Book of the month: Naivo

This month’s pick is a special one. About a year ago, I reported that this project had prompted US-based translator Allison M. Charette to travel to Madagascar in search of a book that could become the first complete novel to be translated into and published in English from the island nation. A few weeks ago, I finally got to read it.

Set in the precolonial era when slavery was practised in the nation, Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo (Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa) presents the intertwined stories of Fara and her father’s slave, Tsito. As the changes of the 19th century buffet their homeland, sending waves of white (vazaha) missionaries and industrialists to challenge the ancient hierarchies – and instigating a violent crackdown on Western practices by the reigning monarchs – the pair must navigate the choppy waters of their personal histories. In so doing, they come to see themselves and each other differently, identifying what is valuable in the society that surrounds them and learning what they must reject.

As with novels such as the (as yet unpublished in English) Ualalapi from Mozambique, unfamiliarity is one of the great joys of this text for anglophone readers. From details such as the importance of the correct arrangement of domestic objects so as to please the ancestors and striking expressions – ‘by my father’s incest’, for example – through to rituals including the fampitaha competition, a dance contest in which female competitors must, among other things, perform while being carried on men’s shoulders, the book is a lavish representation of a remote and strange world.

Sometimes this is alarming. The graphic presentations of the brutal tangena ritual, in which those accused of witchcraft are forced to drink poison and only deemed to have proved their innocence if they manage to regurgitate three bits of skin, and the executions of Christians hurled to their deaths from cliff tops, are startling. Similarly, the description of the graveyard where the corpses of those put to death are consumed by wild dogs makes for troubling reading.

Difference is everywhere apparent on the linguistic level too (credit to Allison M. Charette here). Arresting images abound. We learn, for instance, that Fara’s father ‘smells like bulls moving to summer pastures’, while an unreliable narrator’s story changes colour constantly ‘like a chameleon when children hiss at it’. British readers will be particularly enthralled by the passage in which Tsito visits Chatham, Kent and describes the English port town through fresh eyes:

‘We crossed through a small wood and finally reached the top of the hill, crowned by a structure called Fort Pitt. It was one of several fortifications that the English had built around their industrial center. This one had been converted into a hospital, treating mostly construction-related injuries, which seemed like a bad sign to me. Man pays an ever-increasing cost to rise to power, no?’

These sorts of unfamiliar ways of viewing and capturing human experience make the text richly nourishing, particularly for English-language readers who also write. They show us new ways of imagining, recalling Goethe’s claim about the importance of literary cross-cultural exchange for keeping storytelling vibrant: ‘Left to itself, every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.’

Nevertheless, the unfamiliarity of many aspects of the book also poses challenges for English-language readers. Though parts of it are deeply evocative, surprising approaches to pacing and certain storytelling customs, such as announcing the year in which events take place, make some passages feel oddly distant. At times, the text rushes through the deaths of fairly major characters only to linger for pages at a time on the rhythms of the rural day. These differences in weighting can be distracting, but, for readers able to keep an open mind, they are hugely informative too: they reveal what is important both to Naivo and his original readers. In this way, they are perhaps as illuminating about life in Madagascar as the historical events described.

Readers may also struggle to keep tabs on the vast cast of characters that move through the text. The unfamiliar hierarchies of the Malagasy monarchy compound this, making the machinations of various pretenders to power hard to follow.

However, as with the pacing, this is less a problem inherent in the text than a challenge for Western readers to overcome. It is a function of the fact that, by and large, we anglophone booklovers don’t venture into narratives that diverge very far from the models of storytelling we know.

For those who are able to push through this barrier, the rewards are rich: vivid, thought-provoking narration; rich, mind-furnishing imagery; and an insight into a place and time that has hitherto been absent from the English-language literary landscape. Being a nation’s first text to be translated into the world’s most-published language is a heavy burden for any novel to bear, but Beyond the Rice Fields more than stands up to the challenge. It is proof that the anglophone exploration of Malagasy literature is long overdue.

Beyond the Rice Fields (Au-delà des rizières) by Naivo, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette (Restless Books, 2017)

St Vincent & the Grenadines: journeys

When it comes to literature from Caribbean nations, it tends to be feast or famine. Either you find yourself overwhelmed by a plethora of books from excellent and exciting writers, as in the case of countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, or you have to look hard to come up with even one work you can read in English.

All the same, few Caribbean nations have been as tricky to find stories from as the tiny archipelago of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. As writer Adam Lowe of Peepal Tree Press, which published my Grenadian pick, explained when I contacted him to ask for ideas, the literature scene on the smaller island nations is still in its infancy and there is very little support and guidance for aspiring authors. As such, while there are writers from these countries, few will have had the opportunity to develop and publish their work.

Adam might have thought he was delivering bad news, but in actual fact his email spurred me on. There were SVG writers out there, then. I just had to find them.

A bit of frantic googling (froogling, if you will) later, and I landed at the threshold of ‘Writing “D”‘, a blog by debraprovidence, a teacher with a self-confessed interest in exploring the literary landscape of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I left a message and held my breath.

