Tuesday, May 11, 2021


Madagascar is a very remote island nation in the Indian Ocean near Africa. Recently, I read a novel set mainly in this country, Return to the Enchanted Island by Johary Ravaloson (published 2012, translation 2019). This is only the second novel by a native of the island to be translated into English. The original language of the novel is French: the author commented: “The cultured Malagasy elite had readily given up their mother tongue.” (p. 118)

Return to the Enchanted Island combines the foundation myths of the Malagasy people with the modern-day story of a young man from a wealthy family in a major city in Madagascar. It tells the story of his youth as a spoiled son of entitled aristocratic parents and his later process of becoming an adult. There's also an account of his youthful stay in Paris, where he goes to school and then leads a very undisciplined and indulgent life with wild young Parisians; he encounters a lot of popular culture, with references to key figures like Tom Waits or books like “Trout Fishing in America.”

The young man's name is Ietsy, and he is the namesake of an important Malagasy god. Retelling of the myth of the god Ietsy is interspersed with the story of the modern Ietsy, often without transitions between the paragraphs about the modern boy/man and about the god. He identifies with the god in somewhat vaguely described ways. There are references to pre-colonial history as well. This could be distracting, but I got used to it while reading. 

As I read, I could see why the island is felt to be enchanted. The gap between even modern life in Madagascar and the life Ietsy leads in Paris is awesome. Although the book had flaws, I appreciated its portrayal of a really distant way of life, even though Madagascar was highly westernized when France held it as a colony from 1896 to 1960. Since independence, the country has had a number of repressive and problematic governments. The most striking feature of the book is how it completely ignores the actuality of most people's lives in Madagascar, particularly the extreme poverty and crime in cities there and the political problems throughout its history. Ietsy is clearly an entitled aristocrat without much self-awareness, and the author doesn't show such awareness either.

News about Madagascar at the present moment is very sad. A drought in the south is threatening large numbers of people, especially children, with starvation. Witnesses describe desperate measures by families whose crops have failed. On April 29, 2021, a United Nations press release warned of a humanitarian disaster there: "An unrelenting drought in southern Madagascar ... is forcing hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine at a scale 'beyond belief,' a senior UN food agency official said on Thursday." (link)

In addition to the drought, the coronavirus pandemic is very seriously creating its own threat, and crime and violence are a major problem. The US State Department issued a travel advisory on April 20, 2021, saying: "Do not travel to Madagascar due to COVID-19. Exercise increased caution in Madagascar due to crime." (link)

Jonah's Mouse Lemur: discovered in 2020.

All of us are affected by one fact about Madagascar: it produces around 80% of the world's vanilla supply; poor crops and economic manipulations by the government there are responsible for the extremely high prices that we've seen when buying vanilla in the past few years. A 4-ounce bottle costs over $25.

Climate change is combining with human destruction to threaten the unique natural wildlife in Madagascar. The geological history of the island makes it home to a large number of endemic species (that is, ones found nowhere else on the planet). Its large and remote forests constantly are the site of discoveries of previously unknown creatures; for example, last year a new species of lemur was identified, adding to the 100 species that live exclusively in the forests of Madagascar. Forest fires due to the drought, and many other environmental pressures are threatening this diverse wild life. At least one-third of the lemur species are in immediate danger of extinction.  (linklink)

"Enchanted Island" may have once been a good description of Madagascar, but brutal governments, economic challenges, agricultural disasters, social problems, and habitat destruction for its fascinating wildlife have made this designation less and less appropriate. You would never know this from reading the novel.

Review © 2021 mae sander.


Tandy | Lavender and Lime (http://tandysinclair.com) said...

Madagascar is seldom in the news here. Thanks for highlighting the plight of the country. It makes one think about whether to buy the vanilla grown there, or not, and the impact that decision makes on the poor.

Iris Flavia said...

Oh, didn´t know about vanilla in this context!
Oh, the Lemur is so darn cute. Hope he will make it.
It´s a shame how we live or are forced to live. 16 years they forced me to drive 80km each working day although I could´ve done the job right here... Mother nature sure did not say thank you to this...

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

It's amazing how you went above and beyond the story in the book. Oftentimes, stories, true or fiction, can be slanted in one direction or another. I think I enjoyed your review more than I would reading this novel.

DVArtist said...

Wow this is a fantastic review. So much great information. Thank you. Have a great day today.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Haven't been to Madagascar, although I've contemplated cruise ship itineraries where that was one of the stops. Sounds like things are in sad shape there at the moment, alas. Really interesting post -- thanks.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I wonder if the problems on Madagascar have contributed to the huge increase in the cost of vanilla lately. Thanks for sharing this book.

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

Mae thank you for the interesting review of the book and the updates regarding the situation in Madagascar. I appreciate the time you spend to research and share.