I’ve been in quite a reading slump lately. Every book that I’ve read has been just so-so. That is until I picked up The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah.
It’s the story of Raj, a nine year old local boy whose life is filled with the violence of an alcoholic abusive father. Raj and his family have been destroyed by a horrible event that turned a family of five into three. Father, mother, and Raj move when the father finds work at a prison, Beau-Bassin. A prison that Raj is told is full of “dAngerous ones, the rUnaways, the rObbers, and the bAd mEn.” Raj travels each day to the prison to bring his father lunch, but endlessly curious about the inmates finds a hiding place and observes. What does he see? David, a young boy around the same age walking towards the barbed wire of Beau-Bassin.
“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.”
David sits and observes the internees as Raj lies in the dirt observing David.
“Suddenly David’s curls began to shake, his shoulders too, and he buried his face between his knees, which he had brought up against his chest as he sat down. Then I heard him crying, I knew it only too well, this sobbing that racks you, that makes you softly murmur oh, oh, as if someone were slowly, very slowly, plunging a knife into your heart.”
The two form a friendship that is doomed from the start, but one that will haunt Raj for sixty years filling him with guilt for what was done, and what should have been done.
The Last Brother takes place during 1944-1945 on Mauritius, an island off the South African Coast. An island seemingly far removed from the horror and violence of World War II, but even this remote area cannot escape . Beau-Bassin was a camp for Jewish refugees from East Europe (Poland in particular) who had tried to reach Palestine in the early 1940s to escape the Nazi persecution. They travelled down the west coast of Africa, passed the Cape of Good Hope, and entered the Indian Ocean. They were taken by the British at this point, brought to Mauritius, and made to stay there until the end of the war. 128 of them died and were buried in Mauritius.
Nathach Appanah has done a beautiful job of taking this bit of history and allowing us to view it through the eyes of these young boys. The writing is lyrical and beautifully translated. This is a short novel that will hopefully mark the beginning of a very long writing career.
-posted by Susan, Health Reference Librarian