Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2018

Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo, translated by Alison M. Charette

I discovered this novel in a rather roundabout way.  Beyond the Rice Fields is said to be the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English (and it isn’t even written in Malagasy, it’s written in French), and it comes from a small American publisher called Restless Books. (It had 60-odd books to its name on the day I looked).  I’d been reading an article entitled ‘There’s more to homegrown African literature than what Western publishers favour’  at a site called Quartz Africa, which was on about ‘Afropolitan’ authors writing ‘African Books for Western Eyes’:

Books like Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, Teju Cole’s Open City, Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing have confounded neat divisions between Western and African literary traditions. The Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue captured a million-dollar contract for her first book, Behold the Dreamers. That’s even before it joined the Oprah’s Book Club pantheon this year.

(All of which I’ve bought for the TBR, except for the last one, which I hadn’t heard of).  But there’s criticism of these highly successful authors:

Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities […] many of Africa’s most “successful” writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.

Well, I’m in no position to have an opinion about that, except to say that I’ve tended to enjoy books more when they were written by African authors living in any of the 54 countries in Africa rather than from a university in the US or UK.   But (as my reviews show) there are exceptions.  A good book is a good book whatever its derivation IMO.  But I was very interested to see the books that were named as part of  an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms.  And I’d read or read reviews of, or had on the TBR some of the suggested young and adventurous African writers.

  • Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu (Uganda), on the TBR
  • Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (Congo), see my review
  • the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugero’s Baho! on the TBR
  • the translation from the Portuguese, Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, (Angola) (See Stu’s review at Winston’s Dad) and
  • (newly purchased as a result of reading this article) Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo (Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa) from Madagascar. 

So, I set about reading Beyond the Rice Fields expecting great things from its young and adventurous writer

Set in the 19th century when there was still local slavery on Madagascar as colonialists arrive (and partly based on real events during the reign of Queen Ranavalona in 1849), the story is narrated by Tsito, a slave looking back on events, and by Fara two years younger than Tsito, describing her life as it happens.  Tsito also makes the acquaintance of Ibandro, a well-respected slave of enormous strength, who teaches him various marketable skills so that Tsito is able to save a little money towards his freedom.  But this is the era of Christian missionaries, and the brutal persecution of their converts, and the two get caught up in all the confusion and horror of economic and social change.

The story is grounded in tradition, legends, astrological predictions, prophecies from seers –  and superstition:

How many people living today have fallen among the zebus’ [Brahmin cattle] hooves? Toward the middle of the Sovereign King’s reign, the kingdom still practiced the trial of the pen to purify children born during the wicked Alakaosy moon [which corresponds to Sagittarius]. The evil-bearing child was simply placed before a cattle pen, and someone would open the gate. If it survived, it was considered washed clean of the malevolent astral curse. If not, it merely met the evil destiny that had been born in it.  (Kindle Locations 767-770)

Reminiscent of white missionaries trying to prevent FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The River Between, (see my unease about how this was portrayed) a vazaha (a white British Christian missionary) called Blake intervenes to save Fara, and the Elders decide that the ritual has been tainted by his intervention.  Not long after that, under pressure from Britain, the Royal Sovereign abolishes the practice permanently. But these changes are received with some dismay by people in the villages:

‘Soon, you’ll only be able to trade zebus for powder and guns. But that merchandise is reserved for soldiers and higher court dignitaries, which means that ordinary folk like us are going to be excluded!’ ‘I hear the Sovereign is sick. All the alcohol the Whites are giving him might be sapping his health, and the fevers and injuries that he incurred during his military expeditions have left their marks, too.” “They’re saying he’s getting more and more unpredictable and cruel—’ ‘Careful, keep your voice down.” “—and much less inclined to consult the elders.’  (Kindle Locations 839-844).

Not flinching from depicting other brutal traditions, the novel traces the confusion and chaos that comes with the arrival of the British missionaries and also French industrialists, most vividly after the death of the sovereign when his master Andriantsitoha takes Tsito along to the City of Thousands to pay respects at the mourning ceremonies.  One of the first things to change is the urban/rural divide:

… the distinction between city folk and “peasants” was getting more pronounced as the kingdom was modernized. Fewer and fewer people in the City knew how to hold a spade.

The lord of Ambohimanelo sometimes spoke playfully of the downward spiral. “The great king Nampoina, whose last few years of rule I knew, was still a ‘peasant,’” he recalled. “He still worked in his rice field every day!”

