Book of the month: Nathacha Appanah

One of the mind-expanding things about reading literature from elsewhere is seeing historical events presented from unfamiliar angles. When you read novels and memoirs that touch on things that have strong prevailing narratives in your home country (British Empire, I’m looking at you), it can be illuminating, thought-provoking and challenging to encounter perspectives that turn what you thought you knew on its head. Sometimes, stories from other traditions can reveal episodes of which you may have been entirely ignorant.

My latest Book of the month, The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, is a good example. Telling the story of an unlikely friendship, it is built around the tragic, true-life story of a boatload of Jewish refugees who, having been refused entry to Palestine after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, were detained on Mauritius for most of the second world war. The novel is narrated by Raj, who, in old age, looks back at the brief but life-changing bond he formed with David, a young boy in the prison camp at which his violent father got a job in 1944, when Raj was nine. Grieving for the siblings he lost in a natural disaster, Raj comes to look on his new friend as a replacement brother – feelings that give rise to consequences it takes him a lifetime to lay to rest.

The narrative voice is beguiling. Laying bare the ‘electric shock of memories’, it weaves between the present day and the past that forms the bulk of the action, finding deft ways to make long ago feel fresh and immediate. A forest path now buried beneath an apartment block serves as a symbol for the hidden influence of past events, while Raj’s reflections on his relationship with his son provide a powerful comparison for his cruel treatment at his own father’s hands.

There is a lovely reticence to much of the writing, which renders it very moving. The novel is so full of tragedy that it could easily be relentlessly sad. Instead, Appanah and Strachan hold back at the most traumatic moments, allowing spare language, rhythms and dramatic irony to do the heavy lifting. Insights into the way human beings change and the impact of violence are delivered with such beautiful simplicity that it is often as though the writing is transparent, letting us look straight through into the truths it contains. Instead of detailing Raj’s family’s poverty, the author allows us to glimpse it through his surprise at the smart, white building described as a ‘HOUSE’ on his reading card at school and how different this is from what he understood the term to mean.

There is some lovely playfulness too. Raj’s childhood naivety, which, among many other things, leads him to assume for a while that David’s hometown of Prague must be somewhere on Mauritius, is very endearing and makes the denouement all the more poignant.

These disarming elements allow Appanah to play with some radical notions. With Mauritius’s usual racial power dynamics subverted by virtue of David’s prisoner status – ‘We did not mix with the white people of our country, we hardly ever saw them,’ explains Raj – the novel is able to explore notions of cultural appropriation in a fresh and thought-provoking way. We see Raj agonising about whether he has the right to tell his white friend’s story and his uneasiness about his lack of entitlement to draw conclusions about his feelings and suffering. In this, Appanah neatly dramatises the dilemma so often faced by authors when they contemplate writing stories involving traumas they have not experienced, particularly those of people from more marginalised groups.

There are some abrupt transitions that may seem jarring. Similarly, although reticence pervades the narrative, there are moments when things are stated explicitly that another writer might have left readers to infer. The deftness of the writing in much of the book, however, suggests that these potential trip-hazards for anglophone readers may well be indicative of cultural differences in approaches to pacing and what needs to be explained rather than unintended flaws.

Overall, this is a moving and engrossing exploration of grief, survivor’s guilt and the way that global history touches individual lives. Poetic writing and sharp insights simply delivered make this a surprising, important and memorable book. Well worth a read.

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (MacLehose Press, 2011)

Picture: ‘Jewish Cemetery, Mauritius’ by Phoebe Epstein on flickr.com

Mauritius: travellers’ tales

This was a second-hand recommendation. It was posted on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page by Michael Walkden, who said he’d recently met Natasha Soobramanien, a writer of Mauritian descent, and asked her to recommend a book for his project (intriguingly, he didn’t say what his project is – if you’re reading this, Michael, I’d love to hear more). She’d suggested Benares by writer and film director Barlen Pyamootoo and he thought he’d pass the tip on.

I was doubly grateful for the recommendation when, on researching the novel, I discovered that it was very short. So short, in fact, that in most editions it is published with another novella, In Babylon. This would certainly help to keep me on target to read one book every 1.87 days. In fact, I reckoned I could probably read the whole thing in a single journey to work.

The doors beeped shut on the East London line and I plunged into Pyamootoo’s tale of two men who set out to find a couple of prostitutes in Port Louis to bring back to their village of Benares for the night. Driven into town by trusty friend and former mill worker Jimi, the pair meander around the red-light district, paying visits to several formidable madams before finally managing to engage two women to accompany them home. As the car takes them back through the benighted landscape and the men and women sound each other out through small talk, a wider discussion opens up about identity, companionship and the loss of the old ways of life.

Pulling out of Canada Water station, I made a note in the margin about the details that bring the narrative alive: the brothel with the beds with concrete bases, the narrator’s friend Mayi’s eyes ‘rolling and blinking like a wanted man’s’, the lights of smugglers’ boats flashing out at sea.

These give Pyamootoo license to dwell on ostensibly simple and even mundane exchanges, using them to chart the minute shifts in dynamics that keep the drama and tension in the scenes. This only breaks down once – when the narrator stops the car to go into a restaurant and buy some cigarettes. Here, the flat transaction feels like an unnecessary interlude, although it may serve to point up the subtle transformation taking place in the car.

This, as I realised while changing lines at Highbury & Islington station, concerns the slow seep of the background into the foreground. While the descriptions of the billboards and buildings sites around the capital start off as almost incidental details, the development and commercialisation of much of the island at the expense of its poorest communities – as evidenced by the closure of Benares’s mill – come to underpin the novella.

Each of the characters gradually reveals vulnerabilities and insecurities that derive from the breakdown of the old structures. The only way to bridge these gaps is to tell stories, as the narrator discovers when he embarks on a wistful account of his journey to the other Benares, a sacred city in India where many Hindus go to die in the hope of attaining paradise: ‘I thought to myself that stories must be what we travel for, to have something to tell the people we love’, he reflects.

Pyamootoo’s writing about this ‘feeling of opening up to the world, of becoming part of some sort of network’ is so compelling and seductive that I finished the last 10 pages of the novella sauntering along the pavement away from King’s Cross, oblivious to the commuters shoving past me. I hadn’t expected the story to be so beautiful and so surprising. It made me sad to turn the last page. If only every journey to work could be like this.

Benares by Barlen Pyamootoo, translated from the French by Will Hobson (Canongate, 2004)