NOT TO BE MISSED
"Juillet au pays", a novel by Michèle RAKOTOSON
Bordeaux: Elytis, 2007. (206p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Madagascar's longing for peace and prosperity have been thwarted by slavery, colonisation, dictatorship, imported political orthodoxies and economic subservience. "How does one escape from this continuum?". That is the vexed question Michèle Rakotoson asks herself as she arrives "Back Home for Summer" in Antanarivo and begins to reminisce about the past. There is of course no easy answer to that question, but as the narrator re-acquaints herself with her country, she uncovers the perverting power of the non-dit that underpins socio-cultural hierarchies inherited from the past and frustrates people's aspirations for peace and prosperity.
Family lore taught her that she belongs to a lineage which has accepted the challenge of change with unflinching determination: and no-one could say otherwise. Her great grand-father embraced Christianity and became a missionary at the end of the 19th century. Her grandfathers mastered western medicine and became doctors. Her father learned to play the piano and sent his daughter to Antananarivo's French school. And eventually, she herself shattered the last remnants of the old colonial stronghold by becoming a media personality and a celebrated Parisian writer after fleeing Madagascar, in order to save her life, in the early 1980s. Yet, this commitment to change had run parallel to a more diffused and reactionary set of attitudes, lending credence to ominous and long established belittling of some significant others. That is the untold element of the story.
In her eagerness to reconnect with her peers after years of absence from Antananarivo a city she loves and is associated with great memories of her childhood the narrator comes to realise that her attachment to her country rests on very fragmentary and one-sided perceptions of reality. Her perception of her ancestral land side-steps big chunks of the country's history and, unbeknown to her, many of the people populating these hidden spaces have been reduced to mere shadows whose only claim to fame was to have been able to cling to life across the centuries. These multitudes, lost to the Grand Narrative she was brought up on, include the innumerable cohorts of young people sold into slavery and sent away to the Mascarene Islands, South Africa and America in the 17th century: the serfs and slaves of Malagasy's aristocratic families and the descendants of the former; i.e., the andevo who have been abandoned to their wretched condition throughout the 20th century; the karanas, the descendants of the Indian traders who have been repeatedly robbed and made the scapegoats for the country's ills; and more generally, the battlers of modern times who have been attempting endlessly to make ends meet in spite of socio-political inefficiencies fostered by western educated Malagasy, development experts and foreign consultants.
The missing pieces of her bourgeois family history are important because they bring forth a way to contextualise old memories and new discoveries. Furthermore, they bring to the fore the plight of Madagascar's forgotten "minorities" who comprises the bulk of the people who have lived on the Island . They allow her to discover an "other" who has been erased from her country's collective consciousness. They provide her and by extension her readers with an opportunity to understand the relationship between self and others in a meaningful way, that is, in bypassing assigned identities and in looking anew to the contribution made by people bereft of their history and dignity. Indeed Madagascar, like every other country in the world, has been made up of innumerable forgotten individuals who toiled alongside the selected few who made it to positions of power and so, into the history books.
As the narrator looks at the individuals surrounding her, memories of previous generations come rushing back: the ghosts of men and women she knew, people born to do their master's bidding, relegated to the slums, despised and deprived of the right to exist outside the narrow confines of their subservience. In Dada, the teenager who lives on the street under her window, she sees a reincarnation of that family of nineteen children who had settled in the neighbourhood when she was a child. Their ancestors had been freed from serfdom at the turn of the 20th century, but they were dispossessed of the little land they occupied at the time of Independence. Compelled to live on the fringe of society, they had been subjected to society's contemptuous attitude ever since. In spite of all the changes, political, technological and otherwise, Dada's station in life was no different from that of his forebears.
