The Last Brother

Nathacha Appanah; Geof­frey Stra­chan, trans.
  • Review
August 25, 2011
Nathacha Appanah, whose author bio tells us is a French-Mau­rit­ian of Indi­an ori­gin,” has thrown extra­or­di­nary light on a lit­tle-known episode. In 1940, a group of Jew­ish refugees from Europe land­ed at Haifa — then still under British Man­date— only to be deport­ed to Mau­ri­tius, an island in the Indi­an Ocean which France had ced­ed to Britain more than a cen­tu­ry ear­li­er. Once arrived in Mau­ri­tius, the Jews were detained at the Beau-Bassin prison.

In Appanah’s nov­el, a young Mau­rit­ian boy (Raj), whose vicious father is employed at the prison, encoun­ters a Jew­ish orphan about his age (David). Raj, too, has endured unthink­able tragedy and loss. The boys’ lifechang­ing friend­ship blos­soms dur­ing their over­lap­ping stays in the prison hos­pi­tal. It forms the focus of the nov­el, which is told as Raj’s rec­ol­lec­tions.

It is a vivid and heart­break­ing sto­ry. More than 120 Jews died in exile on Mau­ri­tius. At the end of World War II, most of those who sur­vived opt­ed to live in Eretz” — that land they had sought from the start, that land that David longs for, that land that is utter­ly unfa­mil­iar to Raj before these strange, pale pris­on­ers enter his aware­ness.

I do not know if I ought to be ashamed to say this,” nar­ra­tor Raj con­fess­es, 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 it meant. I said no, being under the vague impres­sion that, because I was in the hos­pi­tal, being Jew­ish referred to an ill­ness. I had nev­er heard of Ger­many, in real­i­ty I knew very lit­tle. In David I had found an unhoped-for friend, a gift from heav­en, and at the start of this year of 1945 that was all that count­ed for me.”

I do not know if I ought to be ashamed to say that I had nev­er heard of the Jews interned at Beau-Bassin. But in The Last Broth­er, I have found an unhoped-for lesson.

Discussion Questions