Saturday, April 16, 2011

Boys bonded by tragic loss (Books - The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah)

Nathacha Appanah's The Last Brother is a novel of a tender memory that Raj, an elderly man from Mauritius, has of a Jewish refugee his own age, held in the prison where his father worked in 1944. In a childhood of poverty and brutal deprivation, one of the few beautiful things that happens to him is meeting David, one of a group of exiles from the Holocaust, detained because Palestine refused to take them in and turned their boat around. Although the two can share a few words of schoolroom French as their only means of verbal communication, what bonds them is devastating loss sustained while still boys.
It may have been at this moment that I realized I was dreaming. I do not know where it comes from, this sudden awareness, I wonder why the real world sometimes invades a dream. On this occasion I found the vague sensation most unwelcome and struggled to convince myself that David really was there, simply and patiently waiting for me to wake up. All right, I told myself, I'm going to tease him, say something to him like you're showing off, you're striking a pose, but I could not utter a sound. I made a superhuman effort, opened my jaws wide, trying and trying, but in vain, my throat dried up. It is incredible how real this felt, great gulps of air streaming in through my open mouth and parching everything inside. At that moment I sensed that I was on the brink of waking but I thought if I lay still the dream would last. So I stayed in bed, I closed my mouth, I went on looking toward the door but I could not quell the sadness that had arisen in my heart.

At the very moment when this grief swept over me, David came closer. With one supple movement he slipped his shoulder away from the door frame, his hands still in his pockets, and took three steps. I counted. Three steps. David was tall, strong, adult, handsome, so handsome. Then I really knew I was dreaming and could do nothing about it. The last time I had seen him he was ten years old.
I find Appanah's writing as translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan, captures that fairytaleish dream-state beautifully. It's full of the visceral details that makes what one is reading into what seems to be happening to us. The writing also has a certain musical quality reminiscent of what it is like to be read to as a child.
Grasping the big knot with both hands over my shoulder, I would climb back up the long road to my home. The sheet would slither about and I would have to give it a heave with my hips to hitch the bundle up again and get a new grip on the knot. There was no stopping, I would have had to put the sheet down on the ground and I would have gotten dirty. I was really afraid of dropping that sheet and the dresses, skirts, corsets, slips, and pants being strewn over the ground, so that, just like my father, my mother, too, would begin to regret that it was me, Raj, who had survived. Anil would have had no problem carrying that bundle, he was so strong, and Vinod would have devised a better method of balancing the weight on his back and would have carried it with a smile, as he used to when he was burdened with two quaking buckets filled to the brim with water.
Though not in the least romantic, this is nothing so much as a love story, weighted for its entirety with enormous sadness. At the same time, the alluring narrative voice swiftly propels the reader through its events. I read the majority of the book in one sitting, late into the evening, and wanted to start nothing else once I had finished. I lovely book - I wish I could remember who recommended it.

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