The New York Times
The Last Brotherby Nathacha Appanah, Geoffrey Strachan (Translator)
In The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, 1944 is coming to a close and nine-year-old Raj is unaware of the war devastating the rest of the world. He lives in Mauritius, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, where survival is a daily struggle for his family. When a brutal beating lands Raj in the hospital of the prison camp where his father is a guard, he meets a
In The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, 1944 is coming to a close and nine-year-old Raj is unaware of the war devastating the rest of the world. He lives in Mauritius, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, where survival is a daily struggle for his family. When a brutal beating lands Raj in the hospital of the prison camp where his father is a guard, he meets a mysterious boy his own age. David is a refugee, one of a group of Jewish exiles whose harrowing journey took them from Nazi occupied Europe to Palestine, where they were refused entry and sent on to indefinite detainment in Mauritius.
A massive storm on the island leads to a breach of security at the camp, and David escapes, with Raj's help. After a few days spent hiding from Raj's cruel father, the two young boys flee into the forest. Danger, hunger, and malaria turn what at first seems like an adventure to Raj into an increasingly desperate mission.
This unforgettable and deeply moving novel sheds light on a fascinating and unexplored corner of World War II history, and establishes Nathacha Appanah as a significant international voice.
The New York Times
“In a lucid and elegiac voice, Appanah inscribes onto the tablets of history a little known episode of the Jewish exodus during WWII. A young boy's life is forever changed when he decides he must save the single friend he has in the wake of losing his own two brothers. It is a mournful yet vividly affecting story, set on a tropical island ruled by stark contrasts, of how one tries to live with the burden of loss and the acceptance of responsibility.” MARIE DU VAURE, Copperfield's Books
“Appanah's descriptions are meticulous, and the heartbreakingly endearing Raj makes for an unforgettable protagonist.” PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, starred review
“The Last Brother is a wonder of concision and power. Appanah has created a memorable character that demonstrates the resilience of an individual in the face of the barbarism that we sometimes call history. Appanah's ability to create such a nuanced character and story allows us to step into a history that has remained obscure to many of us. I am a delightfully astonished reader.” PAUL YAMAZAKI, City Lights Booksellers
“Nathacha Appanah's The Last Brother is one of the most beautiful, contained portrayals of devastating loss and profound longing that I've ever read. An older man gives voice and remembrance to his younger self, bringing to vivid life a childhood marked by brutality, separation, and death, but also cunning, connection, and survival. With the lightest of touches, the author movingly conveys a child discovering his own mysteries, then navigating those of a baffling, larger world.” RICK SIMONSON, Elliott Bay Book Company
“Beautifully poised and very lyrical.” CARYL PHILLIPS
“Poetic, occasionally rapturous prose.” KIRKUS REVIEWS
“Reading The Last Brother is like entering into a Grimms' fairy tale where the darkness of the forest is met only by the greater darkness of human cruelty. Nathacha Appanah has beautifully rendered this tangled world through the innocent perspective of a boy who apprehends and misapprehends eventsÑhistorical and personal--that unfold around him. An important story, lyrical, grave, and gorgeously told.” VICTORIA REDEL
“A disturbing and extraordinarily sensitive story around the tragic odyssey of Jewish refugees.” Le Monde (Paris)
“In Geoffrey Strachan's sumptuous translation, we follow a fairy-tale flight from persecutions, small and large, that bonds two boys from different ends of a suffering earth.” The Independent
A short, deceptively rich novel, translated from the French, that illuminates an obscure footnote in World War II history.
The narrator of the prize-winning fourth novel by Appanah(Blue Bay Palace,2009, etc.) is a 70-year-old man from her native Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, obsessed with an incident that changed his life when he was nine years old. With a perspective that more often reflects a young boy's innocence than the old man's experience, Raj describes the bond he developed with a Jewish boy named David, orphaned in the Holocaust, exiled to the island's prison after exiles were denied entry into Palestine as illegal aliens. Raj's impoverished family had lost his two brothers to a fatal storm, and his brutal father works as a guard at the prison. In the hospital (where Raj lands after a particularly brutal beating from his father) and on the grounds, the two boys bond, sharing a similarity of name (each is "king" in his culture, one of the parallels that is a little too pat) and experience (both have suffered deep losses and feel essentially alone). The reader learns from the start that Raj has survived and that David has died, a tragedy that elicits complicated feelings of complicity and guilt in Raj. "What I want to do is tellpreciselywhat happened, it is the least I can do for David, I want to tell what matters, I want finally to put him at the center of this story," he says. Yet Raj can only bear witness, offer his own testimony, with some elements of David's story buried with him. What he tells of David is Raj's rite of passage: "This feeling, like a rising and falling tide of nausea, was the loss of childhood and the awareness that nothing, nothing from now on, would protect me from the terrible world of men."
In poetic, occasionally rapturous prose, the novel extends beyond the Holocaust in its attempt to encompass the human condition.
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Read an Excerpt
I saw David again yesterday. I was lying in bed, my mind a blank, my body light, there was just a faint pressure be¬tween my eyes. I do not know why I turned my head to¬ward the door, since David had not made a sound, not a sound, not like the old days when he used to walk and run a bit lopsidedly and I was always amazed that his thin body, with those legs and arms as long and slender as the reeds that grow beside streams, his face lost amid the soft hair that floated like spindrift from waves, I was amazed that all this, this combination of small, gentle and inoffensive things, should make such a clatter on the ground as David walked along.
David was leaning against the door frame. He was tall, and this surprised me. He was wearing one of those linen shirts whose softness and lightness excite envy, even at a distance. He had adopted a nonchalant pose, his legs slightly crossed, his hands in his pockets. A kind of glow bathed one side of his hair and his curls gleamed. I sensed that he was happy to see me after all these years. He smiled at me.
It may have been at this moment that I realized I was dreaming. I do not know where it comes from, this sudden awareness, I wonder why the real world sometimes invades a dream. On this occasion I found the vague sensation most unwelcome and struggled to convince myself that David really was there, simply and patiently waiting for me to wake up. All right, I told myself, I’m going to tease him, say some¬thing to him like you’re showing off, you’re striking a pose, but I could not utter a sound. I made a superhuman effort, opened my jaws wide, trying and trying, but in vain, my throat dried up. It is incredible how real this felt, great gulps of air streaming in through my open mouth and parching everything inside. At that moment I sensed that I was on the brink of waking but I thought if I lay still the dream would last. So I stayed in bed, I closed my mouth, I went on looking toward the door but I could not quell the sadness that had arisen in my heart.
At the very moment when this grief swept over me, David came closer. With one supple movement he slipped his shoulder away from the door frame, his hands still in his pockets, and took three steps. I counted. Three steps. David was tall, strong, adult, handsome, so handsome. Then I really knew I was dreaming and could do nothing about it. The last time I had seen him he was ten years old. And yet here was my David in front of me. An incredible tenderness radiated from him, something indefinable that I had been aware of at precious moments in my life: when I lived in the north as a little boy and had my two brothers; and when I spent those few summer days with him in 1945.
Lying there in bed like that I felt a little ashamed. I was no figure in a dream. I had had sixty long years since that time with David and, flat on my back in bed, I could feel every day of them. Over all that period I had never dreamed about him. Even at first, when I used to think about him every day, miss¬ing him so much that I wept and wanted to die, he had never appeared to me in a dream. If only he had come earlier, when I was rather more like him, young and strong. I, too, could stand like that once, head held high, hands in pockets, back straight. I, too, could show off, strike a pose. By stretching my neck, and raising myself a little on my el¬bows, I could have made out his face more clearly, but I was afraid to move. I wanted the dream to last, to go on, I wanted David to draw near of his own accord. Two steps more, I reck¬oned, and he would be close enough to touch and see. I would finally be able to look him in the eye. I could spring up, give him a friendly jab, hug him, doing it all quickly before I woke, somehow contriving to take the dream by surprise. Would he still have that broken front tooth, the one he had scraped against the ground as I dropped him, when we were playing at airplanes? I used to hold him flat out, his hands in front of him. He laughed and shouted as I hurtled forward for several yards. He was so light. But I stumbled. Down on the ground, David went on laughing and I was the first to notice his bro¬ken smile, his lips all bloody, though he kept on laughing. He loved playing at airplanes, he wanted to do it again, he had no time for crying over himself. Otherwise, with all he had lived through up to the age of ten, I think he would have been weeping from dawn till dusk.
