‘Red Island House,’ by Andrea Lee: An Excerpt

The Packet War

I am a big house seen from afar

Not even a whole crowd can take it apart

but if they do, it takes revenge.

And when those from across the sea catch sight of me

I add them to my servants.

—“Ibonia,” traditional epic of Madagascar, translated by Lee Haring

There are houses you don’t want, that, nevertheless, enter your life and bring with them other lives, whole other worlds. There are countries you visit that lay hold of you and don’t let go, even if you diligently attempt to remain a tourist. These thoughts have been incubating in the mind of Shay Senna ever since she—a Black American woman with scant interest in the continent of Africa except as a near-mythical motherland—unexpectedly and unwillingly became mistress of the Red House, a sprawling household in northwestern Madagascar.

It is because of the big house and its bad fortune that she is at present in a dreamlike situation, hurrying under the calescent subequatorial sun through the back lanes of a fishermen’s shantytown on the island of Naratrany, in pursuit of a tiny Sakalava girl in a white satin gown.

In the light-soaked stillness of the hottest noontime hour, when mongrel dogs lie flat as puddles in patches of shade, the barefoot child, who looks like an eerie carnival figure in that glaring dress with its flounces and ribbons, skips in and out of sight through a maze of tottering bamboo huts. Occasionally she turns her little braided head and makes a cheeky, beckoning motion with a spindly brown arm as she guides Shay and Shay’s head housekeeper, Bertine la Grande, to the home of the man referred to, usually in whispers, as the Neighbor.

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The tall, stately Bertine, also barefoot, also Sakalava, leads the way. Dressed in a sweeping print lamba, her geometrically knotted hair hidden by a big, sun-faded newsboy hat that gives her a curiously regal air, she chuckles softly each time the small white apparition flashes into sight, then treads on casually as if engaged in an everyday errand.

Shay stumbles along in her wake, hampered by the long skirt she was told to wear, and hobbled as well by her American common sense, which is struggling with the awareness that she has crossed a threshold into the deep unknown. Her woven shoulder bag, concealing a wad of ariary bills and the small gift Bertine suggested, bangs against her side, as she tries not to think of the fact that she is seeking out the Neighbor, a notorious conjurer, in hopes that he can lift the spell on her house.


How has this peculiar quest come about? You could say it is because of something else that hasn’t come about: the housewarming ceremony that Shay’s husband, Senna, a rich but stingy Italian businessman, neglects to hold when he finishes building his fantasy vacation residence on Naratrany. So tightfisted is Senna that not even one zebu bull is slaughtered for the local villagers, not one festive step danced, not one glass of rum poured on the ground for thirsty ancestors, when the last thatch has been laid on the big villa he constructed on what was formerly Colonel Andrianasolo’s lot on Finoana Beach.

Naratrany, a very minor part of Madagascar, is a small lush island with a central crater that gives it from afar the look of a squashed green fedora. Framed by coral reefs, it is one of a chain of ancient fumaroles that in the Tertiary period arose to become satellites to the huge main island. Though defined by cartographers as part of Africa, Madagascar really belongs only to itself, having developed its independent character over the millions of years since the primeval continent of Gondwana broke apart and abandoned the shield-shaped landmass in the sea between Mozambique and India. The topography of the country ranges from deserts of lunar desolation to swathes of emerald rice fields; from allées of baobabs to impenetrable forested uplands; but its coastal fringe of palmy islets is perhaps loveliest of all. In a letter from the early 1900s, a French priest (and amateur poet) stationed on Naratrany describes it as “un petit morceau du paradis, tombé des cieux.” He notes as well that the name Naratrany seems to mean “broken” or “wounded,” though it is unclear whether this refers to a forgotten battle or the island’s craterous shape.

Located on an ancient Indian Ocean trade route, the tiny dot of land has for centuries been a magnet for explorers, missionaries, pirates, and plunderers of all descriptions. It is the territory of the Sakalava, one of Madagascar’s nineteen peoples, a linchpin in that martial tribe’s vast kingdom, which once covered all western Madagascar. Sakalava lived on Naratrany before the earliest Indian merchants arrived; were present with their zebu cattle when the pirates Tew and Avery sailed through; were there when their powerful rivals the Merina, aided by British guns, swept down from the highlands to conquer the coast; were in residence when France annexed all Madagascar as a colony, and still there in 1960 when the colony won independence.

This history connects to the story of the Red House, since the swathe of beachfront that Colonel Andrianasolo sells to Senna belonged, a century earlier, to a Malagasy nobleman, a cousin of the Sakalava queen. A now-forgotten quarrel cut short the life of this gentleman and one of his retainers, and their remains still rest discreetly in a far corner of the property, concealed by the roots of a huge kapok tree.

