The Last Brother: A Novel

The Last Brother: A Novel

by Nathacha Appanah, Geoffrey Strachan

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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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555970239
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 10/25/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,099,207
File size: 2 MB

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.

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 an award-winning translator.

Read an Excerpt

The Last Brother

By Nathacha Appanah, Geoffrey Strachan

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2007 Éditions de l'Olivier
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-023-9


I saw David again yesterday. I was lying in bed, my mind a blank, my body light, there was just a faint pressure between my eyes. I do not know why I turned my head toward 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 something 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, missing 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 elbows, 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 reckoned, 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 broken 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 father 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 airplanes 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 outstretched, 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 living 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 walking 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, adjusting 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 changing 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 would 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 windows 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 protect 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, malaria, 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 myself 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, because I had dreamed about David, it seems to me easy, obvious, 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 neither thinned nor become limp with age. I straighten up, fasten 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 had been 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 gleaming, 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.


Up to the age of eight I lived in the north of the country, in the village of Mapou. It was not a village such as exists there now, with clean houses, roofs in brilliant colors, roads of well-packed dirt or asphalt, lined with elegantly trimmed bamboo hedges, painted wooden gates, opening into welcoming courtyards, flowers, vegetable plots, fruit trees, light and the play of shadows everywhere. When I think of it now, and I have no difficulty in recalling those years, the place where we lived seemed more like a garbage dump.

Starting at the edge of the vast cane fields, an undulating mass of green on the Mapou sugar plantation, there was a straggling line of boxes, huts, so-called houses, fashioned from whatever our elders could lay their hands on, and this was known as "the camp." Branches, logs, bits of wood, tree stumps, leaves of sugarcane, twigs, bamboo, straw, dried cow pies, they were endlessly inventive. I do not know how I survived life in the camp, how the frail and timid little boy that I was managed to survive those eight long years. In those parts as soon as a child fell ill, the family at once prepared its funeral pyre and as a general rule they were right to do so. Illness led routinely, inexorably, to death.

The camp stood on land where nothing grew, since enormous rocks lay beneath the surface and occasionally, during the night, swelling like plants, they would break through the reddish soil a little way. Just enough for people getting up before dawn or children running about wildly to bang their feet against them. Then the one injured would alert the others and a bamboo or a tree branch tipped with a scrap of cloth would serve as a warning. That is how I remember our camp, dotted with warning stakes, which we had to put up with, weaving and winding our paths and our lives around them.

On days when the sun shone, which is to say for nine months of the year, an acrid red dust arose from the soil and it dogged us all. And woe betide us if the wind got up, for then, like a bullet from a gun, the mountain on the far side would send us a howling blast laden with this grit that came swirling around our wretched dwellings and seemed bent on only one thing: burying us once and for all.

But it was a mistake to pray for rain. Even at those moments of fury, when the dust entered every one of our pores, coalescing in crusts around our mouths and eyes, cramming itself into fine lines beneath our fingernails, even when in the morning we were spitting out brownish bile and our meals ended up tasting of this dry, acrid detritus, it was a mistake to pray for rain. For here, at Mapou, the glistening rain which falls from heaven, fine and gentle, almost like a caress, the rain that refreshes and for which one thanks heaven, such a manna did not exist. At Mapou the rain was a monster. We could see it gathering strength, hugging the mountain like an army rallying before an assault, hear the orders for battle and slaughter being given. The clouds would daily grow larger, so heavy and greedy that the wind, which, down below on the ground, was making us stagger, could no longer drive them away. We would raise our eyes toward the mountain while the dust granted us a respite, and the sighs of our elders would prepare us for the worst.

The earth, which you might have supposed to be thirsty after so many days of sunshine, battered by the wind, pummelled from inside by burning rocks, this earth did not save us all the same. When the first drops of rain came pelting down on the camp it soaked them up for a brief while and became soft and light. You could plunge your foot into it, I remember that warm sensation around my toes, and we had visions of a fertile land, of vegetables flowing with sap, of fruit bursting with juice. But this did not last long. Even we, the children, who delighted in that first glorious downpour, our faces washed clean of the red dust, even we abandoned our games to take refuge in our homes. The earth was very quickly sated and the raindrops bounced off it like thousands of jumping fleas, with an intolerable rattling sound. This was the signal the largest clouds were waiting for. They exploded with a blinding flash, the thunder shook the earth, and we ended up pining for the dry days and the red dust.


Excerpted from The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, Geoffrey Strachan. Copyright © 2007 Éditions de l'Olivier. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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