The Multi-Talented Monsieur Zily
(not your run of the mill underdog short story)
By Soamiely Andriamananjara
The sun was still at the upper edge of the cracked window when my buddy Rojo and I ordered our first bottles of ice-cold ‘Three Horses Beer’. We were both thirsty.
It was half way down the window frame when we ordered the fifth and sixth bottles. We also ordered some zebu meatballs served in a hot peanut sauce, and some cassava fries to nibble on. We were both a bit tipsy. We wanted to sing but could not agree on the song. He only wanted to sing ‘Mahaleo’, I just wanted ‘Lolo sy ny Tariny’. So we talked and argued instead.
By the time the sun had reached the lower edge of the window, we had finished four more bottles, disputed and made up twice, yelled at each other some more, and politely asked by the barmaid to keep it down.
When we refused to lower our voices, she did what she was instructed to do. She called Monsieur Zily.
Monsieur Zily was someone who rarely leaves you indifferent. He would leave a deep impression even if you just met him for two minutes. Well, Rojo and I have known him for pretty much all our lives.
The three of us have been classmates since elementary school. For as long as I can remember, I have always admired, respected, loved, and feared the guy. At this particular moment, I was a bit scared of him.
Although we have been buddies, we have taken on the habit of calling him Monsieur Zily, just as his staff called him, out of respect. Partly, out of love. Maybe, a bit out of fear. Very few people called him by his real name, Jules.
He comes from a modest middle class family. Decent, hard working folks. His father, an engineer, was a mid-level civil servant at the Ministry of Public Works. His mother occasionally taught high school in Malagasy. He was the oldest of four siblings—three boys and one girl.
It is sometimes asserted that you can either respect and fear someone, or you can respect and love them, but you cannot both fear and love them at the same time. Monsieur Zily was an exception to that rule.
He was actually not a big man. He was about my size. Though he had an athletic build, there was nothing physically threatening about him.
And he was good-looking. There was something rather different about him. Perhaps, it was the intensity in his gaze. Or, the confidence in his manners. Or, the energy in his gait. Or, maybe it was his bright shiny smile. Anyway, there was something quite unique about him that either attracted or intimidated you.
At school, Monsieur Zily excelled in everything. Whether in physics, mathematics, writing, sport, the arts – he would consistently outperform us. Name any school-wide contest or even city-wide competition: if his name was not at the top, then he would for sure be second. And he made it all look so effortless and easy.
“Look at that lucky bastard!” Rojo would whisper as our multi-talented comrade accumulated awards after awards for academic, artistic, and athletic excellence.
“Is there anything that he sucks at?” I would sometimes wonder.
Monsieur Zily was Mister Popular in high school. Teachers liked him for his academic skills. Girls were attracted to him for his intelligence and for being admired by other guys. And guys admired him for his athletic prowess and for his ability to attract girls.
He was the captain and the star player of the basketball team and president of the science club. Over the years, he had drawn quite an entourage, which consisted of a constellation of geeks, jocks, nerds, and groupies.
All of that admiration and adoration naturally came with a degree of envy and jealousy; sometimes even resentment. I must confess, there were occasions when I felt some hostility towards Monsieur Zily. Not because he was a bad guy, but because of his tendency to outshine and eclipse us in everything.
Monsieur Zily was generally a decent and correct dude. Once in a while, however, he would assume a cocky, smug and arrogant attitude that, I believe, comes with excelling-in-everything. He would walk around with sheer confidence and would intimidate people. As far as I know, he was never really a full-fledged bully, of the violent variety. Still, his attitude often made me feel a bit uneasy. A bit scared.
He was a very direct and straight shooter. What you saw was what you got—no ambiguities. If he liked you, he could be really nice and sweet: very helpful and even protective. But if you happened to be on his wrong side, then … Let’s just say you did not want to be on his wrong side. He could make your life miserable.
