Literature from Madagascar is available in several languages, but the two official languages Madagascan and French are by far the most important in literature. In addition, there are literature in various other Indonesian languages and languages from Oceania.
Madagascar has rich oral literary traditions dating back hundreds of years. Historical and mythological stories were passed down from generation to generation in poems with fixed verse form that made them easy to remember. The oral dictation tradition has developed a number of forms and genres that have been continued in the written literature as well. Some of the oral literature is in different Indonesian languages or in different languages from Oceania, but here too Malagasy is the most important language. A typical feature of the oral literature from Madagascar is that it often has a sad and elegant feel.
A writing language is emerging
The written literature in Madagascar originated at the beginning of the 19th century and dealt primarily with practical or religious topics. At that time the country had several kings who were strongly European oriented. Particularly famous is King Radama 1 (1792-1828). From 1810 to 1828 he ruled over the state of Merina which made up the bulk of the highlands in the middle of the island. He decided in 1823 that the Latin alphabet should take over after the Arabic as the official alphabet. He also worked for the country to have a school system according to European pattern. The first printing press came to the country in 1827. The Bible was printed in Malagasy in 1835, and the first newspaper in Malagasy began to come out in 1866. The well-known Queen Ranavalona 1 (1778-1861), who ruled the Merina state from the death of Radama 1 until 1861, was less open to European influence than her predecessor had been, but also in her time, English missionaries got to work in the country.
Several European writers visited Madagascar in the 19th century, and especially in France it created the impression that life on the island was characterized by idyll and innocence. This notion was inspired by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea that man had to turn away from civilization and seek a life that was most in keeping with nature. It was only after 1890, when the country became a French colony, that Madagascar received fiction written by writers born on the island. Some of this literature was in Malagasy, but French became the most important literary language.
In the first part of the colonial period, sympathy for the French was relatively high among the writers of Madagascar. One of the main reasons for this was that the French did not take slaves, while the local warlords often took prisoners which they then sold as slaves. Many French, on the other hand, kept the natives down in other ways, and throughout the 20th century there were also writers in Madagascar who chose to distance themselves from the colonial power by not writing their books in French.
Literature in Malagasy
Among the first writers to write in the Malagasy in the early 1900s was the priest Andriamatoa Rabary (1864-1947). He used several genres, but is especially known for his novels. The playwright Alexis Rakotobe (year of birth and year of death unknown), Justin Rainizanabobolona (1861-1938) and Tselatra Rajaonah (1863-1931) belong to the same generation. These three created a musical comedy form with elements from both traditional theater and dance forms and from French operetta tradition.
The first example of this form was created by Rajaonah in 1899, but it became especially popular between 1920 and 1940. It also inspired younger writers and musicians. These include Romain Andrianjafy (1888-1917), who had his own theater in Antananarivo. In his short life he wrote a number of librettos and put music to them. In addition, he was active as an actor. The same generation belongs to Jasmina Ratsimiseta (1890-1946), who was also a lyricist and an important journalist. Naka Rabemanantsoa (1892-1943) also worked on this genre. He became especially known for the music he wrote for many popular performances.
The priest Maurice Rasamuel (1886–1954) wrote several novels. Madagascar’s first significant female writer, Charlotte Razafiniaina (probably born in 1894, year of death unknown), wrote poems and plays, but above all, novels that addressed the meeting between French and Malagasy culture. The country’s first prominent modern lyricist was New Avana Ramanantoanina (1891-1940). He was very critical of the colonial government and therefore had trouble publishing his poems. Several of his most important works were first published in the 1980s. By contrast, two anthologies of Malagasy poetry were published already in the 1920s. These were edited by the lyricists Rodlish (1895–1968, pseudonym of Arthur Razakarivony) and Jean Narivony (1898–1980). Both of these lyricists also published poetry collections considered among the most important in Malagasy poetry.
Literature in French in the interwar period
When Madagascar became a French colony, the language of instruction in the schools became French. French was largely replaced by Malagasy in both the press and other literary contexts. The French-language literature became especially applicable from the 1920s. One of the first French-speaking lyricists from Madagascar was Michel-Francis Robinary (1892–1971). He published only one collection of poems, Les Fleurs défuntes (“The Past Flowers”) of 1927. He was particularly influenced by the French romantics and Parnassians. The collection had a lot to say for the literary development in Madagascar. Robinary also wrote novels and stories. Already in 1915 he founded the first French-language newspaper in the country.
The conflict between French and Malagasy culture was an important theme in the poems of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, the most prominent poet of the interwar period. He had a tragic life experience and a strong sense of death. Rabearivelo felt divided between French and Malagasy literary traditions, but he used the traditional Malagasy form hain-teny with great success in his lyricism. This form was often an alternate song, for example between two girlfriends, and it could then have both a sensitive and a joking character. It was first described by the Norwegian missionary and linguist Lars Nilsen Dahle. He compared it to Norwegian fries, and later French researchers have also built on this comparison.
The French author Pierre Camo (1877–1974) and the French psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni (1899–1989) both had an influence on the development of Madagascan literature in French. Both had long stays on the island. Camo wrote books on Malagasy art and history, and Mannoni studied the power relationship between Europeans and the natives. Mannoni’s point of view was criticized by authors such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, who believed he underestimated the native’s ability and willingness to rebel against the colonial rulers. The influential French critic and essayist Jean Paulhan had a longer stay in Madagascar during the 1920s. His work also had a lot to say for the literary development there.
The two most prominent poets of the second half of the 20th century were Jacques Rabemananjara and Flavien Ranaivo, both of whom wrote in French. Both emphasized the value of Malagasy culture. Rabemananjara in particular was active in the fight against the colonial government, and he was imprisoned several times. Ranaivo further developed the Hain-tenu form and showed that modern written literature in Madagascar should not only be based on French examples, but also on the country’s own oral tradition. Lyricist and playwright Jean Verdi Razakandrainy (1913-1978), who had studied medicine and wrote under the pseudonym Dox, gained great popularity. Some of his poems are written in French, but most of them are in Malagasy.
Since independence, the government has encouraged the use of Malagasy as a literary language. As a result, several authors have published novels in their mother tongue – of which Emilson Daniel Andriamalala (1918-1979) is probably the best known. Also, French-language literature has continued to exist after independence and is represented by female writers such as Charlotte Rafenomanjato (1936–2008) and Michèle Rakatoson (born 1948). Rafenomanjato wrote plays and novels, but is especially known for his stories. Rakotoson is considered by many among the most important figures in Madagascar’s modern literature. For a long time she was best known as a critic, but now the novels are considered her main works. Lyricist Esther Nirina (1932–2004) lived in France for a long time, but returned to Madagascar towards the end of her life. hain tenu – the poetry, but at the same time she has received strong impetus from modern French lyric.
After the military coup in 1972, the situation was very difficult for writers and journalists for a while. Several went into exile, among them Rabemananjara and Ranaivo. In recent years, however, there has been a tendency to normalize working conditions for literate and cultural workers. Among writers who have asserted themselves in recent years, there are several who alternate between writing in Malagasy and in French.
Nestor Rabearizafy (born 1949) has published both lyric, plays and short stories, mainly in French. Elie Rajaonarison (1951–2010) has been named the fan bearer of the new lyric in Madagascar. He wrote in Malagasy and was also important as a photographer and filmmaker. David Jaomanodoro (1953–2014) wrote mostly in French. He was a teacher and received accolades both for his lyrics and his stories. One of the most prominent authors today is Jean – Luc Raharimanana (born 1967), who is strongly critical of the social development of Madagascar. In his stories he draws a picture of a society on the way to dissolution.
One of the main ideas of Henri Rahaingoson (1938–2016) was that the languages of Madagascar are also disintegrating. He was a professor of linguistics and one of Madagascar’s leading linguists. He feared a development where the two main languages would disappear and be replaced by a far less nuanced common language where English would become an increasingly important component. If he were to get it right, that would mean that one of the oldest cultures in the French-speaking world outside Europe would be hit by a serious crisis.
Similar concerns also characterize the authorship of Naivoharisoa Ramamonjisoa (born 1953), who writes under the pseudonym Naivo. He has worked as a journalist and teacher both in his home country and in France, but has now emigrated to Canada. Naivo had only published a few stories before he published a major historical novel in 2012: Au-delà des rizières(“Beyond the rice fields”). The book is also a parody of the idyllic depictions of Madagascar published in French in romance. In particular, it depicts the slave trade, which the author shows was far more widespread than what the literature of romance gives the impression. The book is the first modern novel by an island author who has been translated into English. Interest in it has been great, and many hope that it will help bring new attention to Madagascar literature.