- Stars and Keys: Folktales and Creolization in the Indian Ocean
Lee Haring's collection of folktales from the islands of the southwest Indian Ocean is a monumental undertaking, bringing together for the first time and in English translation some 121 stories. They emanate from the multi-ethnic and multicultural societies of the region, most importantly Madagascar, with its 19 million population of mostly African and South-East Asian origin, but also the small, once uninhabited islands of Mauritius, Reunion, and the Seychelles, whose populations are the product of colonialism, slavery, and indentured labor, originating from Europe, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and China. Haring mixes together the fruits of his own fieldwork in the islands, mostly transcriptions of authoritative local narrators, but also incorporates materials recorded by early explorers, nineteenth-century collectors of local folktales and contemporary ethnographic researchers. The recurrent motifs of the tales bring together two principal strands: [End Page 245] borrowings and adaptations of traditional French folk stories, such as "Donkey-skin" and "Cinderella," and a rich strain of animal fables, probably African in origin, in which the hare figures as a recurrent trickster, often set against the sturdily reliable tortoise. There is an unexpected proliferation of kings, princes, and princesses, in spite of the fact that monarchy was an important element only in Malagasy society up to the end of the nineteenth century. It is perhaps surprising not to find traces of the local mythical figures such as the witch-like "Grand-mère Kal" and the legendary cruel slave-owner Madame Desbassayns in the material from Reunion, where they have often figured in local songs and poems. The material is thoroughly documented and Haring is able to draw on a wide scholarly knowledge of folklore to trace similarities of motifs to possible sources in Africa and Europe. The organization of the book is perplexing, however: the chapters run from "The Land of the Man-Eating Tree" (Madagascar), which confusingly includes material from Reunion and Mauritius, to "Diaspora," which contains material from Madagascar, the likely source of many of the stories, to "Stars" and "Keys," titles inspired by the Mauritian Latin motto "Stella Clavisque Maris Indici" 'Star and Key of the Indian Sea,' but which include material from all the islands, including the Comoros; and concluding rather strangely with "Postcolonial Seychelles." A similarly rambling structure affects the text of the book, which does not seem to establish a clear link or sequence in the tales and constantly interrupts them with authorial commentaries and explanations, admittedly using a different typeface. Allusions to recent critical and postcolonial theory are recurrent, but it is not always made obvious how these apply to the material assembled. In spite of these criticisms, the volume represents a precious and irreplaceable record of the indigenous folk cultures of these islands, not generally well known and not often studied, particularly in the anglophone world, and as such it provides a valuable companion to literary, cultural, or political studies of the islands.