Crossing the Mangrove [1989/95] – ★★★★
Maryse Condé is an award-winning author from Guadeloupe, French overseas region, whose history, culture and tradition takes a centre stage in her book Crossing the Mangrove. In this simple narrative written from multiple perspectives, the usual life of people in one small village of Rivière au Sel is shuttered by the arrival of one handsome and enigmatic man from Cuba – Francis Sancher. Little is known about this talkative stranger, but he soon manages to bring out the very best and the very worst in villagers, being showered with love and hate alike. And, then, his unnatural death raises even more questions than his life ever did. Vividly and poetically, Condé presents to us a small community in one forgotten village torn by passions, jealousy and hopelessness, with its people being as ready to move forward with life as content to settle into permanent inaction. In the process, the author uncovers for us the very soul of Guadeloupe, beautiful, yes, but also as enigmatic, battered and toughened as the spirit of the central character.
In this story, a stranger arrives to one small village “in the middle of nowhere” and where “everybody knows each other’s business”. Francis Sancher’s appearance in Rivière au Sel causes an immediate furore: people harbour prejudice, but also become curious, and while some starts seething with hate, others develop a strange and irresistible attraction for the newcomer. In sum, the village’s “natural equilibrium” is broken, and we read about each villager’s personal dealings with the newcomer and their reactions to him. Their impressions are varied and that makes the “truth” even more confusing, the truth about Sancher’s life, but also the truth about his sudden and unnatural death. However, there is one thing that unites all these different impressions of people – none of them shows any indifference. They talk frankly to us, female and male, the old and the very young, the rich and the very poor, the educated and not, the most respected and the outcasts, people who have become either Sancher’s friends, lovers or enemies. We hear from bullied postman Moise, local beauty Mira, Mira’s angry brother Aristide, Cyrille, the storyteller, retired primary school teacher Leocadie Timothee, and from intellectual Lucien Evariste, among others. For many of these people, life has become a “runaway-train” with constant “disillusionment” stops and only sporadic moments of pleasure. The arrival of Francis Sancher is “a wake-up call” for this sleepy, self-engrossed community and nearly everyone springs into action. Sanches, representing the outside world, is like the “forbidden fruit” that just needs to be “tasted” somehow, be it by a fist-fight or love-making.
The translator of Crossing the Mangrove is Condé’s husband Richard Philcox and he took inspiration for his translative work from Virginia Woolf, admiring how in some of her novels “the narrator slips in and out of the characters’ lives”. Seeing it in this light, his work is a successful translation. It has neither the full-blown stream of consciousness narrative nor the chaotic narrative tradition of Alejo Carpentier (The Lost Steps ), but strikes somewhere in between and the poeticism of Condé does get through. Even the shortest and simplest of the author’s phrases and sentence have their desired effect, like “people will say anything”, saying nothing of her longer ones: “Love, like death, takes you by surprise. It does not march in beating the [drum]. Its foot slowly sinks into the soft earth of the heart…[Condé/Philcox, Penguin Random House: 1989/95, 2021: 35]; “Life’s problems are like trees. We see the trunk, we see the branches and the leaves. But we can’t see the roots, hidden deep down under the ground. And yet it’s their shape and nature and how far they dig into the slimy humus to search for water that we need to know. Then perhaps we would understand” [Condé/Philcox, Penguin Random House: 1989/95, 2021: 113].
Another book theme is the fragility inside every seemingly “tough” individual. Any person, region or country may present itself as “tough” and powerful, but even the most hardened of people often have the softest and most delicate cores – they need to be “hardened” to protect these centres, so is the place like Guadeloupe that did go through many changes: “…our country has changed. In times gone by, we knew nothing about the world and the world knew nothing about us. The fortunate few braved the sea to Martinique. Fort de France was on the other side of the world and everyone dreamed about gold in Guyana. Nowadays, there’s not a single family who doesn’t have one branch living in French France. People go off to visit Africa and America…the earth is as microscopic as a pinhead” [Condé/Philcox, Penguin Random House: 1989/95/2021: 90].
Those looking for concrete resolutions in the book may go away disappointed, and it is possible that Condé had in mind a larger novel but limited herself to a novella in the end, all meaning that the finished product is not altogether satisfying. Still, though the book does not reach the epic heights of such books as Texaco  or The God of Small Things , its narrative still feels significant and the story – important. Maryse Condé’s book camouflages as a murder-mystery, but it has designs to be more far-reaching as each of its characters and their “small” lives shed light not only on the complex, sometimes gossip-based, inter-connectedness that characterises any small community, but also into the very heart of a country still at odds with itself and its rich colonial history. In this way, each of its twenty characters functions as a “mirror”, portraying rural Guadeloupe in all its uncomfortable reality, rewarding patient and observant readers with surprising insights.