On Prejudices and Impressions

It was through the leadup to the announcement of the 2018/2019 Nobel Prize in Literature that I first encountered Maryse Condé. I cannot recall coming across her name in any of the must-read lists I have perused. It was her name, however, that first caught my attention as she was constantly mentioned as a shoo-in for the award. Due to the belated announcement of the 2018 winner – announced in 2019 – an alternate award to the Nobel Prize in Literature, The New Academy Prize in Literature was conferred to Condé I’m 2018. But as fate would have it, Condé was not announced the winner; the honors went to Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk for 2018 and to Austrian writer Peter Handke for 2019. As I would later on learn, it was just the Swedish Academy being the Swedish Academy. Nonetheless, this encounter with Condé was enough to pique my interest and without ado, I was on the lookout for her works.

During the 2020 Big Bad Wolf Book Fair, I chanced upon a copy of Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove, a pleasant surprise. It was the only copy of the book I found in the pile. I guess you can call it destiny. Unfortunately, I was not able to read the book in 2020 but I made sure to include it in my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. I was finally able to read the book in April 2021 as part of my first-ever Latin American Literature Month. Set in the Guadeloupean village of Rivière au Sel, Crossing the Mangrove commenced in a most unusual manner. The lifeless body of Francis Sancher, long considered an outsider by the villagers, was found dead, “face down in the sticky mud”. As was ubiquitous in small villages, the news traveled fast and in the minds of the villagers, a question started to crystallize: who killed Sancher?

That would be the first question that would inevitably come to the reader’s mind. However, another similarly important question needed to be asked: who is Francis Sancher? As the villagers gathered around for his wake, details of who he is started floating to the surface. Through the various points of view and the introspections of the villagers, Condé started to build Sancher’s profile. We learn that Sancher was not originally from the village. He was an outsider, a Cuban who barged into their peaceful village existence without any preamble. He was a tall, handsome, and smart black man with an unexplained amount of wealth. In a village where everyone knew each other, he easily stood out; he immediately caught everyone’s attention. However, he remained a huge mystery who was admired by some but loathed by many.

“How true! 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 is 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.”

~ Maryse Condé, Crossing the Mangrove

Originally published in 1989 in French as Traversée de la mangrove, the novel was often marketed as a mystery novel. But as the night of Sancher’s wake grows deeper, we learn more not only about him but also about the villagers and the village. With the story moving from one character to another character, they started revealing more about themselves than they do of Sancher. His presence, for instance, did not inspire or touch any of the villagers. Rather, we read about their dislike of the new man in their midst and how it was deeply rooted in xenophobia. Not only did they dislike him because of his money, but they also disliked him because he was not a native of their village. They possess a ubiquitous prejudice toward those who they view as foreign. As if to provide emphasis, Sancher’s provenance was repeatedly mentioned in the interactions between the characters.

For men of the village, their dislike of him was exacerbated by the ease with which Sancher attracted women. However, it was not only the men of the village who disliked Sancher. The most opportunistic of the women found even more reasons to resent him, primarily because he never gave them his time of day. The object of their envy also included two local women who were known to be intimate with Sancher. Mira and Vilma were the most impacted by Sancher’s untimely demise. Mira, baptized Almira Rosalie Sorane, was an illegitimate child born to a wealthy family. However, the death of her mother left a gaping hole in her heart. The villagers also don’t approve of her and instead, she found comfort and stability in the company of Sancher. She was one of few villagers who got to know him on an intimate level. Their relationship eventually resulted in the birth of a son.

Vilma Ramsaran, on the other hand, was not born with a silver spoon. She also didn’t have doting parents. Yes, Mira’s mother has passed away but she was spoiled by her father. It wasn’t the same case for Vilma who was rejected by both her mother and her father: “I had nobody. I had nothing. Only my books.” Her love for books made her excel at school but also distanced her from her peers. Circumstances led her to drop out of school and to knock on Sancher’s door one day, requesting a job. Like in the case of Mira, the acceptance she yearned for she found in Sancher. She would also eventually get pregnant with his child. To the keen eye, it was palpable what bound Mira, Vilma, and Sancher together. They all share a common denominator: they were all outcasts.

