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Sunday, December 4, 2022

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

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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.

[ Return to the column on “Red Island House.” ]

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.

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