The Gardens Of Mars by John Gimlette

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Having been a frequent visitor to Jersey and the zoo there for the past thirty years, the first thing that always comes to mind when I hear about Madagascar is lemurs. These fine creatures are a relative of the monkey that were separated when the landmass drifted away from the African continent and they evolved separately. The other thing that comes to mind is that exotic fruit of the orchid, vanilla. Apart from that, I knew almost nothing else about the place.

It is a unique place and huge too. It is the fourth largest island on the planet and if it was overlaid on Europe, it would stretch from London to Algiers. It had split from the Indian subcontinent around 88 million years ago and a lot of the creatures and wildlife evolved in isolation so over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on our planet. It is largely undeveloped at the moment and only has a small number of metaled roads, the rest often end up as quagmire.

It is a place that John Gimlette had been to before, but he was here again for three months to see what made the place tick. He arrived in the capital, Antananarivo in the middle of an outbreak of bubonic plague. It was sobering stuff, but he then hears that it is a regular occurrence and doesn’t affect many people and then other rumours saying that it was nothing and the government had done very nicely out of the donations from other countries. The city is 4000 feet up in the highlands and to him, it sometimes feels like a slightly sleepy town in the middle of France and at other time a bustling Asian slum. He heads out every day into a different part of the city, walking the streets to get a feel for the character of the place. He is not trying to get lost and if he is a little disorientated then glancing up to see where the Rova, the burnt-out palace, helps hi find his way again.

Heading out of the city, he is keen to see more of the countryside, though it is described as being like the 12th Century is certain places. It is not quite the badlands out there, but he hears stories of the Vazimba, the super ancestors and ghosts that blur the lines between history and myth and are said to inhabit every dark corner, waiting for revenge. Like the people who first inhabited this island and how they got there from across the Indian ocean, it is a mystery that makes little sense.

I was suddenly very happy to be here, wherever I was. All In knew was that I’d reached the very end of Madagascar (although at that moment, it felt like the end of the earth).

The south-west of the country feel like the wild west, it is sparsely populated and ahs been under the control of various warring tribes. There is only one town of any size, Toliara, and it suffers from droughts, scorpions, locusts, termites and even the plants are spiky. He was warned about going, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. The people in the town seemed remarkably happy, probably as the rainy season had finished and they had dry weather for the next six months. They do suffer from raids by the malaso, gangs that steal everything from the locals who had precious little to start with anyway.

Back in the 1680s St Mary’s Island, just off Madagascar was home to around 1000 gangsters and criminals; under normal circumstances, it would be full of Europeans sitting on the beach until it was time to travel back home again. It doesn’t quite feel like the mainland either, he is one moment eating a roast crab and is then whisked off to visit the dead with his guide, Fidele or to see a shrine of several hundred pens, created by students seeking luck in their exams.

It is a strange country. He had got used to it after being there for a while, but when his is joined by his wife and daughter on the wonderfully named island of Nosy Be. They watched in silent disbelief as hey passed fishermen singing as they worked and saw naked men cupping their balls in one hand whilst waving with the other. It never seemed to make sense, but then neither did it have to.

Sometimes in Madagascar you wonder whether it is you going mad, or everyone else.

I have read Wild Coast by John Gimlette a while ago now and thought it was an excellent book about Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. This is a part of the world that very few people know little about. He takes on Madagascar in a similar way, taking the time to get to know the places, history and most of all the people of this vast island and this book is as excellent as Wild Coast. He does not pass judgement on the people and their activities, rather choosing to observe and then try to make sense of things as he writes them down. He writes in such a way that you feel alongside him being bumped along in the same car, walking the dunes as the sun sets, or chuckling at the street names in the town together. It is a beautifully produced book too, scattered throughout are excellent photos of the island landscape, significant places that he visited and most importantly the people of this fine country. The cover is stunning and I must say it had superb colour maps of the regions that he visits helping put it all in context. A must-read book on Madagascar.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    Ooh, this sounds excellent, and 5/5 from you, too!

    • Paul

      It was. I have his book on Sri Lanka to read too at some point. I try not to give 5 stars too often!

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