The Malagasy poet Jean Joseph Rabearivelo (1901-1937) was the first major French-language poet in Africa. Some of his most powerful poetry arose from the conflict between his intimacy with two cultures, Malagasy and French, and his estrangement from two societies, native and colonial.
Jean Joseph Rabearivelo was born on March 4, 1901, in Tananarive (Madagascar) into a noble family which had been impoverished as a result of the abolition of slavery by the French authorities soon after the colonial conquest in 1895. He left school at 13 in order to earn a precarious livelihood as proofreader in a local printing shop.
Tananarive in the early 1920s was a focus of intense literary and journalistic activity in the vernacular, and Rabearivelo was one of the first Malagasy poets to use the French language as his medium of literary expression. His early collections, La Coupe de cendres (1924), Sylves (1927), and Volumes (1928), were in the romantic-academic manner of such French 19th-century poets as appeared on the school curriculum in those days. But through his friendship with Pierre Camo—a French official who was also a minor poet—Rabearivelo became acquainted with contemporary symbolist poetry and managed to free himself of the shackles of conventional versification and diction. His best poems are to be found in Presque-songes (1934) and Traduit de la nuit (1935).
The poet's love of France, its language, and its literature was apt to take weird ritualistic forms. His wide reading in romantic and postromantic poetry had somehow driven him to the notion that poetic genius was inevitably associated with various forms of abnormality, such as reckless extravagance, chronic lack of money, almost permanent debauchery, ill health (usually tuberculosis), and suicidal tendencies. With pathetic conscientiousness, he was thus striving to mimic the most futilely morbid aspects in the lives of Balzac, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and a host of other, minor, if even more wildly aberrant, writers.
This ill-advised imitation of alien models was uneasily coupled with considerable pride in the literary achievements, oral and written, of Malagasy culture, even though, as a former aristocrat and a Frenchified intellectual, he felt some contempt for the illiterate masses. He was thus rejected by his more tradition-minded or nationalistic fellow citizens. As a native, he was also rejected by the local French society of petty traders and administrators. In his bulky diaries, which have never been edited in their entirety, he described his tragic predicament as that of a Latin mind under a black skin but also as that of a proud Malagasy eager to shed the Christian and Western disguise imposed upon him. His habit of wearing the traditional robe, the lamba, over his Westernstyle clothes illustrated this duality more than it could hide—let alone solve—it.
This dual allegiance and this dual rebellion imbue Rabearivelo's poetry. Although he mostly wrote in French, in part of his work he sought to bend the alien language to native themes, experiences, and even literary forms such as the hainteny. Aware of his uncommon gifts, yet confined to his underprivileged status, Rabearivelo found the best of his inspiration in an all-pervading, tragic sense of alienation, which finds adequate utterance in images of exile and death, rootlessness and sterility. He committed suicide on June 22, 1937.
Further Reading on Jean Joseph Rabearivelo
There is no biography of Rabearivelo in English. Information on him is in Ulli Beier, ed., Introduction to African Literature (1967), and in Norman R. Shapiro, ed. and trans., Negritude: Black Poetry from Africa and the Caribbean (1970).