Messing around with Baholy
I was an average student in high school. I was never one to seek out or enjoy the limelight. I rather liked my position somewhere in the shadowy middle of the pack. Not too close to the front to be called a show-off. But not too far in the back to be called inept. In this beautiful city of Antananarivo it is frowned upon to stand out too much. You need to stay close to the pack.
There is just something comfortable about the anonymity of being average. And I enjoyed that. Sometimes though, I craved for a bit of sunshine. Sometimes, I would get this urge to step out of the shade and get a bit of recognition—to find my own place in the sun. Those were the times when I resented Monsieur Zily’s comprehensive dominance the most.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to do everything well and become multi-skilled like him? Wouldn’t it be nice to kick his butt for once?” I would ask my friends wistfully, with a barely hidden amount of envy. How many times had I wished to eclipse the sun and spread my own warm and coloUrful rays over the world?
Back then, I had my own troupe de choc. We were just a group of “average” friends who shared the same backgrounds and enjoyed each other’s company. The five or six of us did not mingle much with Monsieur Zily’s “cool crowd.” We preferred to observe them from afar. I guess we did not want to get burned by flying too close to the sun.
For the record, I did get burned once. Not because I flew too close to the sun. But because I messed around with the sun’s favourite planet. In case you did not get the solar metaphor, I am talking about his girlfriend–Baholy. She was actually the one who messed with me.
It all stared one afternoon, after school. Monsieur Zily was not around that day. Baholy asked me if I could walk her home. There was no sun; it was dark and raining cats and dogs. Boy has an umbrella, girl does not. Just like in the movies. Romantic movies.
What was I supposed to do? Let this pretty girl walk home alone in the torrential rain? What was I thinking? Did I think I was going to get away with it? Maybe it was my own clumsy way to try to outshine him for a change. Big mistake.
Before judging me, please consider the context. I was fifteen then. I knew very little about girls. I had no idea how to control my raging hormones. Long story short, I got some serious thrashings when Monsieur Zily found out.
I did not hold grudges. Neither did he. But somehow, I still remember those beatings and those daroka until today. I still remember the humiliation of being dragged around in the mud. In public. In front of Baholy. Afa-baraka!
That episode has left some physical and emotional scars.
Dadatoa Delacroix and His Friends
With hindsight, being in same class as Monsieur Zily has motivated the rest of us to work harder. It challenged us to do the best we could. At the very least, our desire to be like him made us more aware of our limitations and our potential.
Personally, I had long come to terms with the fact that I will never become like the multi-skilled Monsieur Zily. Instead, I would choose one single task or a line of work that I like and try to excel at it. No use trying to do everything mediocrely. As they say: “Better to be a one-trick pony than a jack-of-all-trade-but-master-of-none.”
Mindful of my own limitations, I embarked on a personal quest for my “one-trick”. It has not been a smooth journey. After high school, I was not particularly proficient at anything. I tried many different things to find my true calling. I tried to be a farmer. I attempted to become a pilot. For a while, I was even enrolled in the military academy. I have met my share of setbacks and disappointment. Along the way, I have learned the value of persistence, and the virtue of hard work.
But hard work by itself would not have been enough. One day, my mother advised me to talk to her brother, Dadatoa Delacroix, who apparently knows a thing or two about a thing or two.
He introduced me to some important people in the food service industry: wholesalers, food inspectors, suppliers, government officials, service providers and even some suspicious looking characters. And the rest, as they say, was history.
The system was definitely biased in my favour. I have come to realise that, in this city, who you know matters much more than what you know. Without the right contacts, your talents will not take you very far.
All of a sudden, doors closed to others were thrown wide open for me. Ladders not available to others were pushed under my feet, for me to climb on to the upper station. Though I resented this aspect of our society, which I considered unfair and unjust, I took full advantage of these privileges without a second thought.
