It’s hard to express how much I looked forward to reading this book. I spent three years living and working in Madagascar beginning in late 2013 (my collected writings from that time can be found here and here). Prior to my arrival, I had scoured the libraries and internet for anything that I could find in English on Madagascar (my list of collected articles and books can be found here and here.). Unfortunately, this was a rather small task once one gets beyond the myriad travel guides and nature-oriented literature.
Then near the end of 2015, I came across a post from Ann Morgan, who spent a year reading a novel from EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. In the post, she lamented the fact that not a single novel from Madagascar had ever been translated into English, but that a translator named Allison Charette had received a PEN grant to translate one and she’d chosen “Beyond the Rice Fields.” So I’d been literally waiting for the last two years for the book to be released and it did not disappoint.
Malagasy author Naivo has crafting a heart-wrenching tale of love sets amidst one slave’s seemingly impossible yearning for success and upward mobility. Impressively, the author’s expansive piece of pre-colonial historical fiction doesn’t hold back in addressing some oft-considered taboo subjects in Madagascar such as slavery and the wholesale execution of Christians under Queen Ranavalona’s reign in the 19th century. The narrative centers on Tsito, a child whose family were “forest people” and captured, then sold into slavery by the ruling Merina highlanders (called amboalambos, i.e., pig-dogs by the atandroy or antakarana--it’s unclear which tribe the author refers to when he uses the denotation ‘forest people). He grows up with his master Rado’s family and develops a bond with Rado’s daughter Fara. The story unfolds through dueling narratives between these two characters.
The book reads as a mixture of hainteny (oral tale/poetry) and tantara (historical narrative) with a liberal dosing of Malagasy proverbs/adages (I counted 29 of them). One in particular proves emblematic as Fara ponders her destiny:
Love is like rice, when you transplant it, it grows, but never in the same way. It retains a bittersweet memory of its first soils. Every time it’s uprooted it dies a little; every time it’s replanted, it loses a piece of its soil. But it also bears fruit (188).
Fara’s observation captures the tension and movement with Beyond the Rice Fields as the central characters and family find themselves uprooted numerous times amidst shifting factions as King Radama dies and the throne is passed to his wife Ranavalona. Her reign marks the beginning of an increasingly fraught relationship between Christianity and political power in Madagascar, especially since the crown Prince becomes a Christian.
While neither Fara nor Tsito are themselves Christians, they find themselves caught in the ill effects of Ranavalona’s power consolidation as she upends traditional tribal power alliances and eventually publicly executes thousands of Malagasy Christians. Within all this chaos, however, Fara and Tsito ultimately find each other.
In one key conversation, we hear echoes of the fampitaha song from the novel’s beginning as Fara lovingly spars with Tsito:
“And how will you love me?”
He replies: “I will love you like my eyes, the windows of my soul; without them, I am as weak as a child, but with them, the world smiles at me.”
“Then do not love me, for I will be of no use to you in the darkness.”
“I will love you like the door to my home, protecting me from enemies and keeping the hearth warm.”
“Then do not love, for you push through me without shame to achieve your ends.”
“I will love you like the Sovereign of this realm, mistress of the our lives and destiny.” (238)
Naivo proves himself a skilled and brave writer in Beyond the Rice Fields. With the publication of his novel in English, he has illuminated a period of Malagasy history previously hidden from most of the world. Along the way, he has brought to life the rich traditions and deep culture of a country and people that are all too often wrongly associated solely with lemurs and coups by radio DJs.
“Sing for your highest dreams, dance for your most starstruck plans. Then you cannot lose (120).”
- Unless you live in Madagascar I don't think that I can ever make you understand how important rice is to Madagascar, to its culture. For starters, Malagasies eat rice AT EVERY MEAL. Living in its capital you see the rice fields everywhere, they are inescapable--RICE IS LIFE in Mada!
- Book captures a tension that exists today between the Merina highlanders, who consolidate power across Madagascar and everyone else (in the novel’s case the ‘forest people’ who refer to the Merinas as pig-dogs). While many would disagree as to the level of this tension today, I saw evidence of it, particularly between the Merina highlanders and those living on the coasts (6).
- Torture as a whole plays a central role throughout the novel, whether in its use to break down slaves (9), or as an overall method of societal control.
- The idea of “purification” also plays an important role in the culture and tradition of the villages and the palace. Earlier on, we see the ‘witch doctors/seers’ practice of determining a child’s purity by putting them in the path of stampeding cattle and seeing if they live (56).
- Fara’s belief that “the city is my destiny” is a harbinger of doom (64)
- Short hair done as a sign of mourning (72)
- Keen insight into rather insidious ways that early white missionaries exercised control and ensured their livelihoods as they spread rumours that “killing a white man will give you leprosy” or “vazaha blood was a slow poison that made anyone who spilled it go deaf” (90).
- Fampitaha singing/dancing competition is seen as elemental part of Malagasy society (117). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBUxRMAZ6oM
- Merina referred to themselves as “People under the sky” (117).