Sancher’s liaisons with Vilma and Mira further enraged the locals. Laidback and close-minded, they saw their actions as scandalous, even borne out of evil. They elicited dagger looks from villagers who can’t help but look at them with a degree of resentment. The hatred was even more perceptible from Mira and Vilma’s family. Mira’s father and Vilma’s brother, Carmélian, wanted to have Sancher be punished for what they perceived as the rape of their family members. Many of the locals, it seemed, have gripes, both veiled and explicit, with Sancher. They have their own reasons to see him more dead than alive. Condé, for her part, adroitly wove an intricate web of motives that slowly took on the shape of a mystery in want of the reader’s resolution.

“I wish that little volcano you keep your eye on every morning, that scares you so much, I wish it would recover its former strength and explode. EXPLODE. A sun, brighter than the sun itself, would flash out of its crater mouth. Sulfur ash would be spewed out as well and we would all die. All buried without having the time to catch our breath. To die alone, one time and one time only, that’s what’s so terrible!”

~ Maryse Condé, Crossing the Mangrove

But the story never percolates to such a resolution as the mystery was never the story’s primary concern. What unraveled, instead, was a study of the village, its denizens, and their dynamics. Condé was equally adroit at weaving an intricate web of complicated relationships that abounded throughout the novel. The stories of the diverse cast of characters shaped the atmosphere of the novel. The legacy of slavery hangs heavily on the air as we read about the poverty and unhappiness that remained prevalent among the denizens of the village. We learn more about how the village’s history of colonialism has shaped its present. Guadeloupe, where Condé was born and raised, is a French overseas department located in the Caribbean

Adding further texture to the story were details of Guadeloupean culture. Rivière au Sel, in turn, turned into a microcosm of the French overseas department. Critical to understanding the culture were the norms surrounding social classes and gender roles. Young women, especially those born into destitute families, can be forced to drop out of school in order to be married, hence, alleviating the family’s poverty. Some villagers also candidly shared their stories of domestic abuse, incest, suicide, and unrequited love. The voices were complex but were all intimate in their sharing of their stories. But beyond these dark and heavy subjects shone rays of sunlight. Interspersed among the tales of horror is a depiction of the entire spectrum of life.

Adding authenticity to the story is the usage of French patois. The readers will occasionally encounter dialects. Richard Philcox, the book’s translator and also Condé’s husband, bypassed using English equivalents of certain terms and instead provided their definitions, direct translations, and contexts in parentheses or in the footnotes. As he has shared in the Translator’s Notes, his focus was not on the direct translation of the words: “No, I decided to concentrate on the tone and register of these voices speaking from this wake ceremony and talking to us, even chatting to us, as we turn the pages.” And it came across in the work as the use of French patois provided a more localized experience. Meanwhile, the book’s title pertains to a book Sancher was working on: “You don’t cross a mangrove. You’d spike yourself on the roots of the mangrove trees. You’d be sucked down and suffocated by the brackish mud.”

The stories of the villagers were juxtaposed with a vivid backdrop. Through the power of Condé’s descriptive prose, Rivière au Sel became a character in itself. The nooks and crannies of the village, including its flora and fauna, were vividly captured by Condé. Her deft use of metaphors not only captured the atmosphere but also embedded into the readers’ minds lush images of the fictional village. She reeled the readers in, making them experience Rivière au Sel while at the same time, making them inhabit the minds of the diverse characters. In turn, Francis Sancher, an outsider and a social outcast, was a catalyst upon which Condé explored the dynamics of Guadeloupean village life. He was also a catalyst in making the villagers examine their own lives, with their own prejudices and the dangers of their impressions being the most prevalent.

“Yes, I can hear the laughter of the wind that the night cannot keep under lock and key as it scours the countryside. Yes, I can hear the cavalcade of mangoes in a hurry to sink their stones into the belly of the earth so that they in turn can become eternal I hear the sea there in the distance endlessly quarreling with the rocks.”

~ Maryse Condé, Crossing the Mangrove

The beauty of Condé’s prose and language is undeniable. She supplemented it by creating a set of interesting characters who has their own stories to tell. However, there was an inherent weakness in the literary device Condé used to convey the story of Rivière au Sel and its denizens. The diversity of characters provided for a multi-layered experience but it was also one of the novel’s undoing. The polyphonic story, coupled with the constantly shifting voices, muddled the story’s focus. The characters, in turn, remain out of the readers’ grasp. Before one can start to appreciate one character’s story, the story abruptly transitions to a new character. I can’t help but wonder if it was deliberate because Sancher remained a mystery as well. As Vilma has noted: “But Francis Sancher was never mine. He was never Mira’s either, that I know. The creature he belonged to was hiding in the shadows amid the sounds of the night.”

