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Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo (1901/1902?-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. Rabéarivelo wrote both in Malagasy and in his own unique version of imperfect French. He was passionate and restless, drifted from one job to another, and suffered from drug addiction and depression. Rabéarivelo 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 Rabéarivelo 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.

Rabéarivelo was educated by his uncle, who sent him to the Ecole des Fréres des Ecoles Chrétiennes at Andohalo, then to the Collége Saint-Michel in Amparibe. He left school at the age of thirteen, but continued to read widely, gaining familiarity with Western classics, and mastering both Spanish and French. For some years he was a secretary and interpreter of the head of the Canton of Ambatolampy, and then returned to Tananarive. Until 1923 Rabéarivelo 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, Rabéarivelo recounts the family tragedy.

Rabéarivelo's mother encouraged him to write and at the age of 20 Rabéarivelo published his first poems in a journal. In 1923 the Austrian review Anthropos accepted an essay on Malagasy poetry. He started to contribute articles to journals in his own country, in the neighboring Mauritius, and in Europe. Among his friends was the poet Pierre Camo, who worked as a civil servant, and included some of Rabéarivelo's poems in his review 18° Latitude Sud. Rabéarivelo's early pieces, written in strictly metered verse, were influenced by 19th-century French Symbolism. He corresponded with Gide and a number of poets in France, Belgium, and Tunisia, who stimulated his own creation of poetry. At the beginning of his career, Rabéarivelo asked a doctor to inject him with the type of tuberculosis bacilli that had killed Albert Samain, a poet and writer of the Symbolists school, at the age of 42. (Against the Postcolonial: "francophone" Writers at the Ends of French Empire by Richard Serrano, 2007, p. 45)

In 1931 Rabéarivelo was accepted into the Académie Malgache, founded after the model of Académie Française. He never got the higher-paid job, which he always hoped for, from the administration. The oppressive colonial rule set the boundaries to Rabéarivelo's work more or less visibly. Several nationally prominent writers had been imprisoned in the 1910s, Malagasy-language writing was restricted, but memories of independence were still fresh. 

Unable to pay his taxes, Rabéarivelo was imprisoned for a brief time. In spite of being treated badly by the colonial government, he refused to give up his faith in French culture. Rabéarivelo remained an unapologetic royalist and admired the anti-democratic writer Charles Maurras.

A recurring theme Rabéarivelo's collections was exile, the journey away from the native land, referring to the loss of independence. When all texts written in French were considered to belong to French literature, Rabéarivelo supported bilingual works and proposed that "Malagasy literature" would recognize French-language texts composed by the Malagasy. To underline his point about the dual nature of the colonial culture, he wore Westernstyle clothes under his traditional long robe. Any spare money he spent on books. Once he received 30 kilos of books abroad.

In the 1930s Rabéarivelo launched his own journal, Capricorne. Like Baudelaire, one of his role models, Rabéarivelo was too much of an unpractical dreamer to join the cadres of militant poets, although many of his friends opposed French rule. Rabéarivelo's own private goal was to get to France, to be assimilated into a whole greater culture. He also produced several translations of French poems. The dream never realized. Sharing Baudelaire's disgust of mediocre life, Rabéarivelo replaced the reality of a colonized civilization with his own images, and created a new mythical world, shadowed by visions of suffering and death. This cosmos, which was populated by wandering tribes and bodies in perpetual mutation, was full of bitter-sweet beauty. "You who left at dawn / and who thus entered a doubly walled night, / human words can no longer reach you, / nor can these floral stalks be a crown for you / having turned into bursting buds around the trees of Imerina / The very morning you departed from us." ('French-Language Poetry' by Edris Makward, in A History of Twentieth-century African Literatures, edited by Oyekan Owomoyela, 1993, pp. 200-201)

La Coupe de cendres (1924), his first collection of poems, was followed by Sylves (1927), which included 'Nobles dédains', 'Fleurs mêlées', 'Destinée', 'Dixains', and 'Sonnets et poèmes d'Iarive'. The third collection, Volumes (1928), included 'Vers le bonheur', 'La guirlande à l'amitié', 'Interlude rythmique', 'Sept quatrains', 'Arbres', 'Au soleil estival', ' and 'Coeur et ciel d'Iarive'. Presque Songes (1934) was originally written in French and then translated into Malagasy, but he wrote the French poems as if they were translations. This collection was his first venture into free verse. 

