Translated from the French by ALLISON M. CHARETTE
The first time I tried to see Judge Florence, I employed the same strategy as most petitioners: I camped out at the entrance to the courthouse in the administrative district next to the lake in the capital to try and grab her as she walked in. But that just showed my ignorance of the winding, inner workings of the judicial system—as soon as the magistrate appeared, I was thoughtlessly shoved aside by at least thirty others racing toward her with similar ideas. The only glimpse I managed to catch of Florence was a wisp of jet-black hair and a flash of golden glasses slicing a path through the scrambling masses.
The day before, I’d gone in to ask her secretary for the earliest possible appointment. “First time here?” she’d asked, amused, scoffing at my outlandish request—her expert eye had easily gleaned that I held no position of power. “The judge schedules her own appointments. You’ll have to speak with her yourself.”
“How do I find her, then?”
“That’s your own problem. Waiting in front of the judge’s office is prohibited. Waiting in the hallway is also prohibited.”
“May I have her telephone number, then?”
All hints of levity vanished. The secretary glowered irritably, unwilling to tolerate my miserable presence for much longer. “The judge does not answer her phone. I’m the one who takes Her Honor’s calls, and I do not set appointments. Now, if you’re done, get out. Staying here is prohibited.”
I wanted to contact Judge Florence regarding quite a simple matter: I’d suffered dispossession of a little plot of land on a steep bluff that I’d inherited from a wealthy grandfather, a doctor at the Indigenous Medical Assistance Office. He’d received a substantial fortune from his own parents that he’d squandered on gambling, alcohol, and mistresses, in an attempt to erase the festering wounds and hemorrhagic fevers of his depressing day-to-day life. He’d been extremely successful: at the time of his passing, only a few forgotten strips of land remained, barely enough to plant a handful of beans.
But I had received my share of the modest inheritance. And in that period of drought in my literary production, I was sentimentally attached to the little plot, as measly and impractical as it was. Yet, despite the fact that I held a perfectly legal property title, some minor crook had come and swiped my land out from under me. An insolent intruder who’d greased some shady office worker’s palm in the property bureau to obtain a deed to my paltry parcel of land. This had become common practice, since the beginning of this post-revolutionary period. Everyone had been dazed by the attempt to unlearn the habits of ranting and raving against the impossible imperial enemy. The resulting poverty and governmental corruption had spawned breeding grounds for parasites of all stripes to fatten their own purses by selling other people’s belongings. Decades of shady deals cast perpetual suspicion on anything that even vaguely resembled a property deed. If truth be told, it was wiser not to own anything at all.
“Don’t worry about it!” one of my journalist friends had reassured me when I’d bemoaned my fate. “I know a judge who can get you out of this mess for cheap. She’s very influential. Go see her, tell her I sent you.” He’d needed the magistrate’s services himself when one of his cousins had run over a homeless family. His cousin, just a kid, really, had nodded off at the wheel on his way home from a night of boozing, driven off the road, and run over one of those makeshift tents that have been crammed onto our filthy sidewalks. He’d been driving Daddy’s enormous SUV, so the pregnant woman and the two ragamuffins she’d stuffed into the tent had been completely flattened. The driver kid had fled, terrified of being ripped to shreds by the mob of plebes.
But, as my journalist buddy recounted, Florence had handled the affair with dexterity. The trial was postponed three or four times while everyone calmed down, and eventually scheduled for “Saint GlinGlin’s Day”—the catch-all saint, especially venerated in the judicial world. On the day of the trial, the hordes of stubborn homeless bums who’d withstood all the litigious delays were firmly rebuffed, after rushing the courthouse to heckle the driver (since they hadn’t gotten a chance to disembowel him before). Under Florence’s instructions, the interrogation experts dragged the noisy rabble outside and broke some teeth and a couple of toes, to teach them all a lesson. As that occurred, she pressed on negotiating with the victims’ family—though they had no choice, of course, so effectively does poverty rend its world. And truth was, no one even knew what starving country the woman had come from, nor who had fathered the little urchins. In the end, a drunkard former husband surfaced, as well as a scrofulous aunt. The rich coughed up a few bills, the flattener was admonished by the magistrate, and the case was closed.
“Your Honor! Your Honor! A moment of your time, please! Please, I’ve been sent by—”
I’d decided to grab the zebu by the horns and was systematically besieging every place where the woman had the slightest chance of turning up. But it was all in vain—she was constantly hounded by charity cases and never once deigned to glance in my direction.
As for my media friend’s recommendation, I could have said I’d been sent by the pope himself and had just as much success. But he was adamant: “You’re going about it all wrong. You didn’t really think you’d be able to stop a judge in the hallway and ask her price? That’s patently absurd! If you’re not rich or powerful, my friend, you have to play the community card.”
“If you look hard enough, you’ll find that the two of you share many communal values.”
The first community I was given to mingle in at the same time as Florence was an assembly of talon-sharp legal minds the following week. That was back when colloquiums, symposia, roundtables, and such were all the rage in our fair city, rivaling the diligence of other gatherings of the mind financed by the World Bank and other houses of do-goodery. Anyone who was anyone was an especially eager attendee, as ideas were served up by the bowlful and discussions by the barrelful, in order to squeeze out a couple promises that couldn’t have been more pious if they’d been made by Mother Teresa herself.
My esteemed magistrate herself spoke during this 187th workshop on corruption, delivering a talk with some exotic title or another. Many judicial old boys had turned up, jabbering jovially away as they crowded around the refreshments and petit-fours at the break.
“Wasn’t that marvelous, my friend? That bit about the globalization of skills?”
“You said it, man. Hey, watch out for your cholesterol—I saw you sneaking a beignet back there, big guy.”
Florence’s talk had centered around community and delivering proper justice. She’d reached an emotional climax as she described familial solidarity toward legal accountability, which touched her audience and garnered her warm acclamation.
“Brava, my sweet! That was simply transporting! I was getting all misty-eyed. Where did you come up with all of that?”
Florence gave her fond supporters a modest smile. From within the crush of her peers, a tall debonair man winked wildly at her: a veteran of expropriations, he’d recently had several villages razed for a financial speculator. Another gentleman, discreet and distinguished, shook her hand warmly: he was expected to be nominated to the High Court shortly, after his feat of bringing down an entire corporation on behalf of some of its cleverer debtors. A third, with elegant dress and colorful speech, patted her shoulder and whispered a few humorous snippets in her ear: he was an old bigwig from the era of monomaniacal socialism, renowned in his day for getting scads of journalists, students, and teachers thrown behind bars.
But Florence was also inspiring the new generation, and was thus also flattered by a young man, fresh out of the École and already making a name for himself with his conquests—he’d already gotten one of his political opponents locked up in a speedy, shining example of a trial.
Her audience had found the conclusion of her lecture to be particularly moving in its eloquence: “Justice must be a refuge for the weak, and the palace of justice must bear witness to our values. When we are faced with the winds and torrents of destiny, it is the strong male rock of truth and the collective breast to suckle from. Let us be attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable ones among us, even as we pave the way for generations to come. Let us fully integrate the wisdom and solidarity of our community, so that we may finally comprehend the subtle murmuring of our deepest selves, blah blah blah…”
Florence R. had been born to a poor but respectable family. Her difficult childhood had left her with two things: profound nostalgia and dogged ambition. A sharp, intelligent young woman, she’d flown through high school and started law school early, where she sunk her talons into the son of a well-to-do family. Their whirlwind romance had culminated in a lavish wedding, a happy ending like in those daily noontime radio dramas that make every housekeeper in our fair city go gaga. Now, in her mature age, the magistrate took every opportunity to boast about her wretched childhood to her inner circles.
In a stroke of luck, my then-girlfriend’s brother-in-law’s nephew’s uncle was also one of her cousins. “She’s an extraordinary woman!” he gushed as soon as I mentioned her. “Her sense of family is simply inspirational. She’d do anything for family.”
“Really?” I said, my interest piqued.
“Come see her next Saturday at our annual clan reunion—you’re part of the family, aren’t you?”
The clan reunion was incredibly laid-back: a picnic lunch and drinks for the adults, romping through the countryside for the children. But it was so organized! A beautiful young woman welcomed and pampered us, doling out colorful name tags. It was a microcosm of society governed by volunteer committees and sub-committees, each one more zealous than the next. I found myself with a glass of very good scotch in hand, served by a group of look-alike babes who addressed me rather endearingly as “Uncle.” It all felt like a kind of sweet revenge on the great pigsty that ruled the outside world.
And then, she was right there next to me. “So, you’re a poet!” she probed airily. “Could you pen a few couplets for the benefit of the public on one’s duty to community?”
“Why not?” I replied as prudently as I could.