Debraprovidence replied the very next day with the names of three writers, all of whom, as far as I could make out, emigrated from SVG at a fairly young age. Of these, Cecil Browne’s short story collection The Moon is Following Me caught my eye.

The book is full of tales of longing. Whether they are hankering after sweet coconuts, a secret love or the perfect line up for a local band, Browne’s characters are all driven by a desire to achieve, prove or change something – even if they have to adopt unconventional means to do it. There is the emancipated slave-turned-hawker who challenges a rival to an eating competition in order to defend his pitch, the young man who tries to win his sweetheart’s affections by buying her a wedding dress, and the school-leaver who risks his life for a taste of his favourite fruit.

Their author, too, seems to be unafraid of breaking with tradition. Indeed, when I opened the book and found myself confronting one of the most unusual forewords I have ever read – in which the author assures the reader of his stories’ ‘universal appeal’ – I was rather taken aback. It seemed as though Browne’s query letter to his agent or publisher had somehow got mixed up with the manuscript and published with the book, and I was apprehensive about what the collection had in store.

I quickly relaxed, however, helped by Browne’s quirky humour and delight in subverting expectations. From the moody schoolboy of the title story, who spends his time wishing disaster would strike to relieve his boredom, to the prudish Mrs Goodridge in ‘Action Action’, who is thrown into a panic by the news that her husband of 12 years is finally coming home from England to live with her, Browne delights in making his characters swim against the currents of their lives.

He couples this with a deft turn of phrase and an eye for detail that makes otherwise commonplace moments sparkle. I particularly enjoyed the description of the ‘cylindrical dress, about a metre in diameter’ that Mrs Goodridge fantasizes about making for herself to ward off physical contact. In addition, the stories initiate the reader into the altered sense of scale that comes with living in a small place through incidental details such as bandleader Sister’s ambition ‘to put Fitz-Hughes on the SVG map’ in ‘First, Second, First, Third’.

That said, there are a few technical issues holding some of the early stories back. Several of them take a while to come into focus, as though Browne is casting about looking for his subject well into the second or third page. The prose is also occasionally a bit choppy, as though bits have been missed out, so that odd sentences jump from scene to scene like a scratched record. Perhaps most problematic of all is ‘Spanish Ladies’ – a story close to the author’s heart, judging by his remarks in the foreword – in which Browne seems to have allowed his emotional involvement with the events he describes to override his writing, making for an unusually flat and predictable end.

Overall, though, there is much to like here. The last two stories, ‘Action Action’ and ‘Taste for Freedom’, are particularly strong – my copy has ‘great’ and ‘nice’ scrawled in the margins throughout these. I’d be interested to see what Browne, who left SVG at the age of 13 and is now head of maths at a college in west London, writes next. And I wonder, if he’d stayed in SVG, whether he would have published these stories at all.

The Moon is Following Me by Cecil Browne (Matador, 2010)

Saint Lucia: a formidable legacy

Look up the words ‘Saint Lucia’ in any work on world literature and you’ll find the name Derek Walcott somewhere nearby. Celebrated as one of the Caribbean’s foremost literary figures, the Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright is the go-to writer for literature from and about his island home. For my purposes, Walcott’s epic poem Omeros would technically have fitted the bill – when I set out on this quest, I planned to allow myself to include narrative poetry if prose stories were hard to find, although I have not done so as yet.

But I was curious to see what else Saint Lucia had to offer. What other literary flowers flourished in Walcott’s formidable shadow? And what prose stories might this nation famed for its poetry have to offer me?

After a few fruitless searches, I was delighted to stoogle upon an article on the website of Jako Productions, an organisation seeking to promote the artistic expression of Saint Lucian culture. Written by Modestes Downes and Anderson Reynolds, ‘A Synthesis of Three St Lucian Novels: Neg Maron: Freedom Fighters, Season of Mist, Death by Fire is essentially a potted history of Saint Lucian novel-writing. The island’s prose works are by no means as numerous or celebrated as its poetry, the article’s authors acknowledge, but they do exist. Indeed, the early 21st century apparently saw a relative explosion in Saint Lucian prose publishing, with the three novels named in the piece’s title expanding the country’s prose canon to nine works.

Of these, I decided that Neg Maron: Freedom Fighter by Saint Lucia’s former director of culture Michael Aubertin was the book for me. Taking place in the space of a single trip to the cinema, the novel records 19-year-old history enthusiast James’s daydream vision of the events that rocked Saint Lucia more than two centuries ago. With the British and French battling over the island and slavery rife, the only hope for the nation’s black population lies in joining the Neg Maron, a community of escaped slaves in the heart of the rainforest. But when Golang runs away to live with them, he realises that existing in secret is not enough: if his people are ever to achieve real freedom they must take back  their independence by force and with it the pride, self-esteem and dignity that have been denied them for so long.