I had also noticed the changes that were occurring before our very eyes among the People Under the Sky. In the City in particular, people who lived lives of ease wore fashionable yet sometimes dumbfounding garb. Officers loved to get all decked out in uniforms of European regalia, often paired with long cavalry boots. And on top of that, we’d also pass civilians who had unabashedly embellished the salaka, the ancestral wrapper, with a frock coat and top hat. It wasn’t just the clothes or working the land. Coming into the house of Mary the Christian, Andriantsitoha was shocked to see that almost none of the ancestral placements had been respected.  (Kindle Locations 1532-1540).

They are not necessarily hostile to the new arrivals.  In the city they meet up with Andriantsitoha’s sister Rasoa, who should have been by his side helping him in his leadership role in the village.  Andriantsitoha had been keen for her to be educated in the city so that she could then return to teach the new knowledge to the children, but instead she becomes very religious and refuses to return.  When they meet her brother comments on her different style of dress, in the Christian garb of those who pray. Tsito is also dismayed to hear reports that European dance music could be heard coming from the palace during the mourning period, though the Sovereign sent early-morning messengers throughout the whole city to inform the inhabitants that the music had been funereal songs and that mourning was still “hard, very hard.”

(Mind you, I had to chuckle when chocolate is tasted for the first time and pronounced abominable with a pestilent smell. Really?? Chocolate???)

In time, there are those who come to regret the changes:

Andriantsitoha was convinced that we had to find our own path, but he admired the kings of Europe all the same, especially Bonaparte. He hated the Whites, but swore by knowledge and artistic progress. He wanted to extract juice from the sugarcane without chewing the fibers. He wanted to seize tools for the future like chewing tobacco: to suck out all the flavor and spit out the rest.

All of which made me a little confused.  (Kindle Locations 1784-1787).

Tsito, nursing his secret love for Fara, finds himself identifying with Paul from Paul et Virginie by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre because they share a humble birth.

His modest birth raised walls in his path that made my soul ache, reminding me of my own heartbreak and poverty. Fortunately, other stories came to my rescue when I was broken down, other heroes carried me on their broad shoulders when I felt too much like a slave. Nothing was impossible: Othello was a Moor, and hadn’t he captured the heart of Desdemona, the daughter of a rich and powerful Venetian lord?  (Kindle Locations 1752-1755).

But Fara becomes interested in Faly, not in Tsito, and her success at the fampitaha (a sort of regional dance competition) leads to a breach in their childhood friendship while her failure at the next level leads to Faly abandoning her.  It is not until their fortunes are reversed that Fara comes to realise that it is Tsito who really loves her.

But Beyond the Rice Fields is not really a love story… it traces the violence of palace politics in response to the changes.  The Queen orders ‘purification’ in a way reminiscent of Tudor Kings and Queens.  I didn’t enjoy reading a lot of that (Naivo certainly piles it on).  The trial of ‘tangena’ is another form of trial by ordeal, this time with poison:

The slave was thus put to the trial again, to see if he could survive once more. He did. So they found him guilty of making a pact with tangena and trying to pervert the course of justice. Four men chained him up by his hands and feet; he did not struggle. They put him to death by spearing, but needed to spear him thirty-nine times to kill him. He roared like a bull each time he was pierced. It could be heard from far away; children cried. His body was hacked into pieces and thrown to the dogs. The two who-call-forth-the-tangena-spirit and their servants received half of his fortune, as the law states.

Blessed be our ancestors who have given us life, in this, the twenty-first year of the Sovereign Queen’s reign. (Kindle Locations 3869-3874)

Fara, like numerous others suspected of being a Christian, is subjected to tangena repeatedly…

Beyond the Rice Fields brought me to the conclusion that it’s too simplistic to blame the colonialists for everything that goes wrong when their influence challenges the brutality of superstitions and traditions like these.

Author: Naivo (Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa)
Title: Beyond the Rice Fields
Translated from the French by Alison M. Charette
Publisher: Restless Books, New York, 2017
ASIN: B076J7Y5XN
Source: Purchased for the Kindle from You Know Who.


Responses

  1. Great review, although the novel might be a bit gruesome for my tastes. But I’m intrigued, having been to Madagascar and been moved by the music.
    I’d recommend Kintu, expecially as the Europeans don’t get a look-in.

    Like

    • Hello Anne, yes, I’m looking forward to reading Kintu.
      BTW apologies for the delay in approving your comment… my internet has been down (again!) and I’ve only just got back online again…

      Like

  2. […] Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo, translated by Alison M. Charette Madagascar […]

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