Review by Erika Dreifus
Nathacha Appanah, whose author bio tells us is “a French-Mauritian of Indian origin,” has thrown extraordinary light on a little-known episode. In 1940, a group of Jewish refugees from Europe landed at Haifa—then still under British Mandate—only to be deported to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean which France had ceded to Britain more than a century earlier. Once arrived in Mauritius, the Jews were detained at the Beau-Bassin prison.
In Appanah’s novel, a young Mauritian boy (Raj), whose vicious father is employed at the prison, encounters a Jewish orphan about his age (David). Raj, too, has endured unthinkable tragedy and loss. The boys’ life-changing friendship blossoms during their overlapping stays in the prison hospital. It forms the focus of the novel, which is told as Raj’s recollections.
It is a vivid and heartbreaking story. More than 120 Jews died in exile on Mauritius. At the end of World War II, most of those who survived opted to live in “Eretz”—that land they had sought from the start, that land that David longs for, that land that is utterly unfamiliar to Raj before these strange, pale prisoners enter his awareness.
“I do not know if I ought to be ashamed to say this,” narrator Raj confesses, “but that was how it was: I did not know there was a world war on that had lasted for four years and when David asked me at the hospital if I was Jewish I did not know what it meant. I said no, being under the vague impression that, because I was in the hospital, being Jewish referred to an illness. I had never heard of Germany, in reality I knew very little. In David I had found an unhoped-for friend, a gift from heaven, and at the start of this year of 1945 that was all that counted for me.”
I do not know if I ought to be ashamed to say that I had never heard of the Jews interned at Beau-Bassin. But in The Last Brother, I have found an unhoped-for lesson. A gift.
This review was published initially in Jewish Book World, Fall 5771/2011. My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy.