For The Lifetime of a Book

By Jean-Luc Raharimanana

Published 25/11/2003
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Do you remember? It was the end of the 1980s. When Mitterrand pronounced his historic speech at La Baule. The admiral listened religiously, removed his military apparel and donned a suit and tie. He stood up and took back his country. Another historic speech-longer, of course. Freedom of expression. Freedom of enterprise. Human rights. Women’s rights. Children’s rights. I swear. Daddy said so. On my mother’s grave. Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. Zebus were killed. Alcohol was spilled. Wise men were consulted. Griots were paid – that said, whoever heard of griots in Madagascar? We look at each other in the cities. We wonder. Can we talk? Without fearing our neighbours? Our wives? Our children? Of course. Freedom is everywhere. Freedom in the streets that are no longer patrolled. Freedom on death row at the cité U (university residence). Freedom on the busy roads of Ambohipo, Mandroseza and Ambohidepona. Freedom, I tell you. Daddy said so. Stick a needle in my eye. Swear on the flag of mother France. On the blue? Yes. On the white? Yes. On the red? Yes. Like on an election ballot? Yes. Never no.
And here is your humble servant, attracted to the odour of democracy and freedom, now recognised as a new generation author, great hope for African literature, representative of the Indian Ocean, a French-speaking Madagascan and recent poetry prize winner, taking his best pen, a Bic that survived communism and Madagascarisation to write: Dear Mr President, To celebrate the new wave of freedom that has come across our third world countries, I’m going to write you a new play. Theatre of the absurd? Farce? Theatre of madness? I don’t know. The revolution did not inspire me to such imperialistic and inappropriate words. I don’t need to invent very many things. Your speeches are enough. Live or pre-recorded. All day long in any case. We wake up, one of your speeches. We go to work, if we have a job, another one of your speeches. We eat, if we can, another speech. Nap, etc. If you fly above the clouds in a helicopter, it will rain in the south. The draught is over. You are more formidable than any other grand witch doctor. You are at the blackboard, your cane in hand. A much nicer cane than Mobutu’s. You tell your Minister of Finance how to calculate the budget. Next. The Minister of Education. You tell him how to rid a country full of illiterates of illiteracy. New plan. Five-year Plan. Marshal Plan. All the ambassadors of the whole world are before you. You hold up a leaf, a leaf off a tree. You say: I have the proof, the Garden of Eden is really in Madagascar; this plant is the one described in the bible. You say some words in Latin and in Greek, some words in Hebrew, some words in Babylonian. You hold up the leaf again and you conclude: This plant is endemic in Madagascar; it is living proof that Eden is situated here, in Madagascar, in the exact place where I took this leaf off the tree. I decided at that very moment to write the play Le prophète et le president. It’s about a prophet who is rather intelligent. But, because he’s a prophet, no one in his country listens to him. Everyone says he is crazy. His friend, his opponent, according to the situation, is a president who must help his country to develop. However, because he is the president of a former colony, he cannot withstand fatalism, the feeling of inferiority and a world crisis that shakes his people. Since he can’t put money in the pockets full of holes of the citizens, he decides to line his own pockets. It’s a well-known fact, in poor countries, misery means people’s pockets are full of holes. Through wear and tear, the fabric rips. There is no sense in mending it, the seamstress is a kind of piranha-like termite; the money is too heavy and breaks through the pocket, slips down along the leg and falls to the ground, creating havoc among the crowd. It fell from my pocket. No, it fell from mine. I have proof. One man shows his holey pocket. The other shows his holey pocket. And so on. We compare holes. One pocket is taken out of the game. The hole is too small and the money too big. Another is disqualified. He doesn’t know the worth of the coin. Another soliloquises. Another stutters. Yet another yells. Shouts that on his mother’s grave… The last takes off with the money while the others continue to argue. The play will present two crazy characters: the prophet and the president. They are in an asylum and want to free the other crazy people in order to rule over them. But where do we stage the play? In the street? Freedom, yes, but words still do not flow easily in open spaces or in dusty public places. We decide put on our play at the Alliance Française, homeland of La Baule and of Demokratia. The director of the Alliance is pleased, very pleased. He comes to the rehearsals. He laughs. Our first spectator. Cross my heart, hope to die. We will perform at the Albert Camus cultural centre (no need to point out that it belongs to the French government, of course). Fifty or so actors. Then down to only thirty, the rest lost in the woods, terrified by so much freedom. Our words are still so hesitant. Democracy yes, but I don’t want to die. An event in the city. Mercenaries – raving lunatics, in fact – lead by a crazy, rash young woman, take over the national radio station. That is a true story, not in the play. Anyway, the president – in the play this time – orders his henchmen to block the station and to besiege the university. A disturbing cross between reality and fiction. Rumours reach us at the rehearsals. They say this author is one of the instigators behind the attack on the radio station. Leaks. Leaks of actors – sorry Azafady, I cannot continue, this is going too far. Leaks of text to the Ministry (of Culture). Polite visits to the director of the Alliance Française. The Ministry