Beyond the Rice Fields, a sprawling work by the Malagasy writer known as Naivo (his full name is Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa), is the first novel from Madagascar ever to be translated into English. The book was originally written in French, like most literary works in the African nation of 24 million inhabitants, where authors hoping to find a wider audience resort to the European language instead of the native Malagasy. It is a vast and ambitious book, bristling with information about the history and culture of Madagascar. Translator Alison Charette recalls that it created a stir there for the way it deals with the country’s colonial past, earning praise for being one of the first Malagasy novels to address the brutality of slavery in a realistic manner. (She first came across the novel in a bookstore in the capital Antananarivo, while traveling the country for research in 2014. The translation was completed with the help of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant.)
Set in the early nineteenth century, Beyond the Rice Fields describes the arrival of British missionaries and French industrialists in Madagascar and the havoc this wreaked on Malagasy society. It was a time of great social upheaval, as the country began to modernize and ancient traditions were shaken by religious conflicts, new modes of production, and increased commercial exchange. Readers who are unfamiliar with the history of Madagascar will struggle with many of the references and may miss out on some of the plotting, unless they tread very carefully. But those who keep going will be rewarded by a sudden rush of clarity, and a sense of contact with a vanished world.
Beyond the Rice Fields also is a love story and a coming of age story. It shifts back and forth between the perspective of Tsito, a slave, and Fara, his mistress. The two narrators provide different perspectives on the transformations affecting Malagasy society. When he is still a child, the king’s soldiers destroy Tsito’s village, selling him and his family as slaves. Tsito is brutalized and “broken in” by the slave traders, a process which Naivo describes in painful detail. Tsito and Fara grow up together, work together, and play endless games of make believe together. Perhaps inevitably, he falls in love with her. There is plenty of melodrama here, as they are separated and reunited again and again. Fara falls in love with Tsito’s sworn enemy and has a child with him. Tsito is heartbroken and moves away to work for the provincial lord. When he returns, Fara has left her lover. They fall in love, but Tsito must go away once more. Fighting in the country makes it impossible for them to send messages to each other, but somehow, in the middle of the conflicts, they find their way back together.
While this love story unfolds, the country is changing profoundly. At the start of the novel, English missionaries have arrived in Madagascar and opened schools in the countryside—both Fara and Tsito learn to read and write in a missionary school. The missionaries soon clash with the local chiefs and healers, questioning some of the local traditions. (One missionary saves Fara’s life when she is a baby; she was born during a month that the tribe considers to be evil, and so is about to be put into a pen with wild animals. If they trample her, so be it; if she survives, then she was intended to live. The villagers are all watching when the missionary rushes in to save her.) In response to the religious unrest, the queen of Madagascar enforces a brutal crackdown on Christians. Anybody suspected of sympathizing with them is persecuted, and many are killed. People in the countryside flee to the city, but the religious persecution continues. Meanwhile, French traders and manufacturers arrive, and Madagascar begins to modernize. Time marches implacably forward.
And yet, time also marches backwards in this novel. The narrative shifts from the present to the past, and back again, all in the space of a few paragraphs. Careless readers will miss out on key details. When Fara’s grandmother tells her stories about the past of Madagascar, for instance, those narratives might at first seem like diversions from the main plot. They aren’t there just for local color, however, and will play a crucial part in the story later on. Seemingly inconsequential childhood games also lead to unforeseen consequences, as battles between children are reenacted in acts of revenge years later. Alliances form and dissolve in childhood as in the conflicts of national politics, where provincial lords struggle for power and the Queen bestows favors and takes them away.
Beyond the Rice Fields provides a limited glossary of Malagasy words and a short chronology of the period. Readers would do well to study them. Naivo’s narrative tacks along with no explanations or background at all. The constant references to the “Sovereign lord” and the provincial lords, the former lords and the rejected Queens, the endlessly expanding cast of characters of villagers and artisans and the priests will put some readers in a fog. I found myself flipping backwards in the book again and again, trying to find out what was happening. Some fact was always slipping through my fingers, and it turned out that nothing was irrelevant to the larger story. For me, at least, the fog did not lift until Tsito went to England, near the end of the book. A laborer for the Queen now, and a freed man, Tsito travels to Chatham to learn to build ships. There, he has to answer endless questions from Englishmen about Madagascar and his own past. Tsito’s companion is happy to answer their questions but Tsito himself resents them. Here he is in a Chatham pub, listening to his companion answer the Englishmen:
My Menamaso friend took a long draft of beer after saying that. He set his tankard down with a clatter and wiped the corner of his mouth, glancing around the room. Truth be told, I was getting a little tired of hearing him always explain things to white men, obvious things. Every time we did that, I felt like we were putting some piece of lie and imprecision into our vazaha [foreign] words, whether we wanted to or not . . . What could a vazaha understand of the hasina [sacred value] of people and things, of their sacred virtue?”
Tsito’s lament also sums up the attitude of the novel and one of its central conflicts. The author wrote this book in French, not in Malagasy. In other words, he chose to use “vazaha words” to tell this story. And yet, the novel is not an easy one for foreigners. This is no Things Fall Apart, setting out a simple before-and-after story of how colonialism impacted Africa. Rather, Beyond the Rice Fields is a spiraling, dense, and prickly work, difficult to access until the foreign reader has agreed to put in some time and effort. But once the effort is put in, it is richly rewarding.