Colonel Andrianasolo, a Merina whose father snapped up the property just after independence, knows all about the hidden graves when, after intense bargaining with the wily Italian, he signs the certificat d’achat. But the colonel prudently keeps silent about the unusual feature of the terrain. He only expresses a neighborly hope—Andrianasolo vacations on the next beach over, in a properly exorcized 1970s bungalow—that Senna’s future housewarming celebration will include the proper formalities, and the sacrifice of two zebus.

But, like many self-made men, Senna is willful in strange ways. Much of his youth was spent helping his family hustle their way out of postwar poverty in the malarial rice fields of Vercelli, and, now in middle age, he is contentedly ensconced as ruler of his own profitable company that brokers repair services for agricultural machines all over Europe. A wiry Lombard with a brawler’s crooked nose, he has a steel-trap mind and shrewd green eyes able to ferret out the scurviest tactics of his competitors. But unlike most Italians of his hardscrabble generation, he has an early life that includes an odd chapter: as a teenager, he spent a year in Rome in the dolce vita era, working for a cousin who was a cameraman at Cinecittà. The immersion in the magical atmosphere of golden age Italian cinema, the sight of film stars walking the earth amid the rubble of a world war and the ruins of imperial Rome, awakened a dreaming side in young Senna. But when his father suddenly died and he had to return to the rice lands, he put this part of his nature under wraps. There it remains for decades, until he has divorced his first wife, and his savings are snug in discreet refuges around the world.

Then, in his forties and free at last to indulge in midlife folly, he sets off on a six-month fishing trip around the Indian Ocean with a buddy from his military service year, a weathered sea dog of a Calabrian baron, born in Italian Somaliland. Crossing the Mozambique Channel, en route from the Comoros islands, their sloop draws up upon the eastern coast of Naratrany, and at first sight of the island, Senna is struck with a raw mixture of feelings: a roundhouse punch of mingled amazement, ambition, lust: what he imagines the early explorers felt, staring dumbfounded from their caravels.

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Motionless at the rail, he gazes over Finoana Bay to a low-rising land formation that is dazzlingly, virginally green, as if it is the first time that color has been used on earth. Its undulating slopes are stacked with shadowed rain forest and the kinetic lighter hues of sugarcane; the shoreline is hemmed with a string of palm and casuarina and a long curve of empty coral beach, white and perfect as a fresh slice of apple. Senna isn’t religious, but the arc of beach recalls to him the pale folded hands of the Baroque statue of the Holy Mother that was the sole treasure of his childhood parish church. And he, the astute businessman who knows the value of instinct, then and there determines to buy that beach and build a house. Decides this with the violent sense of yielding that an aging man feels when he plunges into an infatuation with a young girl.

“Be careful,” warns his Calabrian friend, an old Africa hand. “Places like this aren’t ever as simple as they look! Especially here. These people are part Bantu and part Indonesian, and part something else that is just pure strangeness. You can never tell where you are with them.”

Of course, Senna knows nothing about Madagascar, not one thing about the country’s epic geological past, nothing about the quirky evolutionary journey of its fabled wildlife, or the nineteen tribes and their language with its recondite Swahili-Polynesian roots. Like many Italians, he adores the tropics, and over years of growing prosperity has vacationed with his family and friends in the Bahamas, Thailand, Bali, and Tahiti.

He sees these places of coralline seas as a single landscape, flat as a Rousseau painting. A backdrop against which to bring to life his youthful adventure fantasies, rooted in his love for the pulp novels of Emilio Salgari, the best-selling nineteenth-century bard of the exotic. Salgari never actually traveled out of provincial Italy, but his fevered descriptions of Asian, African, and South American jungles and lagoons are as detailed as encyclopedias can make them. The author’s swashbuckling heroes, who battle headhunters in ancient temples, commandeer Moghul treasure ships, and rescue swooning heroines from seraglios, fired the imaginations of generations of boys in Latin countries—boys including Gabriel García Márquez, and Che Guevara. And Senna.

Added to these fantasies are yarns he has heard of Libertalia, a seventeenth-century colony said to have been founded in Madagascar by an idealistic crew of European pirates. Legend describes Libertalia as a raffish utopian settlement, in which all property was shared and all license allowed. What with dusky concubines, commodious bamboo residential huts, communal chests of gold, freed African slaves, and high-minded gentlemen buccaneers who frequently discoursed on the rights of man, Libertalia seems to have offered everything. But did it ever really exist? Senna likes to think it did.

“Think what you want,” says the Calabrian. “But true or false, the old story ends badly. The local Malagasy tribesmen get sick of the settlers and wipe out the colony in one night. Not a stick or a bone left. Happens over and over again in places like this.”

But Senna ignores this implied warning. The Calabrian, he reflects, hasn’t even had the brains to hang on to one cent of his family’s prewar coffee fortune.