is delighted that the Alliance is supporting Madagascan theatre, but… But the director stands strong. We continue the rehearsals. There are only ten of us now. National holiday. Independence day. We watch TV. Our musician is playing at the presidential palace. He won’t come back to the Alliance. We have lost our musician. The leading actress, who plays a crazy person who will insult not only the prophet but also the president, is pressured with more and more « advice ». She stands strong. She is the soul of the play. We are now down to five. The play only goes on for another month. Good news. The author just received the Radio France Internationale (RFI) prize for the best French-language short story. The play takes on a whole new dimension. It is no longer a beginner putting on his first play, but an RFI-prize winner! The woman from RFI even comes to our island to watch the performance. She says it is good, really good even. She talks to us about some Sony Labou Tansi. We do not know him. She talks about Tchicaya U’Tamsi. We do not know him. She talks about Michèle Rakotoson. Of course we know her. She is our big sister. She works at RFI. Oh! It is getting better and better. We give her the freedom of speech we obtained at La Baule. The Ministry visits more and more often the director of the Alliance. He stands strong. Then, silence. One month before the performance. We think about costumes. We will cover the crazy women in mud. We will go to the market and ask the beggars to lend us their clothes. Hmmm… They will think we want to cast a spell on them. Their sweat is impregnated on the clothes. Their hair clings to them. It will be difficult. We will wait for nightfall and we will throw ourselves on them like the ferocious beasts of the regime. Yeah! But, we do not have a 4WD, or a Jeep to take off in the night when they counterattack. They will catch us! It will not work! The director of the Alliance enters the rehearsal hall. He looks deathly pale. I have been rallied to the mission, the mission of French cooperation. I was told that in order to continue to uphold good relations between France and Madagascar, the Alliance can no longer support your play. I am sorry. We do not protest. It was too good to be true. It is okay. We will rehearse elsewhere. You cannot perform at the cultural centre either. There is another play on the same evening. A play from France. It was not on the programme. We will perform in the street. Yes. We will perform in the street. We take leave. We will perform everywhere. But not at the cultural centre, and not at the Alliance. Yeah. We will perform. A future filled with bans, actors receiving death threats. We decide to throw in the towel. Your humble servant is summoned to the Ministry of Culture: Hello Sir, we are pleased to tell you that you have received the Nation’s medal of merit. I do not even answer. I do not protest. The woman hands me an invitation. You will come at such a date to receive the medal and the money. I leave without a word. Let them keep their medal and their dough! I leave the island, a grant from the French government thanks to the RFI prize. The irony of the situation: the French mission that expelled us from their building, the country that awarded us with a medal and censorship and France, host country to all the artists. Life is great, is it not? I land at Charles de Gaule airport. Take the bus to Porte Maillot. A hotel where we can stay the night. Very nice room. The nicest I have ever been in. Next day, Cité Universitaire, the university residence. Think about the university campus rooms in Madagascar. Three couples in the same room. Sometimes children. It is cold, very cold. I should go straight to the contest department at RFI, but I do not dare. RFI. Freedom of expression. A lot of news biased against the dictatorship. A week goes by. I come without giving notice. I didn’t know that, in France, you have to phone first before visiting people. They greet me like a prince. They tell me I won the prize. I am surprised. Of course I won the prize. I would not be here otherwise… She gives me an invitation. Another invitation! I go back to my room at the university. It is the weekend. I get lost in Paris. It is quite fun… On Monday, I go back to RFI. Why did you not come? We were waiting for you, everyone was here! Come where? To the award ceremony! You won the prize! Of course I won the prize. Did you not look at the invitation I gave you Friday? I take it out of my pocket. Award ceremony for Inter-African theatre, I won second prize. The theatre prize? Yes, we typed up the draft of your play Le prophète et le president, we submitted it to the contest and voila. Oh! I did not know. Short story prize and theatre prize. Great! Yes, that’s great. The leading actress just found out she has breast cancer. She has trouble finding a hospital that will take her in. She asks to be transferred to Reunion Island. She is not. She dies a few months later. Another meeting one week later. A woman, F.K, who works in New York. Ubu Theater. Kossi, another crazy man from Togo who dreams of theatre. Last year he won the same prize. You are the new generation. It is crazy. We are blessed with two new talents at once. We will go to New York. To Fifth Avenue, near Broadway. We will perform our plays there. In English. In English? In English. There will be producers, film-directors, critics, journalists, famous actors. But… But? We cannot pay you. No royalties. Not for the performance, nor for the book. In fact, only scholars and bookworms will attend. Never mind. Right Kossi? It is okay. We will go to Fifth Avenue. We will watch the staging of our plays and a famous producer will come to see us and promise to take them to Hollywood. Should we sign? We sign. Everything is in English. Over 20 pages. F.K goes back to the USA. Days go by. Kossi’s play is read in a pavilion on the Champs Elysées. Alain Decaux closes the ceremony. And soon, the two will be off to New York to wave the banner of Francophonie proudly. They bring us onto the stage. Everyone applauds us. We still do not have a visa. We call F.K. She says things. We do not understand. I decide to go to the American Embassy. I show them my invitation for the Fifth Avenue. I come back out fifteen minutes later, a visa stamped on my passport. Kossi does the same. A complete success. America, here we come! The tickets F.K, send us the tickets so we can fly over. No ticket. I have to go to Madagascar to get the tickets! At my expense. Kossi has to go to Togo to get the tickets! At his expense. Kossi sees red and insults F.K. I nod in agreement. I understand my Togolese friend. I do not say anything. The elder is speaking and moreover I do not have the phone in my hand. I will not forget I say. I will not forget. Duly registered…
