A short, deceptively rich novel, translated from the French, that illuminates an obscure footnote in World War II history.
The narrator of the prize-winning fourth novel by Appanah (Blue Bay Palace, 2009, etc.) is a 70-year-old man from her native Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, obsessed with an incident that changed his life when he was nine years old. With a perspective that more often reflects a young boy’s innocence than the old man’s experience, Raj describes the bond he developed with a Jewish boy named David, orphaned in the Holocaust, exiled to the island’s prison after exiles were denied entry into Palestine as illegal aliens. Raj’s impoverished family had lost his two brothers to a fatal storm, and his brutal father works as a guard at the prison. In the hospital (where Raj lands after a particularly brutal beating from his father) and on the grounds, the two boys bond, sharing a similarity of name (each is “king” in his culture, one of the parallels that is a little too pat) and experience (both have suffered deep losses and feel essentially alone). The reader learns from the start that Raj has survived and that David has died, a tragedy that elicits complicated feelings of complicity and guilt in Raj. “What I want to do is tell precisely what happened, it is the least I can do for David, I want to tell what matters, I want finally to put him at the center of this story,” he says. Yet Raj can only bear witness, offer his own testimony, with some elements of David’s story buried with him. What he tells of David is Raj’s rite of passage: “This feeling, like a rising and falling tide of nausea, was the loss of childhood and the awareness that nothing, nothing from now on, would protect me from the terrible world of men.”
In poetic, occasionally rapturous prose, the novel extends beyond the Holocaust in its attempt to encompass the human condition.