The Last Brother, by young French-Mauritian author Nathacha Appanah, is a quiet, lyrical coming-of-age novel set against one of the least-known chapters of World War II: it describes the fate of a group of some 1,500 European Jewish refugees, who tried to escape to Palestine after the outbreak of the war but were turned away by the British immigration authorities there. By 1944, they were being held in the Beau-Bassin prison on the island of Mauritius, a British colony in the middle of the Indian Ocean. How they escaped countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria; how their hopes of reaching “Eretz,” or paradise, were dashed in Haifa; how they’ve managed to survive in Mauritius—these are all mysteries to Raj, a nine-year-old local boy, who stumbles upon them as he peers across the prison walls. His own childhood world—from the forested village he grew up in with his two brothers, Anil and Vinod, outside the sugar plantation to the small shack near the prison, where his father works as a guard—has always been small and sheltered, an island, like Mauritius, cut off from the larger forces of history. Or so he imagines.
All Raj knows is the sort of brute existence of what Appanah, echoing Fanon, calls “the wretched of the earth”: His father, like most of the men in the sugar camps, drinks heavily and terrorizes their small family, especially him (the weakest of the three brothers and the only one to go to school). His mother, by contrast, represents “the tender side of our life of poverty.” But Raj is also attuned to the more wondrous aspects of the surrounding landscape—he knows his way by heart through the forest at a gallop, he frolics and hides by the sweet-smelling stream and camphor trees, and is lulled into reverie by the swirling clouds of the sugar factory smokestacks. The billowing clouds are an image that Appanah, in the sort of rhythmic cadences one might associate with the Caribbean writer Jamaica Kincaid, returns to often—until, late in the book, it is transformed into a nightmarish vision of European concentration camp furnaces, “where, instead of sugarcanes crackling in the fire, there were men, women, and children.”
But nature in the tropics is not always, nor even principally, a benign force, and in the midst of an apocalyptic storm Raj and his brothers are caught off-guard in the woods. Anil and Vinod never make it out, and thus is born Raj’s own personal sense of heartache and grief, his own deep well of loneliness. These are all qualities that he recognizes immediately in the eyes of David, a ten-year-old orphan from Prague who he first glimpses through the Beau-Bassin prison fence. Who is this ghost-like white child, with blond curly hair and the skinny body of a stick figure? And why is he so sad and alone as well? For the most part, it is an unspoken bond that develops between the two—a companionship of gestures, looks, and broken phrases in a smattering of French and Yiddish.
All of this—the poor and grim childhood, the discovery of a long-lost brother and soul mate in David, who Raj helps to slip free of the prison in the aftermath of a powerful cyclone—is recalled by an older Raj, now seventy, looking back at the defining traumas of his youth. It’s told in a wistful, elegiac manner that brings to mind the French-Russian author Andreï Makine’s 1995 Prix Goncourt–winning Dreams of My Russian Summers. The two books, incidentally, share the same translator in Geoffrey Strachan, who has rendered both in fluid if at times stilted prose. The nostalgic distance of time adds a certain resonance and layer of depth to the narrative, and allows the older Raj to struggle with his blurred vision of David, who we learn in the book’s opening pages will die within months of their encounter. Who was David and how much did Raj ever really know about his life? “But who am I to be telling all this today, to be saying all this, to be talking about him like this, as if I had some kind of right to speak of these appalling things,” he upbraids himself. “What do I know of how he might have felt, what do I know of deportation and pogroms, what do I know of prison?” Later he wonders: “When and how did his parents die? Who took him in their arms to comfort him at that moment? Who watched over him? I do not know.”
The Last Brother is a book of questions, a sweet and sad riddle of two boys—with two very different histories—brushing up against each other ever so briefly in some faraway, forgotten land. The book is rich with metaphor, the language ripe and evocative. And even if the tale itself is doomed to tragedy, Appanah’s telling of it is shot through with bursts of light and transcendence. Here’s how Raj, for example, recalls the poignant night he spent with David in the forest, as they embarked on their quixotic flight for freedom together:
“David’s little voice arose beside the camphor tree, his Yiddish words filled that tropical night, his Jewish song enfolded the forest and enfolded me, little Raj. His voice was so serene, the words flowed naturally, and this recital entered into me and reached my heart, making me at one with the world around me, as if, until then, I had been a stranger to it. This lament seemed to enhance the beauty of the natural world and, if I may dare say it, amid these recollections, amid these terrible and barbaric events, I felt as if this lament spoke of the beauty of life itself.”
Appanah has resurrected a fascinating if little-known slice of Mauritian history, certainly, but she’s done it through characters that thrum with life. At well under two hundred pages, The Last Brother is that rare book that’s able to explore grand and sweeping themes of history with a masterfully light touch.