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Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo.

October 27, 2017

<Beyond the Rice Fields

Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo.  Restless Books, October, 2017.

5 stars

Translated from the French by Allison M. Charette

5 stars

Epic historical fiction about a slave and his master’s daughter caught in the violence and mass killings that erupted in Madagascar in the early nineteenth century when Christianity and modern technology threatened traditional religion and power structures.

Naivo is the pen name for Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa.  Madagascar is his home country. He has worked as a journalist there as well as a professor in Paris.  Now he is a Canadian journalist.  He has published a number of short stories, which have not been translated into English. Beyond the Rice Fields is his first novel. It was published in its French original version in March 2012 by Éditions Sépia in Paris.

The love story of Tsito and Fara, the dual narrators, ground the national story of terror and destruction of nineteenth-century Madagascar.  Tsito is a slave, his family killed and himself sold into a family in another traditional village.  Despite his status he has a relatively happy childhood alongside Fara, the beautiful daughter of his new masters.  As they become adolescents, Christian missionaries open a school nearby which they both attend but neither become Christians.  Both leave the village and the rice fields, taking different paths. Repeatedly separated, they are regularly reunited in a nation facing rapid changes in many facets of life. Their lives intersect with a variety of others, each carrying his or her own stories.  Tsito becomes free, goes to England, and gives his perspective on what he finds there. Eventually he returns to Madagascar where the horrors and the destruction have increased, and the major characters are in danger.

The story has often been told of cultural conflict between traditional societies and the combination of Christianity and economic/political modernization. What is unusual about this book is the way in which Naivo is able to weave together both the overpowering public narrative with the individual stories of real people.  The issue is not which belief will the leading characters choose but whether they can survive the violence of traditional leaders threatened with religious and economic change. This is clearly a book from the view of the colonized not the colonizers.

Navio is a talented writer. He tells his story in a rather conventional manner with lots of detail and a formal style. Beyond the Rice Fields is a big book, conceptualizing a big story.  He is able to balance the complicated narratives that he tells.   His prose and his plot are both gripping.  The book is not an easy one to read, however.  This is said to be the first novel from Madagascar to be translated from the French in which it was written into English.  I found the names long and difficult and many unfamiliar words.  There was a glossary, but it was at the end of the book and hard to access in my ebook.  None the less, the book was worth of the effort to read it.

I wholeheartedly recommend it to all others ready to read a fine book that moves them into new territory.

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