The stars were nicely aligned for me. I have found my “one-trick.” I quickly became a successful restauranteur. I owned a high-end restaurant, “Le Kaly Tsara,” in the city’s Old Town neighbourhood. We serve an eclectic selection of comfort food from a wide variety of cuisines. People seem to like it, especially the rice porridge with anana; served piping hot with deep-fried slices of fatty pork sausages; then washed down with a glass of our famous rhum arrangé, infused with vanilla and a spicy hint of cinnamon.
I was also in the process of starting a new Americano-Malagasy bistro in another chic neighbourhood, up the hill, near the Queen’s Palace. It did not hurt that I had just inherited a nice piece of real estate from a wealthy —God bless her weak heart—dead, childless grandaunt.
Long time no see
Things apparently were not going as well for Monsieur Zily. After high school graduation, he went on to study physics and mathematics at the City University. But he could not decide what to do with his multiple talents and skills. No matter how hard he tried, he could not stick to one particular subject.
He had initially wanted to be an engineer like his father, but then he changed his mind. Then, he wanted to be a lawyer, but ended up not liking it. He learned different languages. He even became an accomplished oenologist, but could not stay away too long from the city. Each time, he felt that he was not living up to his full potential.
One day, he showed up at “Le Kaly Tsara.” He was working as a tour guide at the time, and brought in some of his vazaha clients to taste our world famous slow-cooked pigs feet and voanjo-bory.
He looked different. He had a moustache now. His hair had turned greyish. He had lost quite a bit of weight. His former confidence and self-assured gait were gone. He was wearing a neat but threadbare shirt. He did not look good.
“Long time no see!” I greeted him warmly with a firm handshake. “You are looking good!” What was I supposed to say? “What have you been up to?”
“Nice to see you too!” Monsieur Zily replied. “You seem to be doing really well!”
We got to talk. He told me about how he had spent almost five years wandering aimlessly from job to job. The irony was not lost on me: It was his strength—his versatility—for which he was so admired, that stopped him from thriving.
Honestly, I have always thought that among my school cohorts, he was easily the most likely to be successful in life.
Paying favours forward
For a fraction of a second, I remembered all those times when he outshined us. There was in front of me someone who used to intimidate and scare me, someone who was always better than me, someone who had once humiliated me in public. Now, for once, it looked like I have been dealt a better hand. For that fraction of a second, I could taste the sweet taste of revenge in my mouth.
I thought of my trajectory. I thought of Monsieur Zily’s. We have been through similar wandering journeys but arrived at very different destinations. Call it tody, lahatra, or karma. I guess life works in an odd ways sometimes. Perhaps, this was just life’s manner of evening things out.
I did not know if it was decency taking over, or if it was me trying to be a good person, but I began to feel some level of sympathy for him. Instead of feeling the urge to kick him while he was down—tsindrio fa lavo—I felt sad for him. This may sound a bit condescending, but I wanted to lend a hand.
Unlike him, I had the chance of having Dadatoa Delacroix and his network of friends open some doors for me to get to where I am. They offered me a ladder when I needed one. As part of the social contract, I am required to repay them at some point in the future. Such reciprocal atero ka alao has always been the norm in the city. Fair enough.
For the favours they have granted me, I will be forever grateful and I will surely repay. But not right now. To repay them back at that point would only perpetuate the rigidities that I considered unjust. Plus, I was sure my generous benefactors could afford to wait a bit longer.
Some would probably consider me ingrate, but at that very moment, I just felt more comfortable paying the favours forward, by helping someone that really needed favours. I decided that I would rather open a door and provide a ladder to someone who really needed a break.
The Jack of All Trades
“How would you like to be the manager, to run the day to day operations of my new bistro?” I looked him in the eyes and made him the offer right there. Without overthinking the issue.
“Wow! Are you serious?” Monsieur Zily asked, visibly stunned. He had not seen that coming.
“I am deadly serious.” I assured him. “I really need someone of your caliber. Someone versatile who excels in a lot of things. And I need someone that I can trust.” I have known him for a long time, we have had our differences, but I always believed that he was an honest and trustworthy guy.