Aubertin’s writing is best when it is passionate. This comes across most strongly in the passages where Golang realises the danger of his fellow slaves internalising false assumptions about their own inferiority and sets out to rally them. In particular, a speech in which fellow revolutionary La Croix exposes the hypocrisy of their colonial masters in light of the French Revolution fizzes with rhetoric:

‘We must challenge the veracity of their watch-words. They cannot cry “Liberté!” and have us in chains. They cannot cry “Egalité!” and feel we are not equal. They cannot cry “Fraternité!” and not realise the truth about the brotherhood of all men. The true testing ground of the revolution is not France, but right here in the colonies! They have no option but to make us free!’

In addition to such stirring speeches, Aubertin engineers several moments of great tension in the narrative. The sections where Golang hides and protects a British deserter and where the Neg Maron set out to capture the governor’s canoe are gripping.

The plotting isn’t consistently taut, however. The time shifts are awkward and Aubertin neglects to round out some of the lesser characters in his impatience to tell the story. There is also a degree of self-consciousness in the writing, which makes some of the exchanges, particularly those involving the British soldiers, rather stilted.

All in all, though, I was glad I read it. As one of nine published novels produced by this nation of fewer than 180,000 people, at least up until 2005 (if you know of any more, I’d love to hear about them), it provides a thought-provoking insight into the island’s past and how it might inform its society today. I’d be intrigued to see how the other works compare. Ah well, maybe next year…

Neg Maron: Freedom Fighter by Michael Aubertin (Caribbean Diaspora Press, 2000)

Ecuador: righteous anger

Novels with messages are hard to do well. Even the best writers can become worthy bores when they set out to change people’s minds about something, turning their rounded characters into two-dimensional puppets jerking on the strings of their social and political beliefs.

No wonder then that my heart sank when I saw the phrase ‘great novel of social protest’ in the foreword to the rather ancient edition of The Villagers by Jorge Icaza, which winged its way to me from one of the independent sellers on Amazon. Clearly this was going to be a barrel of laughs.

At first glance, a summary of the plot seemed to back up my misgivings. Set in the remote Ecuadorian jungle, the novel describes landowner Don Alfonso Pereira’s project to build a new road through the swamps, documenting the hardships and mistreatment of the indigenous ‘Indian’ tribes forced to sacrifice their labour, lands and lives to the endeavour. Cheated, abused, starved and exploited by the magnates who buy and sell them with the territory, the Indians endure more and more extreme sufferings, until at last one of them, Andres, is pushed over the limit when his partner Cunshi dies, sparking a rebellion with tragic results.

What makes the book great, however, is Icaza’s ingenious approach to his subject matter. Starting the novel with insolvent Don Alfonso undergoing an uncomfortable interview with his creditor uncle, the author turns us through 180 degrees, shifting our sympathies from the harassed landowner to the people he exploits so that by the end of the book we are as impatient for Don Alfonso’s overthrow as the Native Americans are.

Much of this is achieved by the shocking descriptions of callous treatment and cruelty throughout the book. Numerous incidents stand out, from the wet-nurse forced to leave her baby to starve to death while she feeds Don Alfonso’s granddaughter, to the worker pulled to death by ropes thrown round him in an attempt to drag him out of quicksand. In addition, sadistic figures dominate the narrative, such as the one-eyed foreman who has free reign to practice his quack medicine on his charges. His remedy for malaria is particularly nasty: whipping sufferers to run until they collapse and then feeding them a mixture of brandy, herbs, urine from a pregnant woman, lemon juice and ground guinea pig excrement.

Icaza’s insight into the human psyche helps him add depth to these visions of horror, revealing the lies people tell themselves and each other in order to be able to treat fellow human beings like dirt. He shows how greed masquerades as progress and callousness dresses itself up as discipline in the minds of the oppressors. Perhaps most memorable of all is the role of the church in perpetuating the fear and poverty of the Indians, oozing hypocrisy at every pore, as in the scene where Andres goes to try to find a plot in the graveyard for Cunshi and has the pricing structure of the different areas explained to him by the priest:

‘These unpainted wooden crosses belong to the poor cholos and Indians. As you can easily understand they are a little far from the sanctuary, and the prayers sometimes reach them and sometimes don’t. God’s mercy, which is infinite” (the priest made another bow and another salute with his birreta and with his eyes) “has destined these unhappy souls to go to Purgatory. You, my dear Chiliquinga, know what the tortures of Purgatory are like. They’re worse than those of Hell.’

At times, the narrative can be a little hard to follow. While Andres and Cunshi are fully realised, many of the rest of the Native Americans remain shadowy, faceless figures who don’t step off the page. This is exacerbated by Icaza’s stylistic fondness for strange streams of dialogue, in which a myriad of unidentified voices comment on an event as it happens.

But these are small quibbles. All in all, though, this is an extraordinary novel, which forces the reader to confront the chilling capacity of an ordinary person to delude him or herself into sanctioning horrific acts. It reaches beyond the specific social issues of its time to reveal truths about humankind and still resonates 80 years on from its publication. A powerful reminder of what storytelling can do.

The Villagers (Huasipungo) by Jorge Icaza, translated from the Spanish by Bernard Dulsey (Arcturus Paperbacks, 1974)