- Binding and Unbinding Insurrection in MadagascarJean Luc Raharimanana’s 47
On March 29, 1947, in the eastern forests of Madagascar, a group of rebel soldiers staged “the world’s bloodiest colonial repression.”1 In the insurrection against colonial French occupiers, between 90,000–100,000 Malagasy people on the island of Madagascar lost their lives as a result of fighting, torture, execution, starvation, or disease, including rebel soldiers and civilians. Only 550 French occupiers perished during the nearly two years of fighting.2 This insurrection lives deep in the memories of the Malagasy even though young generations know little about it, and it has reemerged multiple times over the decades, shifting and transforming the narrative of Malagasy national identity, especially in the period since independence in 1961. Various political regimes have manipulated the narrative of the event, but very few official records exist outside of those produced by the colonial French regime during and shortly after the insurrection. In order to confront the forgotten history’s multiplicity, and its fragmentary and forgotten nature, Malagasy playwright Jean Luc Raharimanana created 47, a play that ultimately questions the purpose and validity of the acts of remembering that persist and/or remain.
In 2008, Thierry Bedard, a French theatre-maker, directed the original production of 47 at Albert Camus Cultural Center in Antananarivo, Madagascar. His production begins with a single Malagasy man standing on stage in the dark, with only enough light to illuminate his silhouette. In the first segment he situates himself as the storyteller, as a Malagasy man who questions his relationship to the memory of the insurrection, and who struggles to define his position as its [End Page 169] descendant.3 Speaking in French, he introduces his performance as “that quest for the memory that haunts [him].”4 Throughout the performance he reveals that his memory comes from the communal consciousness of his nation; he did not experience the battles of 1947 directly, but he carries the unspoken transgenerational memories of his own father or grandfather. Notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) its unspoken nature, the memory of the insurrection haunts him. Significantly, the play closes with a Malagasy proverb that casts doubt on the entire process of remembering: “Words, they say, are like wrapping, that which binds also loosens.”5 In this proverb, the Malagasy storyteller asks the questions: What purpose does this memory serve? The events happened. “As for me, I remember nothing. Absolutely nothing… Only one date like a hot iron: March 29, 1947.”6 He is Malagasy. He is imprinted with the memory. But like many contemporary Malagasy of the younger generations, he remembers nothing, posing powerful questions regarding the position of memory in a post/colonial struggle for independent national subjectivity. However, the play itself practices remembering even while it faces the challenge that words will never fully recapture the memory. The memory itself lives in the bodies that died, and the families and friends who lost loved ones; it lives in altered family customs; and it lives in the bodies that remain, that carry the suffering, destruction, trauma, and shame of the insurrection.
In this essay I propose that the strategies of structuring and staging memory in and of Raharimanana’s 2008 play intervene in the contemporary post/colonial7 desire for independent national subjectivity. Through reading the text, I identify seven distinct though unmarked memorial fragments; the text is not divided into scenes. The published version of the text8 also does not attribute the dialogue to particular characters; it exists as a continuous text. The text places the responsibility on the director to choose the number of people in the performance and the division of the storytelling. The 2008 performance materialized these fragments through the voices, bodies, and subjectivities of two actors—one Malagasy man and one French man—and the working manuscript from that performance clearly divides the text between them. Three of the seven fragments that I identify deliver bilingual accounts in Malagasy and French. The others primarily utilize French lightly peppered with Malagasy words or phrases. In addition to these textual fragments, the performance also incorporates three moments of movement that punctuate significant ideologies within the...