They say you have strange dreams when you are close to death. For a long time my mother used to dream that my fa¬ther appeared to her, dressed in his brown uniform, ready to go to work. Come with me, he would say, I need you. In her dream my mother refused point blank, she told me, with a trace of alarm in her voice, she who had never refused him anything much during his lifetime. The night my mother died in her sleep, could it be that she had finally had enough of saying no and followed my father into the darkness?
But David, for his part, said nothing to me, he remained there, patiently watching me, between shadow and light. The dust motes hovering there in the first rays reminded me strangely of sequins. In the end it was pleasant, a dream at once sad and delicious, there was a lilac-colored glow in the room and I told myself he could easily have carried me now. I have become a frail old man and if we were to play at air¬planes again and he accidentally let go of me, as I had let go of him more than sixty years before, my whole body would be broken.
Suddenly I had had enough of waiting, I reached out my hand to him and it was morning, my room empty, the light dazzling, David vanished, the dream gone, my arm out¬stretched, outside the bedclothes, numb with cold, and my face bathed in tears.
I called my son not long after having my breakfast. I asked him if he could drive me to Saint-Martin, he said of course, whenever you like, I’ll come at noon today. My son is his own boss, he has little time for anything apart from work, he is unmarried, has no children, rarely goes out, hardly rests at all. But for the past few years now he seems to have had all the time in the world for me. It is because I am old, the only family he has left and he is afraid.
At twelve o’clock sharp my son was there. I had been ready for a good hour before. When you grow old you are early for everything, you are fearful of missing things, and then you get fed up with waiting for people. I put on dark pants, a blue shirt, and a light jacket. As in the old days, I slipped a little beige fine-tooth comb and a carefully folded white handkerchief into the inside pocket of my jacket. I also took out the little red box and kept it in my hand. I thought with a smile that I looked rather like a man about to make a proposal of marriage. I would have liked to polish my shoes, but the mere thought of such an operation exhausts me. So I sat down and rubbed both sides of my shoes against the liv¬ing room carpet as best I could, which made a sound that lulled me a little. When I heard the purr of the engine at the gate I stood up, waiting for my boy and leaning on my walk¬ing stick, as if standing to attention.
It is a new car, all gray and shiny. Metallic gray, my son specifies proudly. He makes no comment on my clothes, helps me into the car, fastens the seat belt for me, adjust¬ing it so that it is not too tight, puts my stick on the backseat and every time our eyes meet he gives me a big smile that draws his cheeks toward his ears and makes creases around his eyes.
He talks about his work briefly. He is in information technology, but it is difficult to talk about computers to an old man like me who understands absolutely nothing about them. So then he talks about his staff, young people he trains, who leave him very quickly, because, my son says, that’s how it is for people who work in computers, it’s chang¬ing all the time. When I tell him we are going to the Saint-Martin cemetery he says, that’s fine, Papa. No problem. It is probably no surprise to him that I should go to the cemetery. Most of my friends are dead now, we are folk who have had tough, hardworking lives and inevitably we die early, worn out and, if anything, eager to get it all over with.
My son puts on some classical music, checks that the win¬dows are fully closed, adjusts the temperature in the car to sixty-eight degrees, keeps within the speed limit, and every time he brakes a little abruptly he reaches out an arm to pro¬tect me. I would like to tell him not to be so afraid for me, afraid for himself.
At Saint-Martin we drive down a road of dirt and sand where great acacia trees have shed thousands of tiny husks. The car is jolting now and this wakes me up. I have known for many years that David is in this cemetery, along with those others who died from exhaustion, dysentery, ma¬laria, typhus, grief, madness. 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 my¬self 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 would never manage it. And now, today, be¬cause I had dreamed about David, it seems to me easy, obvi¬ous, I am not afraid, I am not sad.
