturbed by a dream in which he is visited once again by David. He wakes with a determination to make the journey he has avoided all his life, to the cemetery in Saint-Martin.
During the early years, when the memory of David never left me for a moment, I was too young to come here and face this. Later on, I would set myself dates for coming here - my birthday, the anniversary of his death, the New Year, Christmas, but I never came. It looks as if I lacked the courage to do so and, if the truth be told, I thought I should never manage it.It proves to be as hard a visit as he had always feared, bringing him face to face not only with the few days he spent with David but the hardships of his childhood as a whole. Living in a basic camp at first this is the world where 'father's work from dawn till dusk, came home drunk and bullied their families.' Raj is the middle brother between Anil and Vinod, always the most protected of the three. His mother is a woman who always quietly worked away, skilled with her knowledge of plants and seeds, always making concoctions. His father is the scourge of the family but Raj's memories of the drunken violence meted out are stained by the guilt he feels at his own failure to fight back or protect his mother. Guilt continues throughout the book as a major theme, and it is a survivor's guilt for Raj is the only brother to survive a tropical storm in which flash floods sweep Anil and Vinod away. Memory is also skewed by the act itself and this next extract describes not only that haze that obscures the view but also the competing narrative voices employed in this book.
Am I now inventing the smile on my father's face. Am I inventing his eyes, suddenly so alive, so cruel? And if I say that he took pleasure in acting thus, is it my old man's voice or my little boy's memory dictating this to me?The voice does switch and for me, with my innate antipathy towards child narrators, it's a little too heavily inclined towards the child. What Appanah does bring to her prose is a light poetic feel, words and phrases are repeated so that there is a lyrical quality to the writing. About halfway through the book it occured to me that the effect of this was to make it feel like the written down version of aural storytelling so imagine my joy (and smugness) when at the end of recounting the past to himself Raj determines that he is now ready to tell the story to his son.
It is after the devastating loss of that storm that Raj's father moves the family and begins work as a guard in the prison at Beau-Bassin. Here Raj has his first experience of anyone from outside the island community and his first sighting of the boy David.
I cannot remember the precise moment when I noticed David. Perhaps it was when he walked towards the barbed wire. What I saw first was his hair, that magnificent mop of it, which floated around his head but which was certainly his and his alone, in a way that nothing has ever belonged to me, those curls hiding his brow, and his way of advancing stiffly, not limping, for all the world as if he were made of wood and iron and his machinery had not been oiled for quite some while.Safely hidden in the shade of a bush Raj observes these prisoners and David in particular, his golden hair almost miraculous, the two boys share a confidence outside language and when another storm loosens some of the fencing around the prison Raj liberates his new friend, a surrogate brother.
I was full of hope, I wanted a brother, two brothers, a family as before, games as before, I wanted to be protected as before, I wanted to catch sight of those shadows out of the corner of my eye that let you know you are not alone. I was struggling desperately to resist everything that took me further away from childhood, I rejected death, rejected grief, rejected separation, and David was the answer to everything.We have always known of course that David isn't going to survive and that theme of guilt continues again as Raj comes to terms with the fact that he 'did not want to get David out of the prison because he was unhappy, no, I wanted to get him out because I was unhappy.' Which makes for a curious kind of book. I haven't read The Boy With Striped Pajamas, with which this book bears obvious comparison, but I presume that the appeal of these stories lies in friendship across a divide, something that transcends the brutal and inevitable end brought about by the persecution of at least one of the characters. The slightly odd thing here is that Raj is in effect the cause of David's real suffering and death. It is an extraordinarily brave book that depicts so ruthlessly the selfishness of children when they aren't aware of the possible consequences of their actions. What kind of a reading experience that becomes will depend on you.