Madagascar. There are so many delightful incongruities about the island. Despite being off the coast of Africa, because of the way the ocean currents work it was mainly settled by people from Borneo, 3,700 miles away — what Jared Diamond has described as ‘the single most astonishing fact of human geography’. For similar reasons, it is a biodiversity hotspot; more than 90 per cent of the wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth. And as one of the world’s largest islands, the sheer size can make it hard to assimilate. If ‘the Republic of Madagascar’, its formal title, were stretched out across Europe, the country would reach from London to Algiers.
The exoticism of both the name and location has always lent itself to enjoyably fanciful tales, whether in today’s animated series from DreamWorks — all too familiar for parents — or from Marco Polo in 1298, who claimed its gryphon birds were so large they could lift an elephant into the air. When Gerald Durrell stayed there in 1990, he reported that he kept lemurs in his hotel room and let them climb the curtains.
Step up John Gimlette for a bracingly fresh appraisal. He is a travel writer who has distinguished himself by taking on some of the world’s more recondite places, such as Paraguay, Guiana and Newfoundland. He is also a barrister, and his tone in the past has been alternately forensic, knowledgeable and witty as he has given each country its day in court.
Madagascar acquits itself well under questioning. It was a Jesuit missionary in 1613 who first noticed that the local language was curiously similar to Malay. Linguists have since pinned it down more precisely to a particular valley in Borneo, but quite why its inhabitants decided to travel right across the Indian Ocean in canoes some time around the time of the birth of Christ is unknown.
In the past we have heard little about its administration by the French as a colony from 1897 onwards, not least because they often did it admirably, which does not suit our narrative expectations. They abolished slavery — it is estimated there were half a million slaves on the island, almost a quarter of the population — and built the first roads.
But since independence in 1960, the company has struggled. Elections can be contested by up to 200 different political parties. And it’s not exactly as if the world is watching. At one point, Gimlette cross-examines a diplomat about the island’s current strategic importance. ‘Look,’ says the diplomat bluntly, ‘if Madagascar were simply to disappear, no one would even notice.’
Which is why we still need travel writers to bring back dispatches from such forgotten places. Gimlette is adept at mixing with both the lowlife and aristocrats of Malagasy life, from the malaso gangsters of the interior to the society ladies in the salons de thé at the capital’s venerable Hôtel Colbert, eating their heavy, dense croissants. Travelling through some of the sadly denuded forests — only 10 per cent of the original remains, so that in a nice phrase he describes it as ‘like driving through the mind of Paul Nash, a lustrous landscape of stumps and bone’ — he still sees bats that look like foxes and a wild collection of natural ‘limestone cathedrals’ clustered together at the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, their spires reaching 100 metres into the air.
This is a peculiarly handsome production. The publishers have not stinted, and it exemplifies the current trend where if a book is going to make it into hard covers it needs to try that much harder to impress. There are illustrations or full-colour photos on almost every page. The only marks off they get is for describing the book in the blurb as ‘insightful’, a dreadful neologism that is as vapid as it is unhelpful.
‘Approach the bench, publisher. What exactly do you mean by “insightful”? If you mean that it’s courageous, exploratory, humane and with a wry sense of humour, then just say so. But don’t waste the court’s time again.’