Crossing the Mangrove has been regarded as one of the most self-reflective works of the Guadeloupean-born Maryse Condé (1937– ), particularly in the way the author explores the cultural identity of the Caribbean people. The author’s conscious inclusion of Creole, spoken by many of the characters in the novella, invites the reader to ponder the role of language in determining one’s identity, especially in the case of the Caribbean people who are regarded by some as descendants of the African motherland. Crossing the Mangrove is innovative in the sense of the narrative structure. The “main character” is found dead at the very beginning of the narrative, thus leaving Condé no traditional central narrator to tell a coherent and unified story. This absence of a dominant point of view and the presence of shifting viewpoints proved problematic for Condé’s translator. In translating Crossing the Mangrove into English, Richard Philcox noted that to recapture the kind of fluid and floating discourse in and out of characters in the novel, he had to look for particular models in English literature; he was finally inspired by Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness in dealing with characters and their thoughts.
Crossing the Mangrove marks a new phase of Condé’s writing, particularly regarding the understanding and negotiation of the author’s own cultural identity. Separated from her home in Guadeloupe in the West Indies, to which she later returned, Condé uses her fiction to offer a fresh recognition of her true position in relation to a mythical motherland. Crossing the Mangrove provides not only the context but also the symbol of how she, a Guadeloupean author writing in French, relates to her culture and the land of her birth. Some critics, especially those supporting the negritude movement, do not agree with her position concerning Creole, for they see the native dialect as the essence of the local identity. Condé, however, does not put the same emphasis on language as solely defining one’s identity. Even in Crossing the Mangrove, in which she creates a cast of characters who sometimes express themselves through Creole, their identity is still not determined by their mastery of the language but through their own reflection of how the outsider or stranger affects the way these native people think of themselves.
The structure of the short novel follows a simple temporal development. The narrative begins with a sort of introduction to the story’s action through the personal narrative of a retired elementary school teacher, Leocadie Tiomothée. At the opening of the narrative, she goes for a walk in the cool air of dusk. Reflecting on her own past, on the emptiness of her sister’s life, and on the dreams she has had concerning her family’s unfulfilled lives, she discovers the dead body of Francis Sancher lying facedown in the mud of a mangrove swamp. Having made sure of the dead man’s identity, she proceeds to his house outside the village of Riviere au Sel to inform anyone who might be home.
Vilma Ramsaran, Sancher’s pregnant mistress, emerges from the house to receive the news. Very soon the tragedy of Sancher’s untimely death spreads throughout the village. His body is removed from the mangrove swamp and taken to the house of the Ramsarans, a local family, for the traditional wake, an all-night ceremony respecting the dead. A crowd of people, mostly villagers of Rivière au Sel, come to attend the wake, either to show their respect for the dead man publicly or for personal reasons of their own. The main content of the narrative is composed of the internal reflections of these people.
During his life, Francis Sancher was an enigma to the villagers, although he was even more puzzling in his death, for no obvious wounds or cause of death were discovered. Every villager living in Rivière au Sel had heard of Sancher, although no one had really been intimate with him, not even the two women who bore his children. He had simply arrived at the village one day, took a rather isolated house outside the village, obtained two huge Dobermans, and began living there. He claimed that he had come back to the village to end the curse that seemed to have fallen on the male members of his family: All of these men had died before they had reached the age of 50. Thus, he chose to keep to himself as much as possible, though ironically the air of mystery about him attracted attention of all sorts, resulting in his relations with the two women, Vilma and Mira.
Sancher’s self-imposed isolation from the villagers was not only the result of his outsider status, but also because of the very different values he embraced. No one knew about his background. He spoke with a Cuban accent, yet no one could be sure about his origin; he seemed to have sufficient financial resources, and yet he did nothing the villagers considered work. The villagers watched with dismay the sight of Sancher sitting before his house, a typewriter in front of him all day. He said that that he would like to write a novel, which in itself did not amount to proper work in the eyes of the villagers. Moreover, the title he had chosen for his as yet unfinished novel, Crossing the Mangrove, did not find favor with the inhabitants who had long been living in the mangrove area.
In this way, the main part of the narrative has the appearance of an incidental collage comprising the individual reflections of the inhabitants of Rivière au Sel. Men and women think about their encounter with Sancher, what they knew of him, and what he made them think about their own lives. Although on the surface the wake is intended to pay respect to the dead, each person present is thinking about himself or herself, the past and the future. Instead of piecing together information about the enigmatic Sancher, these various reflections serve to reveal the lives and the concerns of the living.
It is already dawn by the time the narrative closes, yet the reader has no clearer idea concerning the mystery of Sancher’s life and death. On the other hand, with the new day and after a whole night’s pondering and recollection, some of the characters have undertaken new resolutions in their lives.
Vilma, Sancher’s mistress at the time of his death, offers an intriguing comment which may also be seen as a direct reference to the novel’s title. She says, “You don’t cross a mangrove. You’d spike yourself on the roots of the mangrove tress. You’d be sucked down and suffocated by the brackish mud.” Sancher’s body was found in exactly such circumstances, making his own claim in the novel prophetic: “I’ll never finish this book because before I’ve even written the first line and known what I’m going to put in the way of blood, laugher, tears, fears and hope, well, everything that makes a book a book and not a boring dissertation by a half-cracked individual, I’ve already found the title,” which is the impossibility of crossing the mangrove swamp. The issue about the title of the book is self-referential. If crossing the swamp is an impossible task, what about the narrative bearing the same name that the readers are reading?
Many take the image of the mangrove as indicative of a pessimistic attitude toward discovering the truth of one’s cultural identity. Vilma says that a mangrove swamp cannot be crossed. Sancher, the stranger, died trying and failing to cross the mangrove swamp. However, some critics construe the mangrove as a positive symbol of the infinite capacity of life to extend and establish roots away from the motherland. The durability of the mangrove comes from its extensive roots, indistinguishable from its trunk and eliminating the boundary between center and margins. Seen positively, the mangrove in the title of the novel may indicate a uniquely vigorous cultural identity that can flourish anywhere, no matter how far from home one is.
Alexander, Simone A. James. Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
Barbour, Sarah, and Gerise Herndon, eds. Emerging Perspectives in Maryse Condé. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2006.
Condé, Maryse. Tales from the Heart: True Tales from my Childhood. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Soho Press, 2001.
Ouédraogo, Jean. Maryse Condé et Ahmadou Kourouma. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.
Pfaff, Francoise. Conversations with Maryse Condé. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.