One year later, a phone call. It is my translator. I meet him in a café near the Opera. He is very happy to finally see me. He does not understand why I refused to come to Fifth Avenue. I explain everything to him. Yet, everyone was saying that you had gone and got a big head, you and that other guy, the one from Togo… He wants me to autograph the book. I see it for the first time. You have not seen the book? No. No one sent it to you? No. He is sorry, almost ashamed. He finds a solution. He gives me the copy I was supposed to autograph. He will not get his autograph. He finds a solution. He takes a picture of me. I really like the picture he took that evening. Recently, years later, while surfing on the Net, I found my book on a commercial site: The Prophet and the President. Compare prices, says the site. In the meantime, I act the snob: yes darling, my first play has been translated into English. It was performed on Fifth Avenue, near Broadway…
The other story I want to tell you is about a chameleon – a green one, moreover. Paris Book Fair? Several authors are murmuring sweet nothings to a hostess. A woman hands out her business card. She is looking for youth authors. She talks about technicalities. How many words and characters. I do not even look at her. My shyness protects me and I disappear. Her collection of works is governed by a green chameleon. I think to myself: me turtle, me faster than chameleon. I run away as quickly as I can, to get as far away as possible from this collection. And as soon as I am across the finish line I bring my head back under my shell. Three years later, the race over, the chameleon seems to have won. The animal struck out its long tongue and latched onto my shell, like a bloodsucker. Perched on my roof, it waited until I had brought by head back into my shell to quietly get off and cross the finish line. A friend of mine, a Madagascan publisher, was one of its allies, without meaning to be. Please Jean-Luc, I signed a contract with the chameleon. I have to bring it four flies each year. If I do not, I will owe it thousands of ants. Four flies a year? That is what you call co-publishing? Why should you pay if you cannot find all those flies? I need the shop front, the chameleon’s coat, to sell my books. I cannot do it any other way. You are an idiot. Yes, but would you like to be my last fly, please? I will close up shop if I have to pay for all these ants. Okay, okay. But I will choose my own illustrator. I want a painter, one of the most famous on the island.
Work session with the chameleon. As it should be. Professional. Nothing to complain about. I hand over my book. The painter hands over his work. We wait for the contract. It does not come. The book is published. I threaten to suspend sales if the contract does not come. The contract comes. The chameleon has a beautiful coat, but its tongue is that of a viper. Banned from working for another collection of works for several years, as an author or as an employee. I am livid. Royalties, ridiculous! Royalties, appalling! The chameleon can change whatever it likes. As much the text as the images. It can sell all the derived products, if it wants, without owing us anything. I cross out. I erase. I complain. We discuss the contract. Feels like I am begging, as if we were not grateful enough that they publish our books, they who work for African culture. An author, an illustrator, a publisher. All from the same country. The chameleon works for the development of African culture! Think about all the subsidies! We quickly change the contract terms, the articles that are too outrageous. We improve the conditions, but it is still just as ridiculous. I have no illusions. I do not even want to discuss it. But the hardest is yet to come. How many copies for the author? Five, they say. For 15 francs. I ask for ten. I fight every inch of the way. We discuss the issue for over forty-five minutes. We finally reach an agreement. It will be eight copies. When leaving, I make a point of taking the huge pile of copies set aside for journalists. You see, we argued about that! Five or ten, what is the difference when several hundred are to be given to the press? The chameleon just did not want to give in. To show that it is the strongest. The turtle remained silent and reminded itself that its opponent will only live for a few months, whereas the turtle will live for many years to come…
The moral of the story is that as an author, I will only live as long as the life of a book, but no one has been able to establish as of yet just how long this life is…

Poet, playwright and short story writer, Jean-Luc Raharimanana was born in Antananarivo (Madagascar) in 1967. He is the author of Lepreux et 19 autres nouvelles (Hatier, 1988), Lucarne (Le Serpent à plumes, 1996), Rêves sous le linceul (Le Serpent à plumes, 1998), Nour 1947 (Le Serpent à plumes, 2001) and Le prophète et le président (Ubu Théâtre, New York, 1991), translated as The Prophet and the President (Ubu Repertory Publications, New-York, 1991).///Article N° : 5710

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