Then I went on. “I have been given some breaks to get to where I am. I now feel like it is my turn to give someone else a break. You deserve it more than anyone else I know.”
I think that deep down, at a subconscious level, to have the most popular guy in high school as my employee was a non-negligible factor behind the offer. Even deeper in darkest part of my soul: this was my opportunity to finally fulfill my high-school dream of outshining the sun.
We talked for about another ten minutes. Then, we shook hands: after setting out some conditions, he gladly accepted my offer. We decided to name the bistro “The Jack of All Trades.”
That was probably one of the best impulsive decisions I have made as a businessman. Monsieur Zily is a great manager, with a knack for always getting things done. With a minimal amount of guidance and supervision, he now competently manages not only the administrative aspects of the whole operation, but also the culinary aspects of the bar and the kitchen.
Most importantly, he really loves the job since it allows him to showcase his multitude of talents and skills. He gets to speak Spanish and German to the customers. He gets to personally design the bistro’s wine selection. Sometimes, he even gets to entertain the patrons with his jazz ensemble.
Monsieur Zily and I have since become quite close. He is always a pleasure to have around. He is an excellent gourmet cook, a published novelist, a polyglot, and a competitive tennis player. Basically, he has become a well-rounded son of a gun. A true renaissance man.
Epilogue (sort of)
Whenever Rojo is nervous or bored, he tells stupid jokes. He was telling me a joke about a priest and a president, that I did not find funny when Monsieur Zily finally arrived at our table.
Per his instructions, the barmaid had refused to serve us any more beer. She was busy flirting with a couple of idiots at the bar. The happy-hour crowd had started to trickle in.
The sun was continuing its inexorable descent towards the horizon. My beer buzz had completely vanished now. I was thirsty. And I was as sober as an alligator.
“Why can’t you guys behave like normal people?” Monsieur Zily admonished Rojo and me.
He spoke very calmly, but you could see from his eyes that he was not happy. During business hours, the bistro was his kingdom and nobody, not even myself as the owner, had the right to mess with his kingdom. He was adamant about that. I have always tried to respect that special arrangement between the two of us.
“Sorry, dude,” I ventured to say. “Things just got out of control. One beer led to another, you know. It won’t happen again!” I knew better than making eye contact in such situation. After all these years, he still makes me nervous. Don’t ask me why. He just does.
“Let’s try to keep it down, guys. You are scaring away my customers! Why don’t you drink some water or some juice for a while.”
“Yes, Monsieur Zily,” we replied. Still subdued. We ordered some fresh tamarind juice and some spicy sambosas and masikita to munch on.
I watched Monsieur Zily as he walked briskly towards the bar to relay our orders to the barmaid. Just before he stepped into his private office behind the bar, he turned around and our eyes met briefly. He smiled. Then, he was gone. We were cool. All is forgiven.
The sun was now spreading its last bright red rays through the horizon. I always enjoyed watching those beautiful sunsets through the cracked windows of “The Jack of All Trades” balcony.
In a couple of minutes, the sun would be gone. Soon, the moon and the stars would be up, it would be their turn to shine.
Soamiely Andriamananjara grew up in Antananarivo, Madagascar. He now lives in Washington, DC with his wonderful wife Mialy who is also a writer and their two cool kids Ranja and Soa. An economist by training and profession, and a writer by passion, he writes in Malagasy, French and English on various social, economic, and political issues that are relevant to Madagascar. He is, among other things, an op-ed columnist for the ‘AmCham Post’ (in L’express de Madagascar) and for Madagascar Tribune.
His first book Ambony Ambany (a collection of short essays) came out in 2014. Another collection Vakio Milamina was released in October 2015. He is currently working on a novel about the adventures of an overachieving Malagasy underdog set to take over the world. Soamiely draws on the complexities and lyricism of the Malagasy language to bring a rarely glimpsed world to Anglophone readers.
Some of his writings can be read at: http://medium.com/@soamiely”