“Mangoes, lychees, longans, guavas, pawpaws, which I ate slowly, always thinking of my brothers. Breadfruit trees, jackfruit trees, avocado trees, which offered fruits all the year round, green or ripe, savory or sweet. Vines upon the ground concealed cucumbers, squashes, and zucchini; there were velvety bushes that produced tomatoes, pimientos, and eggplant. Beneath the ground, potatoes, carrots, red beets, and sweet potatoes ripened.”
Oh doesn’t it sound like an idyllic world. One of gorgeous colourful fruits and vegetables of all kinds, ripe for the picking or digging up. The heavy scent of these very fruits in the warm air of Mauritius.
But Raj’s life is far from blissful. His father is often drunk and a bully, but “I did not feel I was any more unhappy than the others, my universe began and ended there”. The title of the book soon lives up to its name when Raj’s brothers die in a storm, and he can barely live with the guilt of having survived: “I was sick for my brothers and I felt sure that if I played with the others, laughed, joined in their games, I would be betraying them, alienating myself from them forever.”
“Games were our fraternal language. Listening to our footsteps suddenly muffled by the grass that heralded the dividing wall, following his mop of hair, not letting that blond halo out of my sight for a second, focusing all my strength on this goal, not losing him, listening to the approach of the wind that caused the dry leaves to rustle in the eucalyptus to our left near the women’s section, using our handkerchiefs to catch the insects fluttering around the oil lamps near the hospital, laughing when heard the policeman on duty humming a song, as he went hmm, hmm, hmm, very shrilly, and collapsing with laughter without uttering a single sound, just letting our bodies shake with merriment and giving ourselves a pain in the stomach. Teaching him how to put your foot down soundlessly, to keep your arms in your sides so as to slip more easily between two trees, to walk along an imaginary line without ever deviating – to close your eyes and imagine we were crossing a bridge over a swollen river – and, for the first time, to play at airplanes.”
He doesn’t realise though why it is that the prisoners are white. He doesn’t realise what is happening in the rest of the world. For it is 1945. And the world is at war.
When I saw this book’s cover (my version is the top image), I felt drawn to it. The vintage feel, that unknown hinted at by the black band and the skeleton beneath. It makes you wonder, makes your mind wander. And I opened the book half expecting the scent of cardamom and cinnamon to waft from its pages. Instead out poured a story from a remote corner of the world, a story stained with tragedy and heartache.
“It was for moments like this that there should be a word to tell what one becomes forever when one loses a brother, a son.”
Title: The Last Brother
Author: Nathacha Appanah
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Originally published in 2007 (published in English in 2011)