NOT TO BE MISSED
"Le pétale écarlate" (Société malgache d'édition, 1990)
a novel by Charlotte-Arrisoa RAFENOMANJATO republished under the title "Felana"
Paris: Le Cavalier Bleu Editions, 2006, (252p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Felana, by the late Malagasy author Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato, tells of the predicament of a young woman born under the worst possible astrological sign in the traditional calendar. This ascendency is shaping her life but in the end she manages to overcome the curse put on her, as "people's destiny is never determined once and for all" : Individuals can fight the odds, ancestors have the ability to intercede with the gods, and evil spirits can be vanquished. The power of the occult in determining people's fate is definitely at the heart of Felana, but this novel also emphasises the fundamental role of people's agency and the core values of traditional Malagasy beliefs.
Born to a noble family who had lost their fortune, but nothing of their beliefs and proud attachment to their royal ancestry, Felana comes into the world under the sign of the Alakaosy, a maleficent power that could destroy people close to her. Traditional practices demand that the new-born be subjected to a cleansing ordeal that would rid Felana of her dreadful and lethal powers. To all intents and purposes, her fate was therefore sealed at birth. But the prospect of losing his daughter is too much to bear for Felana's young father who throws the local mpanandro the astrological sign-reader out of the family home to prevent him from performing the rites demanded by tradition.
As anticipated, the failure to comply with the ritual leads to a succession of nightmarish events that not only destroy Felana's house and her close family, but also the entire community working the fields around the ancestral home. Frightened to death, the survivors of Felana's extended family hastily abandon her to the care of a Catholic convent. But when she reaches the age of eighteen, the young woman decides to leave the Sisters to become independent and to find work in Antanarivo. With no family to call upon and little understanding of the ways of the world, it does not take long before she finds herself confronted with the many dangers awaiting teenagers on the street.
Life is tough, but she is resolute in making something of her life and manages to survive a few traumatic incidents before falling in love with Eddy Marshall, an American geophysicist on assignment in Madagascar, and she moves in with him. But in keeping with an all too common scenario, the time comes when the sojourner has to return home. The novel then takes a somewhat unexpected turn; Felana, suffers from poisoning shortly before Eddy is due to leave and the young man decides to put his return on hold. He attempts to save his sweetheart with the help of an old American doctor, a toxicology specialist, who had been a friend of the family for years.
As it turns out, all the scientific knowledge of this eminent specialist proves useless against Felana's condition that requires a different kind of treatment, one based on positive forces coming from beyond: traditional rituals conducted by benevolent healers and tranced mpanandros. Nothing less can free Felana from the ferocious Alakaosy that took hold of her at birth. Rafenomanjato's aim, however, is not to disqualify the power of modernity, to deny science's power and achievements in the name of traditional beliefs. It is rather an invitation to consider the complementarity of wisdom gained by different means: to acknowledge their respective strengths and, even to coalesce them into a new body of thought, satisfying both the idiosyncrasies of traditional beliefs and the promise of new discoveries.
Many characters of the novel play an important role in blending traditional and imported ideas into a syncretic understanding of life and death. Father Ranjina, for example, is among those well-educated Malagasies who remain firmly connected to their roots but, like the author of the novel, has an intimate knowledge of both Malagasy and Western cultures. As this local priest tries to explain to Eddy, one can be a Christian and also a strong supporter of traditional wisdom. "Malagasies constitute a common people who have believed in God for centuries", he said. "The word Zanahary or Creator, proves it. We believe in the immortality of the soul. We are convinced that death is not an annihilation. It cannot be the end of a creature that God made in His own image! Therefore, the spirit and the soul of our ancestors are next to him. These ancestors who were at the origin of our temporal existence can only want what's best for us, they can intercede for us with the Lord" (p.157).
But when Father Ranjina offers to escort Felana to the location designed by the mpanandro to proceed with the necessary healing ritual, Eddy dismisses him rudely. In the eye of the young American, knowledge, expertise and the power of healing can only come from America. To him, the elusive power of Malagasy ancestors counts for nothing. And when Haingo, the local doctor of the hospital tells him that it is important to carry through the proper rituals to save the patient, Eddy is even ruder, answering her comments in a burst of anger : "Rubbish ... only rubbish and you ... so-called scientists, you are just behaving like donkeys" (p.152). Like many people before him, Eddy cannot see any parallels between his faith and that of others; he cannot see the common beliefs of the millions who make pilgrimages to Lourdes, Guadeloupe, Mecca, Allahabad, etc. and the Malagasies going to the sacred site of Andanoro where they feel close to Princess Ranoro, one of their most revered forbears.
Yet what he cannot see a few others can, and the broad vision of the world expressed by the American medical supremo, who Eddy brings to the bedside of Felana, is clearly expressing the author's own views on the issue. Eddy's narrow-mindedness lost the day and, in the end, it is the healing power of a range of local people joining forces to save Felana that proves successful. As Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato said during an interview, "Le pétale écarlate was my first novel and, at that time ... I was seeking to push away evil spirits. I was looking to find the best in mankind. I was trying to reach hidden values, to dismiss the beast" . That is one of the reasons that makes Felana not only an interesting read, but also a heartwarming experience.
The fascinating six page introduction to Malagasy culture and beliefs that precedes the novel puts Felana's tribulations in the context of the religious beliefs that have developed on the Island over fifteen centuries of human occupation. They not only take readers on a journey into the sophisticated set of values, "deeply rooted in Malagasy culture and history that brings everything back to society's focal point: the ancestors" (p.7), but they also invite a reflection on some kind of "universal spiritualism" (p.8), a kind of wisdom that one can find one way or another everywhere around the world. Beyond individual differences, the origins, makeup and finality of human nature draws on similar concepts: the immortality of the soul and the belief that the merit people will accrue during their earthly life will determine their power, or lack of it, throughout their existence in the hereafter.
The meaning given by Malagasy custom to the word "merit" is also interesting. It derives from qualities such as wisdom, integrity, generosity, tolerance, trustworthiness and fervour in the accomplishment of one's work and duties. Malagasy wisdom is thus characterised by a strong sense of morality. It minimizes the intrinsic value of money and wealth accumulation and encourages solidarity, mutual assistance, cohesion... (p.9.) This approach to human life and (im)mortality will find an echo far beyond the borders of Madagascar and both believers and non-believers will subscribe to Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato's spirited message of tolerance, dialogue and mutual understanding.
1. In a short presentation of "Felana", Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato wrote "Le Malgache ne se soumet pas pieds et poings liés aux diktats d'une existence fixée une fois pour toutes." [http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/Rafenomanjato.html sighted 28 September 2011].
2. Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato and Carole Beckett. "Charlotte-Arrisoa. Rafenomanjato speaks to Carole Beckett". "Research in African Literatures", vol. 31, no. 2 (Summer, 2000), p.176.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities