The Last Brother by Natacha Appanah
This was one of the titles from the Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen that I was most excited to read, an anticipation that was somewhat disappointed as this one made no huge impression on me. I liked it, I was happy to have read it once I had finished. Contrary to what most reader reviews suggest–I am thinking mostly of goodreads, where most readers note dutifully the importance of being educated on a forgotten corner of World War 2 history–this is not a Holocaust novel; this is a novel about grief; about a small boy who has lost all of his brothers and who, through a series of tragedies, loses the stand-in brother, a friend who happens to be a Jewish refugee imprisoned in bureaucratic stasis on the island of Mauritius. It is indeed set in a forgotten pocket of the Holocaust narrative, but Appanah, I believe, makes a very conscious decision throughout most of the book to distance it from the genre. (I say most because the ending, the last few pages, disrupt this impression by making the historical context quite explicit. I hated the ending.) And thank goodness that she does. Holocaust in literature is a quandary best avoided except by minds of the highest order, writers of the finest talent and most unimpeachable integrity.* Appanah sidesteps the problem by employing the well-used trope of “adult narrator looking back on and retelling childhood events,” a narrative frame that is common enough to raise skepticism in this reader, but which may well have saved the book for me. It provided the very necessary perspective of memory and adulthood that saved it from falling into that most sentimentally precarious of genres, that of the Holocaust novel: through the aged eyes of adult Raj, his childhood friend David is an enigma, a total Other; language barriers and the oblivion of childhood prevented young Raj from ever seeing his friend or knowing his suffering–and grown Raj realizes this and is repeatedly, physically tormented by his failure to ever know this most precious of friends, this surrogate brother. I took Raj’s retrospective realization as to how little he understood David’s situation as signifying the ineffable horror of the Holocaust, how it is impossible for anyone who has not directly experienced it to come close to understanding what it is like; that Appanah wove the acknowledgement of this impossibility into the plot is a mark in its favor. This strategy–an old man wracked by guilt over his failure to understand, and by understanding save, a young Jewish refugee–could have been heavy-handed, but it worked for me.
Rather, it worked until the ending, which–spoiler, I suppose–nearly destroyed the book for me: the last few pages have a stilted summary of historical events, unnecessarily shoehorned in, followed by a pat avowal to remember and pass on the story to future generations. This jerked the whole text back into the territory of bad Holocaust novels and the cliches they trade in. I would have preferred an ending more in line with the fraught guilt and sense of lifelong grief that characterizes the rest of the novel–the one it has quite undermines any emotional force that the book had until its close. So long as I can willfully pretend not to have read the last few pages I can appreciate this book.
*I draw a line of distinction between Holocaust fiction and true accounts, of course–everyone should read Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel–but my unease about fiction in this subgenre is due in part to the proliferation of false accounts which do great harm to historical truth, obviously by giving ammunition to deniers, but also simply by blurring the lines between fiction and reality in every mind. I cannot go so far as to agree with Adorno’s famous moratorium against creating art after the Holocaust; I am too much a romantic believer in the necessity of literature to go that far. But it is a difficult area, and books like The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas offend me, and are primarily what I am thinking of when I say how glad I am that The Last Brother is not of their ilk. I won’t continue in this digression–it’s awfully complicated to express well–but I refer anyone interested to the always-eloquent Cynthia Ozick: her essays “Who Owns Anne Frank?” and “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” both found in the collection Quarrel & Quandary, have informed my thoughts on this matter; I don’t fully agree with her–she takes an extreme stance–but the bones of the argument have always struck me as sound and I look upon the subgenre with eyes tinted by suspicion.