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.
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About 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.
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.