Michèle Rakotoson: Le Bain des reliques [The Bath of Relics]
The hero of this novel is Ranja Rakotomalala. We learn, at the very beginning of the novel, that there has been a ceremony and that Ranja is dead. The rest of the book describes how Ranja became involved in the ceremony and how and why he died. Ranja works for a television company and is married to Noro. Early on we learn that, at least in Ranja’s eyes, things are not looking good in the country. It is seven years into the Marxist government and the country is riddled with corruption, poverty, disease, crime and a failing economy. Rakotoson gives us, through Ranja, a very bleak picture of the capital and the situation in the country. For example, Ranja meets a street kid he knows, who survives by selling drugs and petty theft. Ranja is aware that there are too many street kids like this one.
At work, Ranja receives a phone call from a man calling himself Prince Kandreho. Kandreho tells Ranja that there is to be a ceremony involving the relics of the royal family, known as the Bath of Relics. He wants Ranja to film it. Ranja is initially reluctant but then realises this could be a good opportunity for him. However, when he goes home that evening, his dinner guest tells him that the area of the country concerned – the North-West – is not only remote but has had a lot of trouble, resulting in many people being slaughtered by the armed forces. However, despite the warning, he gets the permission of his boss to go and four of them – Ranja, Rija, the cameraman, Voahangy, the secretary who is working as script girl and the driver – set out. The seven hundred kilometre journey is uneventful but things look grim when they finally arrive. The town square is drab and run down. More particularly, it seems to be deserted. There is no-one to meet them, as they had hoped. When they get out of the car, there is a dead dog being eaten by insects beside them. They find a bar, which only serves warm beer and where they are, reluctantly, served a meal. Gradually, their hosts arrive and the town livens up. Meanwhile, the situation for the ceremony seems chaotic. The boat they had intended to use to carry the relics down the river seems to be out of action. The crew manage to hire a barge from a local Pakistani merchant and they set off to take some initial shots – a heron flying, the men building the huts for the two thousand people expected for the ceremony. Further problems occur when they accompany Kandreho to the village that is meant to be supplying the zebu cattle for the ceremony. The village has suffered like everyone else. There has been an epidemic – we are not told what of – and many have died. Indeed, there are graves along the roadside of people who died en route to get help. The young people are going away, the cattle have either been stolen by the young people to fund their exodus or sold by the village to buy basic foodstuffs, and poverty and alcoholism abound. The village chief says there is only one zebu, which will be provided.
Back in the town, Ranja receives a letter from Noro in which she worries about their marriage and feels that the state of the country is affecting it. Even when the ceremony gets under way, there are problems. Another village provides zebus but these, when they arrive, charge the crowd. But, finally, the ceremony gets under way with a lot of dancing. Ranja sees an attractive woman to whom he is immediately drawn. Only later does he learn that she is the fiancée of Ondaty, a local chief.
Rakotoson tells a first-class story but also paints an unremittingly grim picture of her country. She piles on the images of a country which is falling apart. No-one is happy, while many are suffering. The image conflicts completely with the tourism image of the country. Death and decay prevail. Sadly this book has not been translated into English (or any other language) and is even very difficult to obtain in French. This is sad, as it is a worthwhile book that deserves to be better known.
First published in 1988 by Karthala
No English translation