Senna himself is a man who gets things done fast. He’s quite used to skipping cultural niceties and clinching overnight business deals with foreigners—often Chinese or Russian—using the internationally respected language of brutal haggling. Thus, he gains the startled admiration of Colonel Andrianasolo, and in record time has in hand an exquisitely hand-copied French-Malagasy deed of purchase for a swathe of beachfront with rice paddies and cane fields behind it.

Finoana Beach is not, as he first thought, empty. Behind the palms are two villages, Finoana and Renirano, full of fishermen and cane workers, and a whole network of life, complete with markets, a tiny mosque, a Catholic church, and a ramshackle French-built elementary school. To Senna, this means only that he’ll have more men for construction, at weekly wages that would barely pay for coffee for workmen back in Italy. So the house goes up with almost magical swiftness. The terrain has not been built on before, but has been extensively planted: coconut, mango, jackfruit, tamarind, banana, as well as flowers: jasmine, frangipani, hibiscus, ylang-ylang. The pleasure Senna derives from this profusion of color and fragrances leads him to christen the place Villa Gioia. Though he knows it’s a commonplace name, better suited to a second-rate pensione in Rimini, he reckons it will be the only one on this island.

He alone designs the house, though he works out a deal with a local construction kingpin, a Karan Indian from Diego Suarez, whose fleet of boutres, fat wooden schooners, swing into the bay to deliver concrete as well as timber from Madagascar’s shrinking forests. Senna is dizzied by the infinite possibilities offered by using First World money in a Third World country, one of the poorest on earth. Like a djinn out of the Arabian Nights, he summons up a structure of fanciful grandiosity, a pastiche of tropical styles from around the world. There is a soaring peaked roof suggesting a palm-thatched circus tent, inspired by the dramatic huts of Sumba, Indonesia; an interior with one end dominated by a grandly swung double staircase, like that in an Antiguan plantation house, rising to a mezzanine with a curving lineup of bedrooms; a sweep of open-plan ground floor separated from a wide veranda only by tall jalousies, like a certain inn in Trincomalee. At the garden entrance stand tree-trunk pillars carved with leering primitive faces—copied, Senna cheerfully admits, from a ride at Florida’s Disney World.

Like most big tropical residences, the place is a compound: breezeways lead to a separate kitchen and other outbuildings, including a bungalow for the house manager. But most striking is the expanse of floor that a visitor faces when entering. This floor is concrete: sanded, stained with many coats of iron-oxide paint, which, waxed and polished, acquires a warm maroon hue that glows in the shade of the cavernous roof almost like something alive. Because of it, nearby villagers immediately begin to call Villa Gioia ny trano mena—the Red House. La Maison Rouge. In any language, the appellation is such a natural fit that nobody, not even Senna, ever uses anything else, or after a short while even recalls that there was an earlier name.

Of course Senna’s acts of architectural hubris are minuscule in comparison to those of pharaohs, sultans, and Aztec kings. He brings his vision to life with the glee of an eighteenth-century English lord adding follies to his ancestral acres, or an American robber baron transplanting parts of dismembered chateaux to Newport. And in the end, mysteriously, it all works.

Though it could have looked cartoonish, the big roof rises with undeniable majesty above the feathery line of palms between the cane fields and the beach. Unlike anything built by the Sakalava, the Indian merchants, or the colonial French, it nevertheless appears plausible in that landscape, and Senna is delighted to see his creation up there against the sky. He isn’t a bad man; but after long years spent peddling irrigation valves, his soul is thrown off-balance by the possibilities of a country where he is not just a successful businessman, but a nabob.

So in a fit of arrogance he declares that he, Senna, won’t be guided by the broad hints of Colonel Andrianasolo and the local village headmen; will not inaugurate the new house with the customary feast for the construction workers, neighbors, and friends. Not until such time as he feels like it. Maybe never. And he will certainly never go to the trouble and expense of butchering a pair of black and white zebu bulls just to honor a lot of superstitious claptrap.

And so the islanders—the fishermen, charcoal burners, cane workers, hotel maids, gardeners, mechanics, market vendors, prostitutes, wood- carvers, middle-class shopkeepers, and professionals—observe this neglect of the proprieties without rancor, but with a sense of inevitable consequences. Particularly the Sakalava feel this way. They are the abiding ones, the teratany, residents essential to the place as volcanic bedrock, for generations washed over by the caprice and varied abuses of the vazaha, as they call the foreigners who come and go on the land. These locals know all about the disrespected dead, and they watch, unsurprised, as the Red House begins, even before it is furnished, to accumulate an evil atmosphere. It happens bit by bit, just as dust and litter build up in the corners of an unswept room.

And finally, as is so often the case, it becomes a woman’s job to clean things up.

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