Madagascar: over to you


‘You should easily be able to find something from Madagascar,’ said a friend a few months ago. ‘It’s massive.’

Massive though the world’s fourth-largest island nation may be, its literature is not widely translated. In fact, there’s so little out there that, seeing the gap on my list, Sophie Lewis, Editor at Large at And Other Stories, offered to lend a hand. She sent me her translation of a short story, ‘Za’, by Francophone Malagasy writer Jean-Luc Raharimanana. The story on its own would not be enough – it had developed into a novel but this was not yet translated; however, she would contact Raharimanana to see what else he could suggest.

The next day Lewis was back with the news that not a single Malagasy novel had been translated into English. Given what I’ve found to be the case with several other Francophone and Lusophone African countries this year, this didn’t surprise me a great deal, but Sophie was shocked – so much so that she’s determined to do something about it and is keen to hear about Malagasy novels that might be suitable for And Other Stories to translate and publish (please put your suggestions at the bottom of this post).

In the meantime, however, there was only one book that fitted the bill for my purposes: Voices from Madagascar, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa.

Published in 2002, the anthology brings together prose and poetry from more than 15 writers, including Raharimanana, in an effort to address the lack of translated Malagasy literature (which its editors claim stems from the country’s political isolation during its Marxist era and the fact that none of its publishers distribute abroad). Presented in parallel with the original French texts, the works range from bleak, violent tales such as David Jaomanoro’s ‘Funeral of a Pig’, in which a son orchestrates a brutal attack on his mother, through to bombastic, witty pieces like Lila Ratsifandriamanana’s ‘God Will Come Down to Earth Tomorrow!’, in which the world anticipates a visit from the Almighty.

There is a great deal of anger in this book, particularly in the early stories. This comes through in hard-hitting, personal pieces such as Raharimanana’s ‘Case Closed’, which sees an abused woman forced to aid a trafficker by sewing drugs into her baby’s corpse, as well as sharp, satirical stories like ‘The President’s Mirror’, in which writer Bao Ralambo goes to town on the fickleness and narcissism of the title character. There are also more rounded, extended works like Jean-Claude Fota’s ‘Walk No Work’, which depicts brilliantly the mental disintegration of a bright graduate in the face of continual rejection and lack of opportunity, recalling such bildungsromans as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam.

In addition, the collection provides some fascinating glimpses of Malagasy customs and mores. The shocking tradition of insulting a corpse to honour it at a funeral, for example, crops up several times, while there is an almost magical sense of the clash between the old and the new in stories such as Narcisse Randriamirado’s ‘Grandmother’. We also witness the way that many customs are weighted against gender equality in ‘In the Top’ by Alice Ravoson, which sees a woman strive to put herself through university in the face of family expectations that she will remain tied to domestic life.

As is nearly always the case in an anthology like this, some pieces come across better than others. While there is a lovely, poetic quality to much of the prose writing – no doubt owing to the fact that many of the writers work in both forms – it sometimes tips over into opacity and vagueness. The unrelenting shock and violence of the early pieces may also put some readers off, which is a shame as the collection broadens out beautifully.

Overall, though, as a tasting platter of Malagasy literary talent, this is a flavourful and moreish offering. Reading it adds to the sense of how many great works we must be missing because of the lack of cultural exchange to date. It’s surely high time that changed, so go on, tell me: what Malagasy novels should we English-language types be reading?

Voices from Madagascar ed. Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa (Ohio University Press, 2002)

13 responses

  1. Madagascar is one of the places that I am dying to see in my travels. The nice thing is that I can read about it before I go and get a taste transported there by the words I read. Thank you for sharing this book. There are so many voices that need to be heard so many worlds that have yet to be explored and witnessed you are doing great work for the world.

  2. I’ve always been fascinated by Madagascar, I’d love to translate something (from French, not Malagasy unfortunately – I had a go at learning it last year and failed completely!)
    You wrote, “The shocking tradition of insulting a corpse to honour it at a funeral, for example, crops up several times”… did you really mean ‘insulting’? The Malagasy normally have enormous respect for their ancestors’ remains and they have an exhumation ceremony (famadihana) where they take out and clean the bones. You didn’t mean to say ‘exhuming’?

    • Thanks. Yes, I did mean insulting. At a Malagasy funeral it is apparently a tradition (at least according to two of the stories) to shout insults at the corpse. One narrator says it is a way of honouring the dead person.

      • How dare you conclude/say that we “insult” a body, a dead person ? How dare you ? That’s an offense. I am an ethnologist, I am a malagasy people, I grew up there, but we never insult a corpse ( and I have never heard about malagasy people insulting a corpse) for any reason: honouring or something else. As you are an author, do not spread such offensing and false information ! All malagasy people (whatever his region of origin) respect, pay attention, give place etc. to our dead person.

      • Thanks for your comments. I did not invent this detail but took it from a footnote by the editors to the story ‘Funeral of a Pig’ by David Jaomanoro. In that story, a character makes insulting comments to the corpse at a funeral and stands astride the dead body. The editors of the anthology say this in their note on the text: ‘During funerals, death and its objects and manifestations are mocked, as a form of exorcism. Thus the dead person is often verbally and physically abused. Straddling being a gesture of domination, death is thus symbolically conquered and derided.’

        Of course, it is possible that the editors of the anthology were mistaken. As I’m sure you know from your work as an ethnologist, misunderstandings can be common when we encounter other cultures.

        If you can suggest any explanations for why the editors might have thought mocking death in this way was a Malagasy tradition, I’d be very interested to hear them, as I was certainly surprised by reading this myself.

        All the best for your work.

  3. Pingback: Madagascar – the54booktour

  4. Pingback: Madagascar – the54booktour

  5. I am an ethnologist malagasy people. I can say that I had the opportunity to read almost all books concerning Madagascar and its culture that are listed in this blog. Sorry to say that this blog shows an ignorant author. A failed anthology in my eyes. For example, how dare you say (conclude) that “the collection provides some fascinating glimpses of Malagasy customs and mores. The shocking tradition of insulting a corpse to honour it at a funeral, for example, crops up several times (…)”. => We never and will never insult a corpse/dead person. For not understanding the books you are refering, you are insulting us Mrs. Morgan. The malagasy people are very attached to its “no more” person (cf. dead). We invest much more in death than in (material) life. Some malagasy people (highland’s malagasy people) have the tradiction to gather around their dead person every 5 to 7 years, while other one (south and south west of the island) call their lost person (cf. dead) : “Zanahary”, that means : Zay + Nahary = The creator, to say that they are next to the creator. Etc. etc. So, kindly re-read the books (I already read them and do not have the same conclusion as you) so you avoid to offense malagasy people.

  6. Hi Ann, I finally found a novel from Madagascar published into English and thought about this post from your blog: Beyond the rice fields, by Naivo (full name: Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa). It was published this year and, according to some reviews, it’s the first novel from Madagascar ever translated to English. Will take a look and let you know. Cheers!

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