Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Madagascar: Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo

I was delighted when this newly published book turned up in our local library. It is described as the first Malagasy novel to be published in English. I'm not sure what that means as it was initially published in France and appears to have been translated from French. So I suspect that is "Malagasy" as in "from Madagascar" rather than "Malagasy" as in "written in the Malagasy language".

At any rate, it is a fascinating view of the little known history of Madagascar. Set in the nineteenth century, at the time of King Radama I and his successor Queen Ranavalona I, it tells of the life of Tsito, a young boy from the forest people, who is captured and enslaved, and of Fara, the daughter of the man who purchases him. It is a time of great turbulence in Madagascar. Tsito falls in love with Fara, but as a slave, he is not able to fulfil his love. However, eventually he is able to gain his freedom. He becomes a skilled craftsman, and even travels to Chatham in Kent to learn English methods of shipmaking. In the meantime Fara and her family fall victim to a sweeping wave of repression against the newly ascendant Christian religion, and against others who are suspected in any way of disloyalty to the crown, or of sorcery.

The book is dense with plot and many characters, and was at times tricky to follow. I found myself flipping back to check on earlier happenings, and also turning to the glossary and historical summary at the end of the book. Nevertheless, I was riveted by this view of a world that I was unfamiliar with, knowing of Madagascar only through wildlife documentaries.

Naivo is the pen name of Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa. The book was translated from French by Allison M. Charetteand published by Restless Books in October 2017.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Burkina Faso: The Parachute Drop, by Norbert Zongo

I was delighted to come across the Global Anthology, a website which highlights a piece of literature from every country in the world. Many countries are represented by links to short extracts, but the entry for Burkina Faso linked to a pdf the entire text of Norbert Zongo's The Parachute Drop (though lacking the introduction mentioned by Ann Morgan in her review). This downloaded beautifully to my newly acquired e-reader so I took it on holiday last week so that I could finish off the "B" countries.

Norbert Zongo was an investigative journalist. Though the novel is set in the fictional African republic of Watinbow, it has been suggested variously that the novel is a thinly disguised critique of Togo, or of Burkina Faso itself. I suspect that in discussing the misuse of power by African leaders in newly independent countries, it is applicable to quite a few African countries. Gouama, the 'Founding President and Clairvoyant Guide' of Watinbow is a deeply flawed and ruthless person, who imprisons Marxists, and students suspected of being Marxists, assassinates former loyal friends, and believes in sorcery, so that he uses the body parts of those he has had killed for bizarre rituals.

However, he is in some ways naive, and finds himself manipulated by advisors he had trusted, so that he loses power in a military coup, and finds himself stranded deep in the countryside, trying to reach safety in the form of the neighbouring country, where he believes the president will come to his aid and assist him to regain power. In the course of his arduous journey, he is assisted by local farmers and fishermen, some of whom turn out to be the very students he had earlier imprisoned, and who had managed to escape execution.

I found the portrait of Gouama surprisingly sympathetic, showing both his evil side and his humanity and, at times, good intentions. The students who assist him, however, come across as more one-sided. While both colonial governments and the new leaders of African independence (whether civilian or military) are shown as deeply flawed, the Marxists are shown as good people who care for the needs of the poor and who believe that "development" means nothing unless the people have better healthcare and enough food to eat. While this may be the case, I feel that there are flawed individuals involved in any political movement, and that Marxist governments are no better (though sometimes no worse) than other types of government in this respect.

Nevertheless, though it was clear early on that the book was written to convey a political message, I found it an engrossing story.

The Parachute Drop was translated by Christopher Wise, and originally published by Socialist Stories.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Mauritius: The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah

Nathacha Appanah is a French Mauritian of Indian origin, and worked there as a journalist before moving to France in 1998.

"The Last Brother" is set in the final years of World War II, although the young protagonist, a boy named Raj, does not know what is happening outside his island home. When a flash flood sweeps away his two brothers, Anil and Vinod, he and his parents leave their village to cope with their grief, his father taking up a new job as a prison guard. Raj, a victim of his father's savage beatings, spends time in the prison hospital, where he meets and befriends David, a young Jewish boy.

David is one of a group of European Jews who had taken ship for Palestine to escape Hitler. However the British, who were in charge of Palestine at the time, would not allow the ship to land, and the passengers were interred on the island of Mauritius for the duration of the war, where 127 of them perished.

All this is in the past when Raj, now a seventy year old man, narrates the events of those days. He carries a deep burden of guilt, and of regret for the lost David, his only friend after his brothers' death. The story benefits from the dual perspective - the simplicity of the child to whom the events happened, with the more reflective view of the old man looking back. Lyrical and poignant,it has been translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan, and published by Maclehose Press.