The cemetery is very well maintained. It is surrounded by a low wall of red brick of the type used for English houses. The graves topped by the Star of David are lined up in rows of ten, facing the electric blue sea, metallic blue, my son might say. With the trees all around them, these stars look as if they were waiting for the sky to come down to them. When David told me the star he wore around his neck had the same name as him, I was sure, at the age of nine, that he was pulling my leg. I was furious. Do you take me for an idiot? I retorted, raising my voice. But then what did I know about the Jews and the Star of David?
My son helps me get out, hands me my walking stick and I go forward, on my own. I locate David’s grave on the plan at the entrance. My son is back in the car. I know he is watching me but all the same I take the comb out of my pocket and tidy my thick, gray mane of hair, which has nei¬ther thinned nor become limp with age. I straighten up, fas¬ten the first two buttons of my jacket, pull down my shirt cuffs, and proceed. David is over to the east, he must be one of the first to be reached by the sun in the morning. I walk slowly, trying to make the anticipation last, as I had in the night, when I tried to make my dream last. I am reading the names on the graves, images jostle one another in my head, memories come back so strongly that I am aware of their weight on my chest. I see their colors in my eyes, feel the taste of them in my mouth and I have to slow down, inhale deeply, and swallow to calm them.
And suddenly, brutally, it takes my breath away. After sixty years, I thought I was ready, I thought I should be able to confront this. Oh, David! I so much wish I was mistaken! I so much wish it could have been different. I wish I had never had to see this.
David Stein 1935–1945
The grave is just like the others and with sadness I picture his little child’s body and his blond hair within this great tomb. He is forever ten years old. And there it is again, I am the one who has survived and I am at pains to know why. I have led a plain life, I have done nothing remarkable . . .
I kneel down, my bones crack, my body is riven with shooting pains and my awareness of my own inner frailty is almost a source of pleasure. At last, at last, it will be my turn soon. I wipe the dust and sand from the black granite with my handkerchief. When it is clean, well and truly gleam-ing, I place the little red box upon it that contains his Star of David. And now I do what I did in my dream: I reach out my hand to David, close my eyes, and remember.
Meet the Author
NATHACHA APPANAH, a French-Mauritian of Indian origin, was born in Mauritius and worked there as a journalist before moving to France in 1998. The Last Brother, her fourth novel, won the Prix de la FNAC 2007 and the Grand Prix des Lecteurs de L'Express 2008. GEOFFREY STRACHAN is the award-winning translator of Andreï Makine.
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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.
I have just completed the reading of "The Last Brother", by Nathacha Appanah. This story takes place near the end of 1944 and involves a young boy of the age of nine years. His name is Raj and he lives in Mauritius. This location is an island in the Indian Ocean. As the story unfolds, Raj is retelling his story of his youth on the island, as he is preparing to visit the grave of a long lost friend, David, and he has not visited this grave before. Raj is now seventy years old, and tells his story, I believe for his own benefit, as well as for his son. He has lost his two brothers and is now moving from his shack of a home with his father and mother to a new location. This story has many ups and downs in the emotional range and I found myself taken in and seeing, breathing and living the story. David, is a nine year old boy who Raj meets as a result of Raj's discovery of a prison near his new home. Raj's father, a miserable man, in my estimation, is a guard at this prison. What Raj discovers is that this prison is filled with Jews, something that Raj has never heard of, and why is this little boy David in this prison. Remember, that this story takes place at the end of 1944, during World War II. Raj doesn't know anything about the war. Appanah is a wonderful writer. If this story is not a true story, then the author has definitely a way with words in order to bring a fictional story to life. The emotional roller coaster is beyond compare. I recommend this story to everyone.
I enjoyed reading this book. It was a very heart wrenching story. I only wish it were a little longer.
This is the best best book I have read so far this year. It is beautifully written and pulls on all heart strings from beginning to end. Highly recommended!
I haven't read this book yet but it sounds too similar to ' The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas ' . I'll come back and review it once I've read the book.