Florence took my arm to make the rounds. “Look at how much we’ve grown, so much larger! Branches of the family tree that had been lost for two generations have returned to us.” She looked out over the crowd with pleasure. “We’re encouraging those who have strayed from the family tree to return and meet their relatives, their kin. It’s so important to know where we come from, what values we share. Memory and tradition should not be merely some abstract doctrine.”
As we walked along, youngsters flocked from all around to kiss her and bid her an affectionate “Hello, Auntie.”
“That one is one of R.’s great-grandsons, and the other is a descendant of R.’s second wife,” she explained. “Such charming children, such good stock. Loyalty to one’s bloodline should be our primary instinct in this changing world, so we don’t lose our souls. Some people,” she continued with a whiff of disappointment, “they think they’re clever enough to succeed on their own, sparing no thought for where they came from. But they all come back in the end, licking their wounds.”
She stopped suddenly and smiled, as if struck by a lovely thought. “Did you know we’ll be getting together with all the other families in the A. clan next January? It will be a remarkable event! Almost three thousand of our kin will be there, we’ll cover the hillsides! Such an enormous lineage!”
Then, abruptly, her eyes flashed through me: “Why did you want to talk to me?”
“Uh, I just, that is, I wanted… What I mean is, it’s a small thing, fairly insignificant, really, almost nothing…”
“In regards to money?” she leered.
“Well, to tell you the truth, I mean, it’s not directly related to that, you know. But I’m also very interested in—”
She grabbed my arm like a schoolmarm snatching a mischievous little rascal by the ear. “Don’t you dare talk of money in a family setting, do you understand? Not ever. Money is nothing, absolutely nothing! It’s unworthy of even a name. It’s offensive to the mind. Come and see me at the house one of these days, we’ll chat then.”
She left me with an indulgent wave of a mother leaving her little one with his little friends.
Then there was Judge Florence’s husband, Julien. He had made his fortune by schmoozing with the thugs in power. He grew up in a wealthy hardware family, but had forged his own path into the shady world of the regime’s vetted friends, where whole clans got to feast on a glut of juicy governmental contracts. Julien had built his own personal brand of tropical mafia, parading around at the head of a communications agency that spewed a lot of hot air. His sons farted around the city in BMWs and dark sunglasses, spending Daddy’s cash and waiting for their paunch to come in so they could try their hand at politics. The family members were stalwart parishioners of the old A. church, where Florence served as deacon for the Sunday services.
“She is a pillar of our church community,” Julien affirmed to me. “We’re very active there, but we haven’t taken over like some people do. I say that only because I know some people who use the church for other purposes entirely.”
“Well yeah, kid. What planet are you from?” He lowered his voice and nudged me, looking revolted. “Some people put millions in the collection plate, just for the attention. Can you imagine? But that’s not our style. In fact, Florence forbids us from talking about money at these gatherings—we’re nothing like those types of people, thank God. Man, she’s an upstanding woman!”
Julien went on to tell me about how his wife had revived the whole family association fifteen years ago, just as it had been falling apart.
“Traditions and family and all that, it’s really her thing, you know? She loves being surrounded by her kin, she has a very strong sense of bloodline. She loves helping people. I’ll admit, I’m not like that, I’m more about straight-talking business. Occupational hazard, haha! But to each their own version of the good life, right? Someone has to earn some cash and keep the shop open!”
“Especially since, just between you and me, most of these people aren’t the brightest bulbs in the bunch. Can’t earn ten cents, they just stagnate, abysmally so. Makes you a parasite… We really had to drag some of ‘em out of the gutter, you know? So wild, so desperate, they just bite the hand that feeds them.”
A young woman came up with some swill and snacks, and Julien winked at her. “Well look at daddy’s little girl, aren’t you just a sight for sore eyes!” he simpered, with all the grace and charm of an old zebu bull. “What’s your name again, honeybuns? How old are you now? These kids are growing up so fast, it’s nuts.”
He gave daddy’s little girl a smack on the rear, making her titter.
The festive community picnic was starting to wrap up as night fell, with the usual quota of plastered husbands and other rowdy exits. Teenagers were still moshing to house rock ‘n’ roll thumping out at egregious decibel levels under the tender gaze of Florence and her Jules, who’d drunk enough to strike the pose of a fat lord, sagging and preening as his subjects feasted.
“Bravo! Hurrah! Well played, my boy! Grab her ass, that little skank! Did you see that, Mama?” he cried, wrapping his arm tenderly around his better half, who was, even so, a little annoyed at such excess.
