Friday, February 09, 2007

Rising Up and Rising Down: Madagascar

After Vollmann's novellas about Cambodia (where all bad things are "just politics" and he manages to rescue a 12-year-old prostitute who turns out to be absolutely terrified of him) and the former Yugoslavia (where people constantly lie to him and he is unable to confirm anybody's stories, and where his car hits a landmine and he spends an hour in shock and fear lying behind the dead body of his childhood friend and the comatose, violently vomiting corpse-to-be of another journalist), Vollmann goes to Africa to learn more about violence and necessity. Because he hasn't learned enough, you see.

I promised myself that I'd find a nice -- but still emblematic -- excerpt to post here, but his story about Madagascar ("The Jealous Ones") is by far the most horrible one yet. He describes it as a place where the have-nots are constantly (and violently) taking from the haves, but even the haves are desperately everybody is essentially just stealing from everybody else. The anecdotes are less horrific, traumatic, and violent than those in the other stories, but the constant menace and extortion in "The Jealous Ones" is exhausting. And Vollmann is very good at describing the endless, exhausting sameness that breeds thoughtless violence.

It doesn't help that his interpreter/companion for this trip -- "O." -- is not a sympathetic character like the ones in other stories...she's 100% a product of the environment: poor, desperate, and terminally jealous. Apparently, in Madagascar, people are honest when they steal things from other people: they say they do it because they're jealous. And everybody there is jealous of everybody else, especially when somebody has a zebu.

But regardless. Here's probably the nicest emblematic statement I've read so far in "The Jealous Ones." This isn't a condemnation, it's a statement of fact:

When I think of Madagascar, I remember eroded roads and hills (they say that astronauts can see the erosion from the moon), jungle stumps with the soil between them now desert; I remember the smell of woodsmoke; I remember people's long skinny brown legs, and above all I remember dirty feet. Almost everybody goes barefoot. Beautiful women in dainty dresses think nothing of walking unshod through open sewers (or for that matter adding to them; Madagascar is one of those countries where one can excrete almost where one pleases, and people do; every day I'd see O. squat down in the middle of the street, urine slowly hissing between her bare or sandaled feet, and afterward she'd smile and say: Ah, darling, a very sweet piss!)


Anonymous said...

Is that all you know about Madagascar? Well, what was the expectation before going to one of the poorest country in the world?

I still wish a good luck in your life, give you the big and sincere smile that you have never seen from a different country,...and say "VELOMA". Because that is how nice people there dispite how poor and dirty they are...

VanillaJ said...

Yes, Muffy. At least these people will greet you with a great big smile and say "VELOMA" before becoming jealous of your obvious Western wealth, and visiting horrible violence on your person before taking it from you.

I you have ever visited another country, you would come to embrace the hospitality of their "wealth redistribution" policy. If I were poor and saw you coming my way, not only would I smile sincerely, I'd be as friendly as I had to to get within arm's length of you.

Adam Thornton said...

Since I have never been to Madagascar, I trust somebody like William T. Vollmann to tell me what it's like...and I do trust him because he's a writer who (apparently) vividly communicates his experiences among different cultures. He's not a reactionaly xenophobe and though his work tends to be grim (he's usually writing about grim subjects) his joy in travelling around the world to meet and connect with people always shines through.

The only exception to this (so far) seems to be his Madagascar essay. I'm sure it's possible that he just had a coincidental collection of bad experiences, or maybe he's only been there at the wrong times, but his experiences (at least the ones he writes about) were negative, from the little kids who tried to stab him while he was taking a picture, to the randomly-chosen ladies who demonstrated for him how to snatch a purse and how to kill an enemy.

Vollmann presents this as a condition of people growing up in -- as you said -- one of the poorest countries of the world. If anything, his point seems to be (as it is with his essay on the Congo) that crime is made worse by a combination of intense poverty and ineffectual (or corrupt) authority.

Did I come from this thinking that everybody in Madagascar is a criminal? Nope. Do I think people who live there are poor? From the sounds of it the majority are. Are they dirty? As I said in my introduction to his comments about urinating in the street, that's just a statement of fact, not a condemnation; Vollmann's not squeamish about that sort of thing.

So if I were GOING to Madagascar I'd want to get more opinions than just Vollmann's. Otherwise his assessment sounds realistic enough for me to move on to the next essay. If I met somebody from Madagascar, however, I'd judge them the same way I judge anybody else: by how they behave toward me.

Adam Thornton said...

Maybe the "I Need $2.00" guy could take some lessons?

VanillaJ said...

I think you put it well: the behavoir is a result of intense poverty and corrupt & ineffectual authority. Something in the culture supports the distinctive Madagascar "honesty", and their open approach to their victims & deeds. To say it is so is not hateful or xenophobic. It is a warning about a situation that nobody should be happy about. In other words, if you value your life and personal property, Madagascar might not be the first place a rich, white person would bring the family for vacation. Or even a poor white person, if one exists...

VanillaJ said...

Hey! We should send the "I Need Two Dollars" guy to Madagascar. I bet he could learn to say "VELOMA" in a hurry.

Adam Thornton said...

I saw $2.00 guy pushing a shopping cart through the snow on the shopping cart he had a suitcase. I have to admit I'm a bit intrigued by his activities, since he has at least two houses where he stores his stuff and has occasional altercations with the occupants (one is on Philip St., the other is on Peppler right across from Aaron's window).

Anonymous said...

<<...they do it because they're jealous>>
I'm from Madagascar; I lived there for 27 years before starting a Ph.D. program in the U.S. I'm not sure where in Madagascar your friend "William T. Vollmann" went but his observations is totally skewed. You might hear people reporting about that, but at but I never personally saw anyone attacked or rubbed because of jealousy, and it is a 27 years spent in at least 4 different locations in Madagascar. May be I was lucky enough to not have that bad experience.

Some of the comments here are even going a bit far say something about crime and jealousy. I don't know any place in Africa where city crimes are still very low other than Mada. The story that is reported here is related to bandit activity in some place in the south, and sometimes in the Middle West. These massive attacks to villagers that have "zebus" or cows well organized and the authors are rarely caught.

I think it’s strange that this is the only place where you find that info about madagascar
Go to the site www(dot)tranofalafa(dot)com and learn about Madagascar, you’ll be stunned

Well, anyway...I'm not sure what are the important issues in this blog since some of these comments does not make sense for me, I'm lost

VanillaJ said...

Wow. Thanks, Tranofalafa. This isn't my blog, but I'm glad that you commented. I'm happy to learn more about Madagascar, and I'll check out your site. Muffy! You've got a live one here!

Adam Thornton said...


I posted a follow-up entry about Madagascar on Sunday night; it's on the main blog page, and also here:

PS: I don't know William T. Vollmann. He's a journalist, and I'm reading his massive book about violence called "Rising Up and Rising Down." One section in volume five is about his second trip to Madagascar during 1994, mainly in Antananarivo. He does interview some zebu rustlers ("Dahalo") but spends most of his time in the city.

In his introduction to the essay about Madagascar, he says (in part) "Here everything feels personalized. Every day, face-to-face social contracts get enacted between the haves and the Madagascar a beggar will approach you and calmly express his expectation of receiving, not everything, just something, an amount varying between reasonable and unreasonable; if you give it to him, he will be satisfied; if you refuse, he will become, as they constantly say there, "jealous," and he will stab you if he a little bit every day and you'll be allowed to live until tomorrow; to each one of us who lives within a social contract, which is to say most men and women on this earth, the procedure will feel surprisingly familiar."

In any case, I do follow this up a bit in the post linked above.