In Johary Ravaloson’s Return to the Enchanted Island, translated by Allison M. Charette and out tomorrow with Amazon Crossing, Ietsy Razak comes of age amidst the enchanted origin myths of Madagascar. On Tuesday, November 12, Johary Ravaloson and Allison M. Charette will be in conversation with Uzodinma Iweala for the book’s launch at POWERHOUSE Arena in Brooklyn, NY.
Ietsy dreamed that she would bring him with her in her purse along with all the other objects lost at the bottom the way individual days and nights get lost in a life: that she’d use him to hold back her hair instead of the bobby pins she could never find; that she’d keep him like the old movie and theater tickets, or that popsicle stick, a souvenir of an afternoon with her father, their first outing since her younger brother was born, when she got accepted into Sciences Po and moved to Paris; that she’d write on him in place of her notebooks, the title of a book recommended to her, the price of a trip spotted in a window, telephone numbers followed by names or vice versa, even guys’ names, that she’d scribble them all on him; that she’d fidget with him in her hands instead of a pen; that she’d smoke him greedily between photo shoots; that she’d read him fervently in the back of a taxi, yes, him instead of Cioran, whose ideas, he’d warned her, could transform your soul like acid turns the blue tint of litmus paper red—it would be better to watch the cars driving bumper-to-bumper or to chat with the drivers even if none of them could keep themselves from flirting with her; that she’d swallow him in the middle of a fashion show with a sip of water as a migraine tortured her like endless flashbulbs; that she’d set him on the bridge of her nose to protect her eyes from the sun or to use him to see life; that she’d slip him into dead bolts to lock all the doors and stay alone with him.
That was obviously impossible. He wouldn’t have been able to handle it, either, despite his fantasies. Because being with Ninon had just as much misery as ecstasy. The life she led, fed, enhanced, it was more of an erupting volcano than a river winding lazily to the sea. Ietsy had to stay alert every moment or else he’d be consumed by molten lava.
She dragged him along to contemporary art exhibits and obscure art-house cinemas, which he found absurd, and had to really focus to appear receptive to them. What exactly was that Japanese film about the woman throwing out the sand that’s filling her house, which turns out to be in the middle of a sand world? Or that other one where an actress sips her whiskey endlessly while everyone waits for her for the final scene of the play? Utterly outrageous films. But she demanded to hear his thoughts about them. Same thing leaving the theater, after they’d gone to see a one-woman show about nothing more than spouting forth a bunch of stuff about solitude, like a young girl who just hit puberty watches blood flowing from between her legs, or, a little better in Ietsy’s mind, in Nanterre, on a long, narrow stage, two men discussing the price of something that was never revealed, haggling over it for the whole play, masters of dueling with meaningless words. He’d already endured such performances in another life at the simplest of family ceremonies, during which he’d have to stay seated through the whole thing without moving a muscle next to Mr. Razak, who revered that type of thing. Yes, there he could, like Ninon, toss out his final opinion: guys who were just talking to kill other people’s time and save their own! And when putting forward that opinion, he had to look her right in the eye, for that was where Ninon’s little laugh began, before sliding down to her throat, rising again to pinch her dimples and dying, if she wanted, on Ietsy’s lips. He snatched victory out of those nights like in a boxing match. Other times, he lost and left with his heart feeling as if it had been stomped flat.
But whenever Ninon remembered him and set up a date, he always came running. Sometimes his all-consuming fears would be masked with an agreeableness that surprised him. “What do you take me for?” Ninon had retorted one day when he’d suggested using a condom. He didn’t answer and dropped the matter. He was probably expecting her to fling her arms around his neck because he’d noticed that every time he feigned any level of detachment, like “You and your friends will have plenty of fun without me,” she would be even more infatuated with him. It also helped him not to just mope around and have suspicion gnaw away at him, aimlessly cursing every male and sometimes also every female who was electrified in Ninon’s wake.
During this time, he read or played chess with Boris, expounding on the blessed era his grandfather had told him about, before the Christian missionaries arrived, when desire grew like rice seedlings wherever it was planted without offending anyone’s heart.
“Back then, they knew that no one belongs to anyone!” he lamented to his friend across the chessboard.
“Yeah! But . . . didn’t you tell me your kings had twelve wives?”
“That was for political reasons! Each one on their own hill—there were twelve sacred hills around the capital—each one of them was free to do whatever she wanted. None of our legends are about a man who’s sad because he’s separated from his beloved,” he said bitterly.
“Then why are you beating yourself up?”
“I don’t know, probably because I also heard about Tristan and Isolde, and Sleeping Beauty too.”
“I mean, it’s mostly that . . . she’s incredible!”
“And because . . . I love her.”
“Have you told her that?”
“Oh, come on, she’s already got me on a tight enough leash!”
In all the games of chess Boris and Ietsy played against each other over all those years, from Bièvres to Versailles, they each won about the same amount. During the Ninon period, however, Ietsy won the tiebreaker every time. As sweet as that was, he had only Ninon on his mind. He also managed to get his master’s degree by some miracle.
“You are truly blessed by the Gods and Ancestors,” Boris had admitted.
“Maybe I’m just a lucky devil.”
Then, in a seemingly unrelated vein, he continued.
“Actually, I do know several Malagasy legends where there’s a lover pining for his sweetheart. Paulhan was the one who didn’t want them to exist . . . I would have liked that too! Even in the myth of Ibonia, there’s a child who decides to leave his mother’s womb to go after his betrothed who’d been captured by a rival.”
“He sounds like he’s taking action, not sitting around beating himself up, right?”
“Yes,” Ietsy admitted. “The problem is that all these stories tell you how to get the girl, but none of them says what to do next!”
“Probably live happily ever after and have lots of children,” Boris said.
“How? Now all the pretty girls can live happily ever after by themselves.”
As he moved his hand toward the chessboard, Ietsy recalled the riddle of Rasarotrafoitoavary, She-Who-Is-as-Difficult-to-Leave-Behind-as-Rice.
“Her name can also be translated as ‘a brutally beautiful woman,’” Ietsy said. “She was so tempting that anyone who saw her couldn’t take their eyes off her. She asked all her suitors, all those who’d seen her, to bring her the hearts of their parents, both of them, mama and papa. Not a single one balked. They backed away slowly, devouring her with their eyes as they left. Then they rushed back, famished, their hands still dirty. They presented their bloody tributes to her, some with heifers’ hearts, calf hearts, some with monkey hearts, their neighbors’ hearts, even the two hearts of their parents, both of them, mama and papa. She threw them all out of her house, warning the people that there were assassins prowling the city!” He laughed with his friend, then said, “What do I need to bring Ninon?”
“I have no idea what goes on inside chicks’ heads,” Boris confessed, once again tipping over his king.
Excerpted from Return to the Enchanted Island by Johary Ravaloson, published by Amazon Crossing. Copyright © 2019 by Johary Ravaloson. Translation copyright © 2019 by Allison M. Charette. By arrangement with the publisher.