- Lanterns and lights are associated with childhood and celebration of children (133)
- Annual Bathing feast described as essentially a sexual free for all, as long as the participants hide while they do it (144)
- While the Queen starts anti-Christian actions (171), they also had the effects of galvanizing the spread of Christianity (175).
- Tangena poison test played a huge role until the Queen’s successor outlawed it. Anyone so accused would be required to drink the poison (derived from the toxic nuts of tangena tree. Then they’d have to swallow three bird skins. If they could vomit up the three bird skins without dying then they’d be declared innocent. Evidently this was a widely accepted method of guilt determination with something like 2% of the population dying from it every year (much more during Ranavalona’s reign) (216).
- Under the quee, the palace/government started to confiscate everything from the people (220).
- Beautiful writing: “I will love you” (238)
- Words in English as holding no sacred virtue (267)
- More beautiful writing: “My heart is as solid as a shield” (274)
- It becomes evident under the queen that the military generals wield the real power (342)
- Habits of a slave described (23)
- A slave skilled at valiha: when you ask him to play, he refuses, but as soon as you speak of work, he goes mad for the music. (9)
- A crying orphan, only pitied by the back of his own hand. (10)
- Do not cook meat without knowing its name (15).
- The seer who wants to make the impossible believable is not afraid to make dying men dance (17).
- A banana threatened with a knife with eventually be pierced (33).
- A lie likes to dress itself up as a story (40).
- A servant’s undivided piaster is the master’s esteem (48).
- You must not judge the stranger by his yellowish face but think of his family on the other side of the earth (58).
- Better a small soul respected by his friends than a great soul who perishes in vain (69).
- The tree that grows too tall will be thrashed by strong winds (70).
- The sovereign’s word is law; it enters our homes not on tiptoes, but stomping its feet (88).
- He who changes lords changes status (93).
- The City’s great houses, the first built are soonest dissatisfied (107).
- Hope cannot vanquish destiny (110).
- Only simpletons want to be like their fathers (116).
- He who shows his back hides what’s in his soul (125).
- He who has a white soul is like a bird of ill fate (125).
- If the waterfall rumbles, it is because of the rocks; if kings rule, it is because of the vahoaka (128).
- The poor are not friends of the affluent (171)
- Love is like rice, when you transplant it, it grows, but never in the same way. It retains a bittersweet memory of its first soils. Every Time it’s uprooted it dies a little; every time it’s replanted, it loses a piece of its soil. But it also bears fruit (188).
- They can rise to the top as cream does, but milk will always reveal a common ancestor (189).
- A meeting of dogs where they only sniff each other’s asses (199).
- Those who are unified are like a rock, those who are divided are like the sand (221).
- Love is like the silkworm in winter: touching it makes its eyes open wide(232).
- Only halfwits have less ambition that their fathers (242).
- The soul is what makes us human (251).
- Everyone is in himself a noblemen (251).
- Destiny is a chameleon on a tree branch, it only takes a hissing child for it to change its color (318).
Songs and Hainteny:
We’ll go to the City of Thousands
To eat the laying hen
To eat the fatty zebu hump (18)
The village is rich with children
Grandmother is lucky indeed
Her home has a hundred slaves
Her home holds a hundred cattle (26)
To mediate the difficult
As saffron does (73)
Come forth! Let them appear
And the most beautiful will triumph
They will be judged
And the ugliest will disappear (126)
Tell me how I can keep your love:
If I knot it into a corner of my gown
The thread might break it and I could lose it.
If I place it in the palm of my hand
I’m afraid it might dissolve into dampness…
Instead, I’ll put it in my heart
Although it will make me perish
Will that not make me love you all the more? (131)
Bulls fighting within the herd
The victor is not cheered
The vanquished is not booed (135)
The trees of sweet-smelling wood
Counting two, there finding three
There on the tall mountain
On Mount Adrigiba
They wanted to sleep
Pressed against each other
At least rejoice, oh my soul,
That you do not possess
The one you do not love (146)
A thousand words
A hundred stories
But all talk ends
At the hour of confrontation (275)
I implore your forgiveness, O my earth
I appeal to your mercy, O my earth!
You, who cover our dear ones
You, their final shelter
We trample you underfoot
But you are the water’s cradle
And you grow the ears of rice
And you absorb all sorrow
O my earth (348).
Key References (for further study):
- Fampitaha competition (12)
- Fara name (15)
- Kalanoro (96)--mythical creature--there’s some weird stuff on the internet about this one
- “Paul and Virginia” love story of star-crossed lovers in Mauritius. You can read more about it here(123)
- Christian holy man who was killed by the Queen--more about him here. (162)
- Fara describes the dying away of fampitaha competitions, are these still held today? (192)
- Mantasoa, man-made lake/Laborde built the city there is and is buried there. (193)
- Royal decree for export rights (227) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Laborde
- Menamasos artists society to surpass Vazahas (236) reference book
- Zafamanelo family right to recite kabary was rescinded by the Queen(239)
- Crown prince Radama I a christian (243)
- Madagascar sent ambassadors to England and France in the 1800’s (247)
- Sidikina derivation of God Save the King played when foreign rulers would visit Madagascar (259)