THE LAST BROTHER by Nathacha Appanah

Book Quote:

“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. The 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. Even though I did not understand a single word of it, the tears rose in my eyes and, more than everything, more that those days spent together, more than our escapade itself, it was this moment that tied forever the knot that bound us together.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (APR 14, 2011)

Usually I review books shortly after reading them. However, Nathacha Appanah’s book, The Last Brother, sat so deeply in my heart that I had to wait several days before reviewing it. I needed it to come closer to the surface, closer to that word place where emotions can be translated into language.

Nathacha Appanah is a French-Mauritian of Indian origin, born in Maruitius and now living in France. The Last Brother won the Prix de la FNAC 2007 and the Grand Prix des lecteurs de L’Express 2008. Geoffrey Strachan has beautifully translated it into English. It reads as if it is in its native language, a feat very rare for translations.

The novel is set in Mauritius during 1944-1945. Mauritius is an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The book is about terror and adversity, about hope and exaltation. It is about the little known fact that 1500 Jews were sent from Palestine to Maritius for four years because they did not have the right papers when they landed in Palestine and were viewed by the British as illegal aliens. They are placed in a facility that was somewhere between a concentration camp and prison. One hundred twenty-seven Jews did not survive the four years of imprisonment. It is also the story of a deep and beautiful friendship of two young boys. Raj is nine years old and from Mauritius. David is ten years old and is a Jewish prisoner. He is an orphan from Prague. The story is narrated by Raj when he is seventy years old. He wants to tell his story as precisely as possible.

Raj comes from an extraordinarily impoverished background. He lives with his parents and two brothers in a hut in Mapou. Living conditions were so unsanitary that if a child got sick, it was assumed that he would die. “As a child I was a weakling. Of the three brothers I was the one who was the most fearful, the one who was always somewhat sickly, the one they protected from the dust, the rain, the mud. And yet it was I who survived at Mapou.” His father is a drunk who enjoys physically abusing Raj, his mother and brothers. “If we did not sing the way he wanted he would hit us.” Raj is the child picked to be educated. At school, he learns that not all fathers are like his and that not all children live in mud huts.

Raj and his brothers are very close. One day as they are walking, a terrible storm comes suddenly and both of Raj’s brothers are killed. The family leaves Mapou to resettle in Beau-Bassin where Raj’s father has gotten a job as a guard in the prison. One day, Raj’s father beats him so brutally that he ends up in the prison hospital with “a broken nose, cracked ribs, bruises, a blue pulp instead of a mouth.” It is in the hospital that his friendship with David is forged. David suffers from malaria and dysentery. They have little in the way of a common language but Raj knows some French from school and David speaks French. They slowly and very carefully communicate. Raj thinks that Prague is a village somewhere between Mapou and the prison. He does not know what a Jew is. “I do not know if I ought to be ashamed to say this but that was how it was: I did not know there was a world war on that had lasted for four years and when David asked me at the hospital if I was Jewish I did not know what he meant.” Gradually, Raj learns what is going on in the prison and his friendship with David gets closer and closer.

Serendipitously, Raj finds a way to loosen a piece of barbed wire in the ground and after a deadly cyclone, he manages to get David out of the prison and they start on an impossible journey to freedom. This part of the book has some of the most beautiful scenes I have ever read. Ms. Appanah’s language is spell-binding. It is poetic, lyrical, and sensitive. She takes the reader to places that language rarely takes us – those deep places in the soul where there is only bare and beautiful emotion but no words to describe things.

This book is filled with antithetical meanings. Where there is despair there is happiness; where there is fear there is courage; where there are prisons there is freedom; where there is regret there is hope. On the surface, this is a very sad book, but at its core there is profound beauty and exaltation. It is the story of two “kings,” Raj and David, sharing their kingdom of childhood.

This is the best book I have ever read. It left me speechless and uprooted. I had to re-read it in order to write this review and I know I will read it again many times. It is a book I will recommend to my friends and those who love to read. Thank you, Ms. Appanah, for this remarkable gift.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 23 readers
PUBLISHER: Graywolf Press; Reprint edition (February 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Nathacha Appanah
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another good read:Day for Night by Frederick Reiken


April 14, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Facing History, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.