As a primer to Maryse Condé’s prose, Crossing the Mangrove was a wonderful starting point. I do admit, however, that it took me time to immerse myself in the story. This can be attributed to the foreignness of the story and the plurality of voices; Condé was also uncharted territory for me. Once I started settling in, the story, including the beauty of Condé’s prose started to unspool. The more I dig in, the more invested I was in the story. I was reeled in by the intimate voices that Condé created. While there was a lack of plot, Condé more than made up for it with the vast scope of subjects she has covered, including the vestiges of history and slavery, gender roles, and xenophobia. The novel also underscored how our prejudices and our impressions impair our judgment, especially towards those who sprang out of nowhere. Crossing the Mangrove was a great introduction to both Caribbean literature and Condé’s prose.

“Solitude is my companion. She has cradled and nourished me. She has never left me up to this very day. People talk and talk but they don’t know what it’s like to emerge burning hot from the stone-cold womb of your mother, to say farewell to her from the very first moment you enter this world.”

~ Maryse Condé, Crossing the Mangrove
Ratings

76%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

Book Specs

Author: Maryse Condé
Translator (from French): Richard Philcox
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: March 1995
Number of Pages: 208
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

In this beautifully crafted, Rashomon-like novel, Maryse Conde has written a gripping story imbued with all the nuances and traditions of Caribbean culture.

Francis Sancher – a handsome outsider, loved by some and reviled by others – is found dead, face down in the mud on a path outside Riviere au Sel, a small village in Guadeloupe. None of the villagers are particularly surprised, since Sancher, a secretive and melancholy man, had often predicted an unnatural death for himself. As the villagers come to pay their respects they each – either in a speech to the mourners or in an internal monologue – reveal another piece of the mystery behind Sancher’s life and death. Like pieces of an elaborate puzzle, their memories interlock to create a rich and intriguing portrait of a man and a community.

In the lush and vivid prose for which she has become famous, Conde has constructed a Guadeloupean wake for Francis Sancher. Retaining the full color and vibrancy of Conde’s homeland, Crossing the Mangrove pays homage to Guadeloupe in both subject and structure.

About the Author

Maryse Condé (née Boucolon) was born on February 11, 1934, in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, French West Indies and was the youngest of eight children. She attended Lycée Fénelon, a private Catholic school in Paris, from 1953 to 1955 before eventually getting expelled. In 1975, she completed her master’s and doctorate degrees in comparative literature at the Université de Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle). While she wrote her first novel when she was just 11 years old, it was not a career that Condé pursued at first. Before taking on writing full-time, she spent the majority of the 1960s teaching in Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal.

After completing her graduate studies, she finally published her first novel, Hérémakhonon, in 1976. She followed it up with Une saison à Rihata (A Season in Rihata) in 1981. However, it was with her third novel, Ségou: les murailles de terre (Segu, 1984), that she achieved the level of literary prominence that she is currently experiencing. Her other works include La Colonie du nouveau monde (1993), La Migration des coeurs (Windward Heights, 1995), Desirada (1997), Historie de la femme cannibale (The Story of the Cannibal Woman, 2003), and Victoire, les saveurs et les mots (Victorie: My Mother’s Mother, 2006). Her latest novel, Le Fabuleux et triste destin d’Ivan et d’Ivana (The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana), was released in 2017. Condé has also written plays, children’s books, and essays.

For her works, Condé has received several accolades including the Le Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme in 1986, the  Prix de l’Académie française in 1988, Prix Carbet de la Carraibe in 1997, and the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca in 2021. In 1985, she was also awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach in the US. She was also a Guggenheim fellow from 1987 to 1988 and was the first woman to be honored as a Puterbaugh fellow by the Univerisity of Oklahoma. She was a professor of French and Francophone literature at Columbia University in New York City in 1995. She has also taught at the University of California Berkeley, the University of California LA, the Sorbonne, the University of Virginia, and the University of Nanterre before officially retiring from teaching in 2005.