Indian-born Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother is clearly meant to be touching. The story, told in flashback, revolves around Raj, a nine year old boy who lives with his mother and abusive father on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, and David, an orphaned Jewish refugee who has been indefinitely detained on the island of Mauritius while on a pilgrimage between Nazi occupied Europe and Palestine. After a brief meeting on opposite sides of a fence at the jail where David is contained and Raj’s father is guard, the two boys become friends (despite a language barrier that seems to become inconsequential later in the book) while Raj is in the camp’s hospital after a vicious beating from his father.
Shortly after Raj is sent home, an enormous storm causes a breach of security at the jail, and the boys orchestrate an escape. Raj brings David to his home, where he and his mother conspire to hide the young escapee from Raj’s father and the prison officials sent to track him down. Raj begins to see David as a replacement brother—thus the title—for the two brothers he lost in a mudslide approximately a year before meeting David.
I think of The Last Brother in a touching movie-trailer montage: cut from the scene of the old man in the graveyard to two young boys on the opposite sides of a jail yard fence, then flash to the bewildered boys wandering around amidst overgrown trees. Think The Boy in the Striped Pajamas meets Slumdog Millionaire.
This is not to say that the book, translated from the French (Appanah has lived in France since 1988), is necessarily bad—it reads like a summer blockbuster waiting to happen, the movie everyone goes to see (whether to beat the heat with theatre air conditioning or because it actually looks good, it’s impossible to tell), and that leaves a lot of moms sobbing at the end and clutching their squirming twelve year old sons.
In fact, the main issue, I felt, with this novel was that most of it was simply so unmemorable—or, to be more exact, that it felt like a reproduction of any other book I had ever read before, either about an impoverished childhood in India or about the plight of the Jewish refugee during the Nazi occupation. The end of the book, however, takes a turn for the better, when the tragic downfall of the boys comes purely through their own stupidity: David’s malaria, which was being treated while he was at camp, cannot be dealt with when he is roaming the island with Raj as the boys attempt to make it back to the village where the bodies of his two brothers were lost.
On the ground, I clung to him and I wept and pleaded, as I have never had the chance to do with those others whom I have lost. There is no need to dwell on what I said. Irrespective of country, language, age, social status, what we say at such times is no more than a variation on the same phrases, the same words. Don’t leave me. I ached everywhere, there was a taste of blood in my mouth, but I went on pleading, I was begging him to wake up. After a moment I laid his head on my shoulder and stroked his hair with the flat of my hand. I knew this action made one feel better. My heart was bursting with grief, it is as simple as that and amid the sultry heat of the trees and ferns I wept, I wept like the child I was.
While this style of Appanah’s was definitely interesting, her attention to the old man telling this story in flashback often felt like the disembodied narrator, popular in film, was lending his voice to describe the actions I could already clearly see unfolding. So if you want to read The Last Brother, more power to you—after all, it’s charming enough, and an incredibly quick read—but don’t expect to become too attached, because a month from now you won’t even remember you read it in the first place.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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