Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother
Translator Geoffrey Strachan (French)
Graywolf Press, 2011

A Graywolf Press publication, a contender for The Tournament of Books, with a gorgeous and haunting cover image: all excellent reasons for picking up a copy of The Last Brother without reading a single word.

And then you meet Raj. It’s clear that he is coming to terms with something that happened many years ago, but it’s the scene which he remembers, a scene with his brothers, that most determinedly involves the reader in his tale.

Frankly, Raj needs a listener. He needs to tell this tale, and he needs someone to listen to it.

“I think that if I had been an ordinary boy with no history — by this I mean a boy who had not spent the first years of his life in a ramshackle hut, who had not lost both his brothers on the same day, a boy who had friends to play with and did not hide in holes dug in the bare earth or on the branches of trees, a boy who did not talk to himself for hours on end, a boy who, when he shut his eyes at night, saw something other than his little brother’s body trapped beneath a rock — I would not have stayed there long, this bizarre prison would have bored me. But I was Raj and I liked dark corners and places where nothing stirred.”

But he admits that the way in which he tells his tale is imperfect. He allows for that. It’s difficult to distinguish between what one remembers and what one invents.

“Am I now inventing the smile on my father’s face? Am I inventing his eyes, suddenly so alive, so cruel? And if I say that he took pleasure in acting thus, is it my old man’s voice or my little boy’s memory dictating this to me?”

And, anyway, it’s not just a matter of how many years have passed since Raj and David were friends. It’s only a question of Raj’s age and understanding at that time. He was a young boy, with a young boy’s understanding of what unfolded around him.

“…that was how I saw things at that age, kilometers and oceans made no difference, both David and I had left the places where we were born and had each followed our parents to a strange, mysterious, and somewhat frightening spot, where we hoped to escape from adversity.”

From Raj’s perspective, he could not absorb the reality of David’s being incarcerated as a Jew on the island of Mauritius.

In fact, he and David did not speak the same language, and how can one explain the atrocities and injustices of WWII. (In this respect, beyond Raj’s story, Nathacha Appanah casts a light on a people who were imprisoned in this place, an aspect of wartime history that is not well known.)

He was not equipped at that time to articulate what was so vehemently important about his boyhood friendship with David, and is still struggling for the words to explain the losses that he and his family (and David) endured.

“You can say you are an orphan, or a widow or a widower, but when you have lost two sons on the same day, two beloved brothers on the same day, what are you? What word is there to say what you have become? Such a word would have helped us, we would have known precisely what we were suffering from when tears came inexplicably to our eyes and when, years later, all it took was a smell, a color, a taste in the mouth, to plunge us into sadness once more, such a word could have described us, excused us and everyone would have understood.”

Colette’s Ripening Seed (1923)
Translator: Roger Senhouse (French)
Penguin, 1959 

Ripening Seed, too, chronicles the loss of innocence. But unlike Raj’s story, Vinca and Philippe are living a privileged life on the Brittany coast. They are childhood friends who have spent every summer together for years, but this summer is different.

Here is Vinca:

“At fifteen, she had the pride and gawkiness of her age, but those years had given her a body trained for running and walking, conditioned to all weathers, lean, firm, and hardened, at times not unlike a riding-switch that cuts and slashes; but the startling blue of her eyes and the clear simple line of her mouth were already the perfected traits of feminine beauty.”

And, here is Philippe:

“In the full vigour of his seventeenth year, eh could adapt himself to idleness and releaxation, but the idea of passive eolution, of having to wait patiently for developments, exasperated him.”

And, voilà, Vinca and Philippe:

“There were still times when they could forget their love, despite the force that daily increasedi ts tentacle hold and slowly but surely sapped their mutual trust and gentleness; and despite their very love itself, though it was changing the essence of their tender affection as coloured water changes the complexion of the rose that drinks it.”

It’s as though Vinca and Philippe exist in another world. There is a twinned sense of the ephemeral, as though nothing at all is settled and nothing is ordinary, and, yet, because this is only one summer of many summers, all is strangely solid.

The emotional intensity of their encounters — together and apart — feel both transitory, completely disconnected from real life, and fated, as though they will last forever.

It’s a summer novel. Arms and legs “bake in the full sun to the brown of farmhouse bread”. Readers sink into the slim volume and into the heat of August nights and days.

But it’s not all sunshine and light. Sea creatures are trapped in their underwater caverns, a hook awaiting. Mussels are caught stranded in pools after high tide. Despite the freedom promised by a summer holiday, there are unsettling glimpses of entrapment.

“It’s only parents who know nothing.” Vinca tells Philippe, having observed something that Philippe thought he had concealed from her. Vinca and Philippe, in contrast, exist in a time in which they believe that they know everything, a time which exists forever and not at all.