The Last Brother/by Nathacha Appanah: Reflections

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

There is a boy named Raj, and he is nine years old.  He lives in Mauritius;  it is 1944.  Raj was the middle son of three, but now he is the family's only son, and what, he asks us, is the word for a boy who loses both his brothers in one day?  What is the word for a boy whose love will be even more strenuously tested?  What is the capability and culpability of memory when an old man looks back and remembers?

This is the Raj of Nathacha Appanah's extraordinary novel, The Last Brother (Graywolf Press, translated by Geoffrey Strachan).  This is the landscape of a book that will take you deeply and unforgettably into the abundant and cruel Mauritius, into the childhood of one fated with a violent father and a healing mother, into the topography of bewildering loss. In The Last Brother Raj is an old man looking back on a friendship that erupted, mysteriously, during his ninth year—a friendship between himself and a boy named David, a blond Jewish exile whom he meets in the hospital ward of an island prison.  Raj then and now is haunted, confused.  He wants to know, precisely.  He wants to honor the past by reviving its details, by not looking away—but can he?  Can any of us?

The artfulness of this novel is directly tied to the lack of pretense in Raj's narrating voice—the tangles he gets himself into, the sentences that smudge punctuation, change tense, get lost in the scribble of time.  What does it mean to write authentically?  I think it means recognizing that an old man looking back on an exotic, fated childhood might remember and recall the world, without artifice, this way:

During those says spent all alone at Beau-Bassin, immersed in that somehow muted light, which now took on the color of the forest, now the color of the flowers my mother had planted around the house to crate a benign ring, or else that of the bluish mountains in the distance, I discovered a taste for hiding places.  I would lie low in corners, tucking my feet and legs in underneath me, I would climb up into trees and crouch in the forks of branches, my body coiled in on itself like a snake, I would dig holes beneath the squash plants in the vegetable garden and crawl in there, with my belly to the ground, my hands buried in the earth up to my wrists, my face hidden among the creepers.
The Last Brother, already hailed internationally, is due out in the States in February from Graywolf Press.  I was blessed to receive an early copy from the press itself.  Sent to me because they know, at Graywolf, that I love great books.  I hold them to my heart.


Lilian Nattel said...

How lucky to get it first.

Beth F said...

Wow -- this sounds like one to look for.

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