And yet, as I was preparing to take my leave, Julien still shouted over to me with a wink and a broad smile. “Come and see us at the house, my boy! We’ll have a drink and talk. Mama would be thrilled, right, Mama?”
Two days later, at the judge’s house, a huge colonial-era residence, a young servant showed me to a door off to the side with a cheeky grin: “Wait in the drawing room, sir. Madame’s on her way.”
“Thanks, man. Does she get a lot of visitors?”
“Yessir. Butcha can’t wait in the courtyard, sir. Gotta wait in the drawing room.”
I obeyed and checked the place out, which was larger and more luxurious than an Ottoman palace. The servant was whistling as he left, but shrieked before he’d taken three steps out the door. Some brute was throttling his neck and shaking him like a mango tree.
“I’ve told you a thousand times, you moron, you can’t just let any random stranger inside! Are you deaf or something?” Then, barking into the room: “Hey! You there, who are you here to see? Do you have an appointment?! Oh, it’s you. Sorry, I hadn’t recognized you.” It was Julien. The servant dashed off without waiting to be told.
“You can’t trust anyone these days, you know,” Julien said, eying the folder under my arm. “Make yourself at home, Florence shouldn’t be long. Would you like some coffee or tea while you wait? No? Then, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few things to take care of.”
As I, too, checked the things I’d brought in the folder, I saw him outside, sweaty and flushed, chasing the servant around, a leg swinging at his rear end.
“How is it that we’ve so rarely seen you at the reunions of our bloodline?” Florence didn’t mince words.
“Well, to tell you the truth—”
“We get so many families who only come around to beg!” Her voice was hard as steel. “They think all they have to do is pull their family strings in order to fix their pathetic problems. They’ve got this idea in their heads that it’s the duty of the bloodline to come to their aid and resolve their sordid little affairs, when they’ve never spent a drop of their own saliva or broken the slightest hint of a sweat to restore the family dignity. What have you done for the community?”
“I was hoping for a paragraph, a few lines, a couple words! And what did I get? Nothing!”
“I’m sorry?” I blanked. “What was I supposed to—”
“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about!!” she exploded. “Your pathetic eyes had the privilege of seeing an ancient tree in bud, your meaty ears heard the sacred song of a nation being born, but your crippled mind is too ignorant to glean more than a few paltry ideas, not even fit for a dog! To think that, in my weakness, I put some hope in you! I dug through all of today’s and yesterday’s papers looking for an article, even one brief, understated word under your name. Nothing. What’ve you got there?”
She sprang to her feet and snatched the folder where I’d filed all my property deeds. “What’s all this? I should have known. You’re all the same, you only think of money, money, nothing but money. Take this up with my secretary at the office,” she sighed, horribly disappointed, as she sent me away.
Julien was still in the courtyard and insisted on walking me to the gate.
“Sorry for the little incident back there. I hope you won’t make a poem out of it!” He looked pointedly at me as he laughed.
“That poor boy, life hasn’t been good to him, you know…”
“What boy?” My mind was elsewhere.
“He’s an orphan, he doesn’t have anyone else in the world. You understand, we’re just trying to help him. But those people, they lack education, and they can never overcome that.” He chuckled. “He’s a lucky devil, you know.”
“Yeah, there was one night that he only survived because, get this—he had diarrhea! It’d be surprising if he didn’t, you know, with the garbage those people eat…”
“A huge SUV drove over the hellhole where he normally would have been sleeping! Flattened his whole family. Haha!” Julien doubled over laughing, clapping me hard on the back as a farewell.
The secretary shook her head.
“I wasn’t informed of anything.”
“What? Are you sure? I have to talk to her. Where’s her office?”
“Waiting in front of the judge’s office is prohibited. Waiting in the hallway is also prohibited. Now, if you’re done, get out. Staying here is prohibited.”
Naivo is a journalist, novelist, and scholar from Madagascar. His historical novel Beyond the Rice Fields (Restless Books, 2017), about the devastating effects that colonialism wrought upon the country in the early nineteenth century, is the first novel from Madagascar ever to be translated into English. Naivo is also the author of the collection of stories Madagascar entre poivre et vanilla: Petits portraits à plume débridée. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.
Allison M. Charette translates mostly fiction by Malagasy authors Michèle Rakotoson, Johary Ravaloson, Raharimanana, and others. She founded ELTNA.org, a networking and support group for early-career translators, and has received both an NEA Literary Translation Fellowship and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Her other translations include graphic novels and children’s books. Find her online at charettetranslations.com.