Much of the French novel The Last Brother takes place in a tropical forest—a forest so fetid, overgrown, and unpredictable that it becomes a character in its own right. The forest’s constant presence gives The Last Brother the air of a fairy tale, a mood well suited to its child protagonist, who must navigate one of the darkest corners of history with little help from the adult world.
The novel’s narrator, Raj, is an old man looking back on his life. In a prologue-like first chapter, he describes being visited, in a dream, by his boyhood friend, David. From this dream unspools the much darker dream of Raj’s World War II-era childhood. Raj is a native of Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean that was under British colonial rule during the war. Raj lives with his family on a sugar plantation, where he is subject to backbreaking labor, and weather conditions that vacillate between Dust Bowl-like windstorms or gully-washing monsoons. His father’s moods are even more tempestuous. A weakling, often sickly, Raj is protected from his father’s rage by his brothers; one older, one younger, both stronger and more capable than him. Raj’s other great protector is his mother, whose illiteracy and poverty do not prevent her from being “something of a sorcerer.” She is both nurse and apothecary, and over the course of the book her medicines and potions revive Raj again and again, even curing him of one of the twentieth century’s most terrifying diseases.
As the title of the novel foretells, Raj’s beloved brothers are killed within the book’s opening chapters, leaving Raj an only child—the last brother. The tragedy of this event impels Raj and his parents to relocate to another part of the island, Beau-Bassin, where Raj’s father finds work as a prison guard. The nature of this prison is mysterious to Raj, but it quickly becomes apparent to the reader that it is a Jewish detention camp, although how and why such a camp ended up on the remote island of Mauritius is one of the novel’s central mysteries. Raj becomes curious about the prison, but when he asks his father to explain, his father will only tell him that the it is full of “the dAngerous ones, the rUnaways, the rObbers, and the bAd mEn.” (The capitalized vowel letters are meant to show the threatening way Raj’s father pronounced the words and is a rare case when something seemed lost from the French translation.) Undeterred, Raj begins to visit the prison secretly, hanging around the fences and peering inside. At first, he is awed by the prison grounds, which appear attractive and modern, with flower gardens, benches, and “a house, like the ones on my picture cards at school.”
It made a great impression on me to see it, this kind of tranquil splendor where, what is more, my father worked. Today it is a recollection that disgusts me somewhat, a big lie I believed in for a time, since this semblance of ease—the billowing curtains, the fruits, the flowers, the lawn, the silence—was only a facade, it was all just for show, and if one probed just a little, darkness, squalor, cries, and tears were all there to be uncovered.
Raj’s illusions of a genteel prison life begin to unravel when he eventually sees the prisoners being escorted into the yard by his father. They are sickly-looking and bedraggled, “like ghosts.” But for Raj, the most surprising thing about them is that they are white.
I had never seen white people so thin and weary—at the age of eight I thought white people were bosses at the factory, drove about in cars, and flew aircraft, I would never have believed they could be locked up.
There are children in the prison, as well as adults—another clue, for Raj, that the prison is more sinister than it seems. One boy, in particular, catches Raj’s eye. His blond hair—like “a cluster of golden threads”—is unlike anything Raj has ever seen. This boy turns out to be David—the same David who haunts the narrator’s dreams at the beginning of the novel.
Raj is such a lonely child that he longs to join the other children within the prison. He gets his wish when his father beats him so badly that he must be sent to the prison’s hospital for recovery. (His father tells the other guards that his son “fell from a tree.”) There, Raj sleeps in a bed for the first time in his life, and meets David, the golden-haired boy, who is also in the hospital, being treated for malaria. Some of the most poignant pages of this novel are devoted to the blossoming of David and Raj’s friendship:
The French words we used were foreign to both of us, from now on it was a language we had to bend to what was in our own minds, to what we wanted to say, no longer, as at school, simply decoding and repeating. We were both making the same effort to communicate and we were doing it slowly, patiently, which may be why we were very quickly able to say important things to one another, such as I’m all alone. Me too.
Raj learns that David is orphaned and Jewish—although he doesn’t know what Jewish means. He thinks, because David is in a hospital, that “being Jewish referred to an illness.” Raj knows nothing of the war in Europe; he has never heard of Prague, where David is from; he has never even heard of Germany. David opens Raj’s mind to the world outside his family, and the even larger world beyond Mauritius. Raj is also finally able to confess his sadness and guilt over the death of his two brothers, and, more importantly, he allows himself to be comforted. When Raj is finally released from the prison hospital, he finds himself unmoved at the prospect of returning to his beloved mother. All he wants is to be with David, who is both his first friend, and a surrogate for his lost brothers.
What follows is part love story, part horror story as Raj attempts to rescue David from prison. A cyclone hits the island, enabling David’s escape, but the storm ultimately causes his death. Appanah is at her most powerful in these pages, as she recounts the boys’ flight through the devastated tropical forest.
Before us and behind us the same landscape stretched away endlessly. A strip of nature devoid of life. Sometimes I thought I saw a fruit that had been spared. I would stoop, pick it up, examine it, but ended by throwing it away, for mangoes, lychees, pawpaws, longans, all these summer fruits had been mown down at the height of their ripeness and were nothing but rotting husks, sticky balls, dripping wet and stinking.
When I began reading The Last Brother, I thought of it as a novel about World War II and the legacy of the Holocaust, but by the time I finished, it struck me as having more in common with post-colonial novels like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things or Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John. At times Appanah’s prose is even reminiscent of Kincaid’s, especially in the book’s final third, when the boys are lost in the forest, and the sentences become very long—going on for a page or more—and full of plaintive repetitions. Here, the novel is at its most fairy-tale like and suspenseful, even as the boys are obviously doomed. There will be no white knights to rescue them, no magic potions. In the Hollywood version of this book, the boys would be redeemed, somehow, but Appanah doesn’t shy away from the truth of their circumstances. The only redemption Raj gets is the opportunity to tell his story, which Appanah renders in simple, elegant prose that works like a scalpel to reveal the brutality of war—as well as the consolations of friendship.