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The City and the Writer: In Antananarivo, Madagascar, with Naivo

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Antananarivo as you feel/see it?

Antananarivo is a city filled with life and activity, a place where the crowd unfolds, recognizes itself, asserts itself some days until it invades and envelops all the roads and sidewalks. It is a city of imperious humanity whose breathing is a quest and a future. Its name, “the city of thousands,” is synonymous with multitude, and refers to the thousand men who founded the city in the seventeenth century. Of its original name, Analamanga, which means “the blue forest,” the city keeps its continuous abundance, iridescence, and haughty stature.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The soul of this city is so intense that it can consume its own body, or rather its own skeleton, and sometimes burns whole parts of itself into ashes. The often restless history of the city, an imprint of centuries of contradictions, hugs the hidden, underwater, torrent-like wrath of its people, which bursts in episodic, irrepressible, and suicidal acts. These popular or partisan explosions are moments of agony for those who love the city, a purgatory from which one escapes only with deep scars. City Hall burned in 1972, the Palace of the Prime Minister in 1976, and the Queen’s Palace in 1995.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Antananarivo is the city of creativity and resourcefulness, a place where the human spirit confronts the alienating forces of poverty and state failures every day. This effervescence rests upon a network of practices and habits that constantly reinvent themselves and adapt impudently to the ebb and flow of time. In Antananarivo, high school students become street vendors after school, traditional healers sell Christian objects along with traditional remedies, schoolteachers convert into mobile phone repairers, and tinsmiths transform car carcasses into a multitude of wheelbarrows, spades, portable stoves, and knives. Omnipresent in densely populated areas, anonymous cordon bleus cater to the vary mitsangana, which literally means the standing rice, a culinary institution that only true city-dwellers visit and appreciate. One eats rice there on the sidewalks, before and after work.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

The writer who most genuinely captured the spirit and the soul of the city is Rainitovo, in his book Antananarivo fahizay (Antananarivo in the Old Days), published in 1928 but written from 1878 onward. I fervently hope it will be translated one day into English. It is a beautiful, touching, and tender portrait.

Among modern authors who went through the best and worst periods of the city, Michèle Rakotoson, in my opinion, is the one who most movingly described the hushed yet powerful, ambiguous but deeply moving, friendly but nonetheless secretly demanding voice of the city of thousands, in her books Passeport pour Antananarivo and Juillet au pays.

Since the death of the great poet Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, an inescapable Tananarivian whose body of work can be read through the prism of this bastion city, a wealth of writers have revived the inspiration and expressed their nostalgia, affection, irritation, amusement, anger, hopes, and fears, directly or in a roundabout way.

Johary Ravaloson, in his collection of short stories Les nuits d’Antananarivo, explores the world of nighttime complicities, which is an even more hidden but just as vivid face of Analamanga’s inventiveness. In a more humoristic tone, Soamiely Andriamananjara offers in his Tantaraiko aminao (I Am Telling You) delicious and bizarre anecdotes where childhood memories, particular social relations, and a subtle analysis of contemporary society intermingle.

Last but not least, science fiction, or more precisely the reinvention of the present, affirms itself today, and very deservedly so in my opinion, with Lisy mianjoria, an innovative tale by Môssieur Njo, which, not without a certain nostalgia too, contrasts in a breathless and apocalyptic style two visions of Antananarivo, one idealistic and the other anarchic.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I cannot revisit Antananarivo without going down the stairs of Ambondrona, which lead to the market of Analakely, where the different strata of society meet, and which was once the world’s biggest outdoor market. On the opposite slope of the basin, other stairs climb up to Antaninarenina, an administrative district where colonial-era buildings stand tall, and which turns at nightfall into a place of encounters and pleasures for the well-to-do.

The municipal theater of Isotry, where the most popular plays of the last decades have been staged, and which is still infused with the fragrance of the past in spite of periods of ruin and unwieldy renovations, is a place that I never cease to be fond of and am always eager to rediscover.

Lastly, the so-called “Malagasy-style houses,” which were inspired by the London Missionary Society, are particularly ubiquitous in the upper city, where the urban buzz fades and gives way to a silence only interspersed by the creasing of sacred trees. To me, each of these houses is a bridge to a strange and tumultuous past.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The writers of yesteryear generally met at one of their peers’ houses, but most of these houses fell into ruin or don’t exist anymore. Literary cafés and public presentations have flourished recently, lifting the literary spirit, and aficionados eagerly meet at historical places like the train station of Soarano or the Tahala Rarihasina, formerly Établissements René Depuis.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

In the muddy lanes of Isotry, one of the city’s poorest districts, lives and works a quasi-invisible nebula of craftsmen whose products have enhanced the markets of Antananarivo and its surroundings for centuries. If roots are to be spoken of, it is here and nowhere else that they are buried.


Where does passion live here?

Passion lives in the hearts and eyes of the youth of Antananarivo, their hopes, their ambitions, their dreams, which are too often ignored by adults and too often cynically taken advantage of by politicians. Antananarivo is a Malagasy historical and cultural treasure at the bottom of which shines a diamond of rare purity, reflected in the gaze of each child, each adolescent, and each youth of the city. It is no coincidence that Rainitovo dedicated most of his book to the youth. Antananarivo has too often exhibited its destructive force. But it also possesses and quietly releases a rising constructive power of which the youth is the chosen vehicle.


What is the title of one of your works about Antananarivo and what inspired it exactly?

Antananarivo has been the point of convergence of the passions of the Red Island for centuries, and I also made it the point of convergence of my novel Beyond the Rice Fields. It is a dream that breathes life into the main characters of my book and the yeast of a Malagasy imagination that I re-create using the convulsions of history. It is in Antananarivo, in the nineteenth century, that most of current-day Madagascar’s essential traits formed, in sorrow but also in a collective momentum toward a common imagined happiness.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Antananarivo does an outside exist?”

All eyes are on Antananarivo in times of pain, as well as when oracles are favorable. This “tanacentrism,” which many intellectuals and politicians condemn, is nevertheless the catalyst, in many regards, of the expansion of culture and the progress of the Malagasy experience. Skeptics say: “Antananarivo is not Madagascar.” But beyond its faults and its weaknesses, Antananarivo is also a nourishing marrow that does not belong to itself anymore but belongs to the whole island, a place where the inside and the outside merge and create all the worlds to come. 


Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa, who goes by the pen name Naivo, writes about Malagasy societies past and present, and is interested in the intermingling of cultures. He is the author of a work of historical fiction, Beyond the Rice Fields, the first novel from Madagascar ever to be translated into English. The translator, Allison Charette, received a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her work, and the book has been mentioned in several media outlets, including the BBC, the New York Times, and Radio France Internationale. Naivo is also the author of a short story collection, Madagascar entre poivre et vanille, and of a series of essays on contemporary Madagascar and the resurgence of the past. Naivo’s short story “Dahalo” received the RFI/ACCT prize in 1996, and another story entitled “Iarivomandroso” was adapted for a theatrical production. Naivo has also worked as a journalist in his home country of Madagascar. He lives in Canada.


Related Reading

Naivo's "The Conspiracists," translated by Allison M. Charette

First Read: From Johary Ravoloson's Return to the Enchanted Island

The City and the Writer: In Abidjan with Véronique Tadjo

Published Jan 22, 2021   Copyright 2021 Nathalie Handal

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