The Timeless ‘Beyond the Rice Fields’ Is a Study in Contrasts

Sabers and bayonets might not be weapons of choice today, but the phrase "fear caused the powerful to commit the most awful abuses" rings as true now as it did in 19th century Madagascar.

Beyond the Rice Fields
Oct 2017

Beyond the Rice Fields gives us much to celebrate. Written by Naivo (Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa) (and translated by Allison M. Charette), Beyond the Rice Fields is a rich and lyrical work of fiction, and the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English. The publisher, Restless Books, is likely just as special as the book; it is “an independent, nonprofit publisher devoted to championing essential voices from around the world, whose stories speak to us across linguistic and cultural borders.”

Beyond the Rice Fields certainly fits these criteria. The novel takes place in 19th century Madagascar and follows the lives of Fara and Tsito. Tsito is a slave. He is purchased by Rado, Fara’s father, and he becomes a companion to Fara. In many ways he is a member of the family but, at all times, is still a slave. Fara lives with her mother (who was never married to her father), and her grandmother. Her father rarely visits, and her mother seems to be an inconsistent parent.

For many years Fara and Tsito play, work, and learn together. They find comfort in each other. When Fara seemingly chooses another man over Tsito, their lives go in different directions. Or as Tsito simply states “It was time for me to leave… Fara and I weren’t pearls on the same strand anymore—what good would it do to intermingle any longer”.

Beyond the Rice Fields is a book that resists classification. On one level, Fara and Tsito fill the role of star-crossed lovers, and on some levels, Beyond the Rice Fields is a love story. Still, this story functions within a complicated backdrop—one full of drama, betrayal, political intrigue, and religious conflict.

While Fara and Tsito are fictions—characters invented by Naivo—the historical aspects of the story are not fiction. The rulers, the London Missionary Society, the persecution of Christians, and the City of Thousands are all part of Madagascar’s history. Naivo provides a brief timeline of events at the back of the book, and this is one of the few times when jumping to the end of the book might be justified (particularly for anyone not familiar with the history of Madagascar). Naivo also provides a glossary.

The characters, history, setting, and lyricism all combine to create a powerful almost timeless story that also seems to be a study in contrasts: ancient wisdom mixed with language that is more modern. Passages that measure time in moons coupled with characters who say things like “I was blown away.” Traditional things—religion, weapons, philosophies—being replaced with (or at least challenged by) newer ideas.

Fara specifically seems to symbolize these contrasts. As Tsito notes, “One of the strange things about destiny is its ability to produce equally passionate veins of unexpected closeness and wrenching separations. I believe Fara’s life had been, since its very beginning, one of the best illustrations of that swinging pendulum, that fundamental pull in opposite directions.”

Much of the book is brutal. From the agony of the bulls being castrated and sacrificed to the use of tangena on suspected criminals, which is both a poison and a way of judging guilt or innocence (a type of trial by ordeal). If someone survives the tangena they are innocent and live (at least for the moment); if they don’t survive, their bodies are dragged into mass graves and their families are not allowed to mourn.

Scenes like this are common: “fear caused the powerful to commit the most awful abuses. Bloody suppression campaigns were begun in the provinces… One day, several hundred captives from the coastal regions… were exhibited in the public square, bound together by their hands and feet… A signal sounded, and the soldiers set upon the defenseless prisoners, exterminating them with their sabers and bayonets…” But even in this passage there is the familiar mixed with the less familiar. Sabers and bayonets might not be weapons of choice today, but in many sections of the world the phrase “fear caused the powerful to commit the most awful abuses” rings as true now as it did in 19th century Madagascar.

We hear it all through the voices of Fara and Tsito — a girl who should have died at birth and whose father abandoned her mother — and a boy forced into slavery who is desperate to gain his freedom.They are wonderful, complicated, flawed characters; their journeys fascinating and often heart wrenching. Still, there’s a sense that their heartaches and troubles are what happens to people when those in power can’t seem to get along or think more about themselves than the people in their care.

The story—particularly the love story—doesn’t get lost in these historical elements or the messages within these historical elements. Even during the tensest historical scenes, it’s impossible to forget about Fara and Tsito, and it’s impossible not to hope for their future.

Naivo worked as a journalist and published several short stories. Beyond the Rice Fields is his first novel. Hopefully, it will not be his last.

RATING 9 / 10