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  • Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo(1904-1937

    One of Africa's most important French-language poets, a prominent figure in the literary revival known as the Mitady ny Very which swept Madagascar in the 1930s. Rab*arivelo wrote both in Malagasy and in his own unique version of imperfect French. He was passionate and restless, drifted from on job to another, and suffered from drug addiction and depression. Rab*arivelo took his own life at the age of 36.

    And you witness of his daily suffering
    and of his endless task;
    you atch his thunder-riddled agony
    until the battlements of the East re-echo
    the conches of the sea -
    but you pity him no more
    and do not even remember that his sufferings begin again
    each time the sun capsizes.

    (from Traduit de la nuit, 1935 )

    Jean-Joseph Rab*arivelo was born in Antananarivo (Tananarive), the capital of Madagascar, into a relatively poor family. His mother, who married a tailor, was an aristocrat, related to the royalty of the largest Malagasy ethnic group, the Merina people. In 1895 Malagasy armed forces had been defeated by the French, and the new administration led to the pauperization of most of the Merina royalty. The loss of her family's property was also partly caused by the abolition of slavery.

    Rab*arivelo was educated by his uncle, who sent him to the Ecole des Fr*res des Ecoles Chr*tiennes at Andohalo, then to the Coll*ge Saint-Michel in Amparibe. He left schooling at the the age of thirteen but continued to read widely, gaining familiarity with Western classics. He was for some years a secretary and interpreter of the head of the Canton of Ambatolampy, and then returned to Tananarive. Until 1923 Rab*arivelo worked in odd jobs, and eventually ended as a proof-reader at the printing press of the Imerina, keeping the poorly paid job until his death. In 1926 he married Mary Razafitrimo, a photographer's daughter; they had five children. The death of his youngest daughter was a terrible blow for him. In Un conte de la nuit, a short story, Rab*arivelo recounts the family tragedy.

    Rab*arivelo's mother encouraged him to write and at the age of 20 Rab*arivelo published his first poems in a journal. In 1923 the international revue Anthropos accepted an article of him on the poetry of Madagascar. He started to contribute articles to journals in his own country, in the neighboring Mauritius, and in Europe. Rab*arivelo's early poems were influenced by 19th-century French Symbolist poets. In the early 1930s he lauched his own journal, Capricorne, and in 1931 he was accepted into the Acad*mie malgache, founded after the model of Acad*mie fran*aise. However, Rab*arivelo never got a higher-paying job from the administration which he always hoped.

    The colonial rule set the boundaries to Rab*arivelo's work more or less visibly. In the 1910s several nationally prominent writers had been imprisoned, Malagasy- language writing was restricted, but memories of independence were still fresh under the colonial rule. In his early collections Rab*arivelo's recurring theme was exile, the journey away from the native land, referring to the loss of independence. When all text written in French were considered to belong to French literature, Rabearivelo supported bilingual works and proposed that 'Malagasy literature' would recognize French-language texts composed by the Malagasy.

    Like Baudelaire, one of his models, Rab*arivelo was too much of an aesthetician to join the cadres of militant poets, although many of his friends opposed French rule. He created his own world, strange and mythical, which was shadowed by visions of suffering and death, teeth marks of colonized civilization. Cosmos was for Rab*arivelo full of sad beauty, wandering tribes, and bodies in perpetual mutation. His plays, Imaitsoanala, Fille d'oiseau (1935) and Aux portes de la ville (1936), focused on rituals and folklore and carefully avoided any reference to politically inflammable issues. On the other hand, none of his critical works were published in his lifetime. Rab*arivelo's love poems, translation from traditional Malagasy poetic form known as hain teny, were collected in Vieilles chansons des pays d'Imerina (1974, Old Songs of the Merina Country). He also produced several translations of French poems.

    Rab*arivelo committed suicide on June 22, 1937 by poisoning himself. Various reasons have been given for his suicide, including the colonial administration's decision to send a group of basket-weavers instead of him to France to represent the colony.

    I know a child, a prince in God's kingdom
    Who would continue the tale:
    'Fate too pity on the lepers
    And told them to plant their flowers
    And guard their springs afar from man's cruelty.'

    (from Presque-songes, 1934)

    Several of Rab*arivelo's poems appeared in 1948 in L*opold Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle po*sie n*gre et malgache, the seminal anthology embodying the aspirations of the Negritude movement. English translation of some of Rab*arivelo works, 24 Songs, was published in 1963. Translations from the Night was issued by Heinemann a few years later.


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