The little-known story of some 1,500 Jews imprisoned on the island of Mauritius during World War II is the backdrop of the novel, “The Last Brother,” by Nathacha Appanah. The book centers on the unlikely friendship of two boys, Raj and David, as they both struggle with intense loneliness and the impact of their different violent pasts.
“Their loneliness is innate in each other,” Appanah said in a telephone interview from New York, where she was attending the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. “This would be the starting point of their friendship.”
Listen to an interview with Appanah:
The novel is told from the perspective of Raj who is now 70 and looking back on the time he spent with David when he was just 9 years old. Raj is an Indian-Mauritian who loses his two brothers in a flash flood on the island. His father is a brutal alcoholic who works in the cane fields and later as a prison guard and takes out his frustrations on Raj and his mother. She’s a tender soul with a deep connection to the natural world. Raj chooses to be more like his mother, finding solace in the landscape and being a friend to David.
David is an orphan from Czechoslovakia, brought to a Mauritian prison in 1939 after trying to flee to Haifa with other Jews. Britain, which controlled Haifa and Mauritius at the time, imprisoned the refugees, claiming they didn’t have the proper passports and that returning them to Europe during wartime would be too dangerous.
Raj, while making a game out of hiding in the bushes around the prison to spy on his father, spots David in the prison yard one day and is immediately captivated by his blonde hair, fair skin and, most tellingly, his sorrow.
After an intense beating by his father, Raj finds himself in the prison hospital and he communicates with David in broken French, the only language they share. They both want something better, and Raj promises to help David escape. The harrowing days they spend on the run are the pinnacle of the plot.
First published in French in 2007, “The Last Brother” is Appanah’s fourth novel and her second translated into English. She’s a French-Mauritian of Indian decent, born in Mauritius where she worked as a journalist before moving to France.