Translations from the Night, by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo


English translations by John Reed and Clive Wake

I love to talk with people about books, so I’ve joined several book clubs over the years. One has a peculiar modus operandi: we don’t read the same book; instead we each talk about a book we’ve read that month. We have a monthly theme, but don’t always stick to it. For this month, we spun a globe to see where our finger landed. Then we read a book either set there or by a local author.

I got Madagascar.

I make a point of reading authors from other countries, but Madagascar? I couldn’t think of an author or book related to that country. In fact, I knew almost nothing about Madagascar except that it is an island off the east coast of Africa that was once part of France’s colonial empire.

Some research led me to the surprising information that the country includes several other islands and that it is over 2.5 times as large as Great Britain, but with 2.5 times less population, most of whom live on less than $2 a day. Madagascar didn’t become a colony until 1897 and gained independence in 1960, so its colonial period was brief. However, that was long enough to poison the life of its most famous writer and Africa’s first modern poet, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo.

Born in 1901 (though Wikipedia also lists 1903 as a possibility), Rabearivelo was deeply influenced by European fin de siécle writers. Unfortunately, the influence extended beyond his poetry to his lifestyle, leading him to adopt alcohol, opium, gambling and promiscuity as elements of a poet’s life. He played a leading role in the literary life of the capital and became friends with French poet Pierre Camo and Robert Boudry, later Governor-General of the colony. Rabearivelo published several collections of his poetry, writing first in Malagasy and then in French.

Here is an early poem:


Make no sound, do not speak:
off to explore a forest, eyes, heart,
mind, dreams . . .

Secret forest; yet you can touch this forest
with your hands.

Forest astir with stillness,
forest where the bird is gone, the bird to catch,
catch in a trap and make him sing
or make him cry.

Make him sing or make him cry
and tell the place where he was hatched.

Forest. Bird.
Secret forest, bird hidden
in your hands.

He was particularly drawn to the liminal times of dawn and dusk, as shown in this excerpt from my favorite poem in the collection.

Tall Timber

. . .
But suddenly it came to me when last I slept
that the old canoe of fables
was still moored with creepers of night.
Every day it carried my childhood
from the shores of the evening to the shores of the morning,
from the headland of the moon to the headland of the sun.
. . .

I love the images in that poem such as searching for “the nest where the winds are hatched” and memories “like pebbles thrown on the sand / and picked up by an old sailor”.

Near the end of his life he experimented with hain-teny, a form of Malagasy folk poetry that uses proverbs to build a dialogue. Curiously, these enigmatic poems were used to conduct arguments, though it is unclear to me how reciting poetry could settle a dispute. Here is a short one he wrote:

There in the north stand two stones and they are somewhat alike: one is black and the other is white. If I pick up the white one, the black one shames me. If I pick up the black one, the white one shames me. If I pick them both up, one is love, the other consolation.

Despite his literary success and active correspondence with European writers, Rabearivelo felt isolated in his “colonial prison” and killed himself in 1937. He left a rather melodramatic suicide note comparing himself to poets Léon Deubel, Charles Guérin, and Arthur Rimbaud. In one of his later poems he speaks of a young poet of the future who will “come to know your books” and who “will raise his head / and think that in the sky / among the stars and winds / your tomb is built.”

I loved many of the poems in this collection. It seems sad to me that with all his literary success, he was overwhelmed with frustration and despair. I cannot believe that Europe could have offered him much more than what he already had.

What do you know of the country of Madagascar? Have you ever been there?

4 thoughts on “Translations from the Night, by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

  1. Jared says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve recently started reading about the countries of Africa and today read about Madagascar and Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo. I was hoping to find some poetry in English, which your site supplied. Beautiful poems. Thanks for sharing.

  2. LT Yeboah-Sampong says:

    Rabearivelo’s poetry easily reveals the wells of Baudelaire, Apollinaire and Rimbaud of which he had imbibed copiously, truth be told. However, the influence is appropriated very poignantly for an African continent much in need of creative minds. …And to think he struggled to master the French language in his early years of schooling. The Sierra Leonean poet Syl Cheney-Coker described him as a soul whose life was snuffed out of him by an imagery Europe.

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