book review, child abuse, colonialism, cultural appropriation, friendship, historical fiction, Holocaust, Jews, literary fiction, Natacha Appanah, World War II, write what you know
Review: The Last Brother, by Natacha Appanah
Graywolf, 2010. 164 pp. $14
Do authors have the right to tell stories from a culture to which they don’t belong? That question has roiled the literary world recently, though I’m not sure why it should. I believe in freedom of expression, which includes not having to ask permission to tell a story that nobody owns anyway. Condemning any work out of hand, especially on cultural grounds, sounds like an attempt to muzzle a voice with which you fear you may disagree, but to which others, less erudite or correct than yourself, may fall prey. It’s as if the old saw, “write what you know,” has assumed the force of literary law, which one breaks at his or her peril, and that there’s only one way to know anything: by direct experience.
Fie, I say. And yet, I also believe that if you’re going to write about anything, whether you’ve lived it or not, you’d better do your homework. That’s why The Last Brother, an otherwise accomplished novel in two important respects, leaves me shaking my head.
The premise, seemingly utterly improbable, actually isn’t. It’s 1944, and Raj, a young Mauritian boy, learns that a nearby prison contains white people, which would be strange enough, except that these prisoners seem too beaten-down and harmless to be criminals. What the reader understands, but Raj doesn’t, is that the prison serves as a displaced persons camp, and the inmates are Jews, though how they got there remains a mystery until the end.
Raj’s father, a terrifying brute, works at the camp as a servant. One day he beats the boy so badly that he must be hospitalized, and the camp possesses the only facilities. While there, Raj befriends David, a refugee from Prague his own age, the first friend he’s ever had. It’s a clever conceit, since both boys have lost everything. David’s whole family have been killed, whereas Raj’s two brothers both died in a mud slide, a tragedy that shadows him constantly. Understandably, Raj believes that meeting David gives him the chance at having another brother, hence the title.
So there’s a story here worth reading, and Appanah’s prose sings it:
For here, at Mapou, the glistening rain which falls from heaven, fine and gentle, almost like a caress, the rain that refreshes and for which one thanks heaven, such a manna did not exist. At Mapou the rain was a monster. We could see it gathering strength, hugging the mountain like an army rallying before an assault, hear the orders for battle and slaughter being given. . . We would raise our eyes toward the mountain while the dust granted us a respite, and the sighs of our elders would prepare us for the worst.
How, then, can things go wrong for The Last Brother? First (and I hate playing a familiar tune, but it’s unfortunately apt), the author chooses to tell the whole story in retrospect, starting with a prologue that falls absolutely flat. Not only does the opening give away what Raj has become and, to an extent, how, it reveals that David dies at age ten. Right away, that undercuts the tension, but it’s to serve a purpose, one I don’t agree with, but more of that in a moment. The older Raj, looking back, feels such intense grief over David’s grave that it seems overwrought, because the context only comes much later. I suspect that Appanah does this because she wanted to close with the story of how these Jews wound up interned on Mauritius, as though that were the climax, and so she turns the narrative on its head.
As for revealing straight out that David dies, I further suppose that she wants to underline what the older Raj says later. Toward the end, he observes that he coopted David as a replacement brother, completely ignoring whatever his friend must have gone through, as if the other boy existed only for him. This seems too authorial for me, interposing an adult thought in a scene narrated by a child. But that’s only half the problem.
The other half is that Appanah has borrowed the Holocaust without knowing a thing about Jews. The Holocaust gets thrown around quite a bit, and I wish it weren’t, but, as I said, I’ll defend Appanah’s use of it so long as she’s done her homework, and its evocation seems honest rather than cavalier. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced. The Jews are shadow figures at best, even David, of no significance other than their difference from anyone Raj has ever seen. The few details of dress or language ring false, and the crowd of prisoners might be anyone, as if they, like David for Raj, were a mere convenience, in this case, for the author’s purposes.
I never knew there were displaced Jews imprisoned on Mauritius, and I salute Appanah for recounting this story. I only wish she’d bothered to make them real.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.