Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Réunion - In the Kingdom of Sorcerers

As Réunion remained without any permanent human habitation until the 17th century, it's perhaps not surprising that the island's mythology relies heavily on the mythologies of neighbouring countries, such as Madagascar. 

When searching for a good book to read by a Réunionnais writer, I was lucky to come across La Grand-Mere Kalle by Yves Manglou (2006). Manglou has done a great job at bringing to life the story of Réunion, through the fictional eyes of its first inhabitants and under the spell of the witch Grand-Mere (Grandmother) Kalle

Whilst the myth is very strongly connected to Madagascar and the first part of Manglou's novel takes place there, I couldn't help but compare the witch Kala and her daughter Grand-Mere Kalle with the Indian incarnation of Kali, a terrifying aspect of the Goddess Parvati. I wonder if the 'myth' of Kali crossed the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, before being transplanted to Réunion? 

As far as I'm aware, this book hasn't been translated into English, but I was really happy to have an excuse to read a novel in French, as I don't get enough opportunities to re-connect with this language. 

Anyone who's learned another language will know that, no matter how much you learn, there's always more and it was fun grappling with a whole new set of vocabulary that covered the different parts of a ship, trade winds and the names of plants and animals specific to the southern Indian Ocean. 

Coming across words like clin-foc and artimon, I would find out the English translations (blink-jib and mizzen) and then have to look the words up again, this time in my English dictionary! As a result of reading this book, I've learned that ships have different names for the right-hand and left-hand side (tribord and bâbord in French, star board and port in English). 

I've also learned the words for the different masts on a ship - the complicated French names for beaupré, mât de misaine, grand mât and mât d'artimon and the more prosaic English terminology of bowsprit, fore-mast, main-mast and mizzen-mast

I noticed that some of the seafaring words in French look suspiciously English in origin and it made me think about the extent of words being borrowed from English and Dutch into French, rather then the more commonly acknowledged borrowing of French words into neighbouring Germanic languages. 

Jungle by Fabien Gelle
I also came across a lot of French words for birds and birds feature highly in the tale of Grand-Mere Kalle - the fouquet and papangue, which are birds associated with evil and the paille-en-queue (or straw-tail), the 'good guy' in the story, whose presence brings luck to the human settlements.

Much of the novel is like a 'battle of the birds' and it's interesting to see our feathery friends playing such a strong role in Réunionnais mythology. Birds play a strong role in Irish mythology too, particularly swans and it made me think of Irish stories like the Children of Lir

Manglou's novel has a strong ecological message and highlights the importance of teaching children about the need to preserve endemic species. When the children in the story are tricked by the witch and destroy the nests of the pailles-en-queue, a natural disaster happens and many people in the nearby village lose their lives. 

Grand-Mere Kalle and her mother Kala (who resides in Madagascar) are symbols of the destructive power of nature. Grand-Mere Kalle is born in a volcanic eruption and there is something in this myth that exposes the fear that early settlers had of living in such a geologically unstable environment. 

Sunset by Fabien Gelle
I also came across some Réunionnais Creole for the first time and the following sentence gives you a sense of what Creole on Réunion sounds like. When the birds meet their cousins on Mauritius, they say: 

Pé na problèm cousin, to nèk dire moi li pou kan to bizness! 

No idea what it means, but it sounds good! 

I also liked a phrase that was repeated several times in the novel: 

Dans la royaume des sorcières, le temps n'existe pas
(In the kingdom of sorcerers, time doesn't exist)

It gave me a feeling of the languorous nature of life in a small island like Réunion, adrift in the timeless ocean and far away from the bustle of human civilisation.

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight a couple of photographs of Reunion Island by Flickr member Fabien Gellé - thanks Fabien for sharing these images using the Creative Commons license.  
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