Rabéarivelo's 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. Rabéarivelo's love poems, a translation from traditional Malagasy poetic form known as hain teny, were collected in Vieilles chansons des pays d'Imerina (1974). His compatriot Flavien Ranaivo also drew from this resource of dialogue poetry, which proceeds as a test of the lovers' commitment.

Rabéarivelo committed suicide on June 22, 1937, by poisoning himself with cyanide.  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. It was also known that he had a melancholic temperament and was addicted to drugs. He had seriously considered suicide as early as 1934, and even wrote a farewell letter for his children.

I know a child, a prince in God's kingdom
Who would continue the tale:
'Fate took 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 Rabéarivelo's poems was published in Léopold Senghor's famous Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache (1948), the seminal anthology embodying the aspirations of the Negritude movement. However, Rabéarivelo wrote outside the framework of the movement. A selection of  Rabéarivelo's poems translated into English, 24 Songs, came out in 1963. Translations from the Night, edited by John Reed and Clive Wake, was issued by Heinemann a few years later. Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier called Rabéarivelo "a poet of genius" in Modern Poetry from Africa (1963).

For further reading: La double culture de Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo: entre Latins et Scythes by Gavin Bowd (2017); Against the Postcolonial: "francophone" Writers at the Ends of French Empire by Richard Serrano (2007); 'Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo' by Moradewun A. Adejunmobi, in  Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, Literature, and Lingua Franca in Colonial Madagascar by Moradewun Adejunmobi (1996); Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, cet inconnu (1989); European Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, ed. by A. Gérard (1986); Introduction to African Prose Narrative, ed. L. Losambe (1979); The Critical Evaluation of African Literature, ed. by Edgar Wright (1973); Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo Paul Valette (1967) 

Selected works:

  • La Coupe de cendres, 1924 [The bowl of ashes]
  • Sylves, 1927 [Virgin lands]
  • Volumes, 1928
  • Presque Songes, 1934 [Half dreams]
  • Imaitsoanala, Fille d'oiseau, 1935
  • Traduit de la nuit, 1935 - Translated from the Night, 2007 (translated by Robert Ziller)
  • Aux portes de la ville, 1936
  • Chants pour Abeone, 1936
  • Vieilles chansons de pays Imerina, 1939 [Old songs from the land of Imerina]
  • Lova, 1957
  • Des stances oubliées, 1959
  • Poèmes: Presque Songes, Traduit de la nuit, 1960
  • 24 Poems, 1962 (designed & illustrated by M. E. Betts)
  • Amboara poezia sy tononkalo malagasy, 1965
  • Vieilles chansons des pays d'Imerina, 1974
  • Translations from the Night: Selected Poems of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, 1975 (ed. John Reed and Clive Wake) /
  • L'Interférence suivi d'Un conte de la nuit, 1987
  • Irene Ralima, 1987
  • L'Interférence, 1988 [The Interference; novel, written in 1928]
  • Eo ambavahadim-boahitra, 1988
  • Imaitsoanala zana-borona, 1988
  • Resy harany, 1988
  • Poèmes, 1989
  • L'Auge rouge, 1998 [The Red Dawn; novel]
  • Complete Late Poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, 2010 (edited and translated by Leonard Fox; with an introduction by Jacques Rabemananjara)
  • Œuvres complètes, 2010- (ouvrage publié sous la direction de Serge Meitinger, Liliane Ramarosoa et Claire Riffard)

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