The shabby daughter of Rasoa, the mainty-black surrounded by her children in rags in front of her squalid hovel, is also a sorry reminder of sustained prejudices. When the narrator comes across the wretched woman, the latter looks exactly the same as the silent woman who spent her life in the service of the author's grandmother. Like the thousands of serfs and slaves whose labour sustained the country, she had neither a voice nor a history, but was always there, working in front of the kitchen fire; thus her simultaneous presence-absence in the narrator's mind. The narrator realised that what it meant to be Malagasy was one and many. She recollects that "One day, as I was still quite young, I was singing a line from an old song "If you think of us, look at the sun" and my great-grandmother told me sharply, to shut up at once as it was "a slaves song" (p.52). Whereas Tino Rossi, Christian hymns and western music, adapted "à la sauce locale", (p.52) reached every nook and cranny of the country, including her grandmother's cottage, Rasoa's history and that of her ancestors embedded in old slave songs was deliberately expurgated. Today's Malagasy have to fill in that void, Rakotoson argues, and acknowledge the many voices telling a story different from their own.
Ismael's excitement of going home to Madagascar is another, yet similar expression of the same issue. Born in Paris to Malagasy parents of Indian/Pakistani origin, this young boy has been brought up with the belief that he belongs to Madagascar, the place where his parents grew up, the country his family calls home. But for the narrator, admitting that the descendants of Indian workers who were transported to build the railways in Africa and to develop trade across the Indian Ocean can be and feel Malagasy is not matter of fact: rather it needs a quantum leap in her perception of Other. Thus her candid remark, "Malagasy of Indian origin! I still have some difficulty to grasp this concept. Ethnocentrism is deeply rooted on our piece of earth, but this child is Malagasy, Madagascar is his country ... I am going back home. And he is too" (pp.10-11).
Baffled by the yawning gaps that impair her vision of others, she tries to understand the origin and significance of the "non-dit" that has nurtured her bias. "How many pages of my country's history are there that I do not know?" she asks. "When was it decided to keep it away from us? Ignorance leads to an endless repeat of the same stories, anecdotal and meaningless. Even worse, for want of proper references, one assimilates all the degrading clichés used by others, even those most damaging to one's pride and self esteem". (p.188). Thus a continuous sequence of disturbances which brings only death and misery. Violence has its roots in one's lack of understanding of others rather than in others' deficiencies and inefficiencies, she suggests. It therefore cannot be stamped out by external agency and explains the failure of charitable NGO's, evangelists' bent on "killing the henchmen of Satan" (p.75), IMF's economic modelling and westernised intellectuals who assimilated to perfection others' discourse. It can only be stopped by the acknowledgment of others' humanity, worth, needs and aspirations, by an opening up of the Nation's history to the plight and achievements of the unsung heroes of the past and by a full recognition of their children's rights to feel at home in their country.
Unsettling as it is, the fact of looking beyond the narrow confines of nationalism, traditional hierarchies and contrived popular wisdom opens another world to the narrator. One that unlocks a new set of values and challenges unimpeachable orthodoxies. Her encounter with Lalona is a case in point. This young farmer is dirt poor, yet resolutely forward-looking and respectful of the land she toils in order to feed her family. She does what she knows is best for her children and is confident in her ability to take advantage of the limited opportunities offered to her family. "I am taken aback when I look at her, the narrator says. This young woman amazes me. In just two days, watching her going about her daily existence, I understood the strength of these people ... [made of] quiet achievers." (p.180)
The young garage-owner who fled her village, aged fifteen, in order to escape forced marriage, unwanted pregnancies and a life of misery, is another example of sheer determination to get by as best one possibly can. She lives in a cramped tin shed with her husband, three children, mother-in-law, sister, nephews and three employees. The 2002 civil unrest left her in dire circumstances but the endless cycle of violence she is confronted by has not diminished her resolve to make life better for her children and employees. It is neither the well educated upper echelons of society, nor the high-flying politicians and businessmen who have kept the country alive through thick and thin, but the thousands of ordinary men and women imbued with a tenacious desire to bring their entourage out of poverty, submissiveness and ignorance.
Michelle Rakotoson's unique experience is a perceptive analysis of self and Other, a courageous articulation of Madagascar's cleavages, race relations and troubled history. It is also the expression of a common predicament that goes far beyond the experience of one particular individual in one specific country. Juillet au pays epitomises a vexed issue confronting people far and wide when faced with the painful discovery that things are neither what they ought to be, nor the way one thought they were in the golden age of childhood. Juillet au pays is definitely a book that will appeal to everyone, everywhere.
Editor ([email protected])
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities