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

Liechtenstein: the long way round

Just after I’d finished reading this book, I had an email from a Liechtenstein publisher. ‘Now who recommended the Liechtenstein authors to you?!’ he wrote. ‘That’s embarrassing!’

I assume the reason for his embarrassment was that the only two authors with named books on the list were non-native residents of Liechtenstein – the German thriller writer CC Bergius and the Austrian explorer and mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, a controversial figure who joined the Nazi party shortly before the outbreak of the second world war. Yet, as I tried to explain in my response, there was method in the apparent madness of these suggestions, and it went something like this:

The search for a story from the tiny principality of Liechtenstein began with an email to a friend of a friend from the country, who suggested I contact an old teacher of hers who was involved with PEN-Club Liechtenstein. Sadly, the email address she gave me no longer seemed to work and my inquiries bounced straight back at me.

Time for plan B: I’d heard that a Liechtenstein author, Iren Nigg, had won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2011. Perhaps some of her work would be available in English? I dropped her a line and she very kindly responded. She was sorry, but other than the extract of her work in the prize-giving booklet, nothing had been translated yet. She attached the extract in case it was suitable for the project, but if I was looking for a complete work in translation, she recommended I contact her friend writer Stefan Sprenger (there’s a great interview with him about Liechtenstein literature on the Dalkey Archive Press website).

I emailed Sprenger but it was the same story with him. Although he had had some isolated pieces translated, none of his books were available in English in their entirety. To his knowledge, the only Liechtensteiner who had had a whole book translated into English in recent years was Prince Hans Adam II  von und zu Liechtenstein. His political treatise, The State in the Third Millennium, would not count for my purposes unless, he joked wryly, I were willing to consider it as a horror story.

Failing that, Sprenger suggested emailing Dr Peter Gilgen, a Liechtenstein academic specialising in literature and philosophy at Cornell University in the US. If anyone would know of Liechtenstein work available in English Sprenger warranted Gilgen was the man.

Gilgen came back with a full and thoughtful reply. No book-length Liechtenstein prose translations came to mind but he did know of a prose-poem, The Gravel by Michael Donhauserwhich was translated into English as a freestanding work some years ago. However, given that this was hard to find and not a prose work as such, he would like to suggest Bergius and Harrer, as both writers lived for many years in the principality. Indeed, Harrer, who claimed to be ashamed of his Nazi involvement in later life, was a member of PEN Liechtenstein and wrote his most famous work, Seven Years in Tibet, while living in the state.

And so it was, as I explained to my indignant correspondent, that I had included Bergius and Harrer on the list. However, if he could recommend another Liechtenstein work that I could read in English, I would be delighted to consider it.

Several weeks later, I have not heard anything further. And so, taking the risk that an email may be winging its way to me even now and hopeful that this post may winkle out some full-length Liechtenstein fiction for us Anglophone readers to enjoy, I am writing on Harrer’s memoir Seven Years in Tibet.

Given the tortuous route I’d taken to get to it, Harrer’s book about his attempt to make his way into the closed world of Inner Tibet felt like a rather appropriate read. Starting with his internment in and repeated escape attempts from an Indian prisoner of war camp at the outbreak of the second world war, the memoir charts Harrer’s flight into the country and his eventual arrival in the capital Lhasa, despite the best efforts of the Tibetan people, the hostile landscape and the occasional bear and leopard to stop him. Building a life in a society not thought to have been visited by Westerners before, Harrer and his companion Peter Aufschnaiter fell in love with the peaceful country and Harrer was even appointed to be a private film tutor to the young Dalai Lama, until the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1949 forced them to return to Europe.

Harrer’s matter-of-fact accounts of his feats of derring-do are the secret of the book’s success. Whether he’s enduring recapture by the British, outwitting a band of Tibetan Khampas (robbers)* on a lonely plain, or chasing a run-away yak in sub-zero temperatures, the writer remains stoic and restrained, observing after one disastrous episode with the Indian police, ‘we learned from this adventure a bitter but useful lesson’. Indeed, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his meticulous approach to each challenge and his dauntlessness in the face of countless setbacks. I found my fingers itching to write ‘stiff upper lip’ in the margins several times, before I remembered that this was not a British book and that the writer, had he been in Europe instead of South Asia during the years he describes, would most likely have been doing his best to make a number of stiff upper lips tremble.

Harrer’s insights into  Tibetan culture are, for the most part, fascinating. From polyandry among herders and the ‘burial’ practice of smashing a body up and leaving it out to be eaten by the birds, to the strange communication arrangements you have to make in a country that is not a member of the Universal Postal Union if you want to send a letter to the outside world, Harrer’s descriptions are engrossing and his love for the country is clear.

That said, the book is very much of its time – and of Harrer’s own prejudices. Sweeping and often patronising generalisations abound about Tibetans being ‘a happy little people full of childish humour’, their music having ‘no harmonies’, and their women, who ‘know nothing about equal rights and are happy as they are’.

But perhaps such a cast-iron belief in your own judgments and opinions is what it takes to be a pioneer. A more circumspect individual might have decided, on balance, that it was best to stay in the POW camp and wait out the war. I’m very glad he didn’t.

Seven Years in Tibet (Sieben Jahre in Tibet) by Heinrich Harrer, translated from the German by Richard Graves (Flamingo, 1994)

*As fellow literary explorer Bradley pointed out, while Harrer presents the Khampa people as robbers, they are in fact an ethnic group, so this is an unfair description.