Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo (Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa) is an emotional love story and eye-opening historical saga. It is also the first book from Madagascar to be translated into English.
Originally written in French, the novel takes place at the beginning of the 19th century and centres around a girl called Fara and a slave boy named Tsito. Fara’s father, Rado, had a brief affair with her mother, before abandoning her and returning to his wife and family.
The narrative begins years later when Rado buys nine-year old Tsito as slave and brings him to Fara as a sort of atonement for his desertion.
Madagascar has historically practised slavery, with slaves sold along with other commodities, to European seafarers.
In this his debut book, Naivo, a journalist and university lecturer, does not sugar-coat the horrors of Madagascar’s history and superstitious practices.
Fara lives in the village of Sahasoa with her mother and grandmother, poor countryside women who live in a hut and till the rice fields. Tsito was torn away from his family at a young age, when soldiers of the king attacked his village in the forest and then sold him into slavery.
Initially taciturn and shy, through the kindness of the women, Tsito becomes like a member of the family. He and Fara become good friends, and he plays with other children and even attends school where he learns to read and write. He also develops a strong admiration for his young mistress who remains oblivious to his feelings.
The story is narrated by both Tsito and Fara.
Through Tsito you are taken beyond the rice fields into the harsh world of bondage and political turmoil in Madagascar, a nation of several kingdoms spread across mountains, forests and a broad coastline. As various rulers fight to consolidate their power, the British and French are making inroads into the island.
At the same time, Christian missionaries are working to convert the people from their traditional beliefs. Some of the Malagasy communities fight to protect their traditions, but others want to embrace the vazahas (white men) and their modern ways. When the queen orders the persecution of Christians and their converts, there is social upheaval that affects people in Sahasoa.
When adolescent Fara falls in love with a local boy whom Tsito despises, Tsito leaves the place that has become his home. He wants to acquire a useful trade to help him achieve his long desired dream to secure his freedom.
Tsito gains favour with Ibandro, a brawny and violent man, who is the senior slave of a local chieftain. Ibandro takes him under his wing and through him, Tsitso carves out a new life for himself, eventually becoming an accomplished carpenter. His skills attract wealthy patrons and take him to England.
Meanwhile, Fara grows increasingly restless and for a time finds solace among Christians. She appears to follow the fate of her mother who “can’t stay three days in a row in her own house,” eventually falling pregnant after a short romance with a man she never sees again.
Over the years, Fara and Tsito’s love deepens. However, this is not the typical love story. The pair grow farther apart in their aspirations, while the worsening political situation makes it difficult for them to meet. But their paths cross repeatedly, their evolving relationship echoing the backdrop of tumultuous power games happening across the island.
Readers may stumble when reading Madagascan names that are infamously long. But Naivo resolves this by giving the key characters shorter names.
Perhaps because this is a translation, the style of storytelling sometimes seems stiff. But the stiffness is made up for by the rich cultural context, lyrical language and numerous historical references.
If you are unfamiliar with Madagascar’s history, you may not appreciate the references to real events.
This book gives captivating insights into Madagascar’s past, drawing you into the struggle of a country grappling with its identity and redefining its future.