Beyond the Rice Fields: Naivo

Translated from French by Allison M. Charrette

This is the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English. It tells the story of Rafa, a young woman, and Tsito, the boy her father buys her for a slave. Their relationship is closer than mistress and slave—they are around the same age and they grow up together as playmates and friends.

Through Fara and Tsito, the novel charts Madagascar’s history in the 19th century: the influence of Christianity through schools set up by missionaries, the persecution of Christians, and the struggle of the local leaders to maintain their independence.

Fara lives with her mother Bao and her grandmother Bebe. Fado, her father, has another family and only visits Bao occasionally. Tsito is in love with Fara, who is fond of him but does not return his love. Instead she is infatuated with Faly, a bully who Tsito hates—Faly has been picking on Tsito ever since he arrived at the village.

The two children are sent to the local missionary school with Vero, one of their playmates. Vero eventually joins a group of evangelists, which puts her in danger when the new Empress wants to rid the country of Christianity, which she feels is destroying the old ways.

In the meantime, Tsito has been taken under the wing of Ibambo, a powerful slave. Thanks to him, Tsito gets a job with Andriamady, a local lord. His new job takes him to the big city—the City of Thousands. He comes across his old enemy, Faly, who has become an important and ruthless man.

Political shifts, like everywhere else, have consequences on the countryside. Rado is a victim—once a rice farmer, who was also a zebu herder, he is now doing odd jobs, thanks to a group of the kingdom’s dignitaries. Tsito realizes that “The changes happening at the heart of the kingdom hadn’t just cost him his commercial connections; they’d also cost him his rice fields.”

This rich narrative moves between the points of view of Tsito and Fara. Apart from describing a period of Madagascar’s history, it is also a love story, a tale about the battle between the traditional and the “white man’s ways”—neither of which come off well—and the struggle of ordinary people, trying to live their lives as best they can in the face of injustice and manipulation by competing powers. I got completely absorbed in the lives of the characters. It was a great introduction to the history of Madagascar.

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