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Crossing the Mangrove.

Maryse Conde. Crossing the Mangrove. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1995. 208 pp. $10.95.

Francisco Alvarez-Sanchez, a.k.a. Francis Sancher, the protagonist of Maryse Conde's novel Crossing the Mangrove, is a true catalyst; he transforms the lives of those around him while he himself remains unchanged. Condo's novel, originally published in 1989 as Traversee de la Mangrove, explores the impact of the main character's mysterious arrival, life, and death on the inhabitants of Riviere au Sel, a small village in Guadeloupe. Sancher is a writer, and toward the end of the novel the reader finds out that the book he is working on is also called Crossing the Mangrove. Through reflexive irony like this and jokes about writers throughout the novel, Conde explores the role of the writer in what Jamaica Kincaid calls "a small place." In a recent issue of Callaloo devoted to Conde's work, critic Lydie Moudileno comments on artist characters in Conde's fiction, including Sancher: "... Conde elaborates a system of representation such that on the one hand the artist serves to unveil the dynamic of ... [his] communit[y], while simultaneously revealing his inability to represent that community."

Conde's achievement, as the "real" writer, is to "represent that community," and the fictitious writer's place in it, through the subtle and elegant organization of the novel. The book begins with the discovery of Sancher's dead body and proceeds as a series of internal monologues (some alternating with the narrator's voice, some not) by those who attend his wake. Sancher himself never speaks, except in others' recollections. The monologues/vignettes flow smoothly into one another and overlap, creating a multifaceted and sometimes contradictory portrait of Sancher and of the villagers. As the characters reflect upon their interactions with Sancher, many of them arrive at conclusions about and plans of action for their own lives. Mira Lameaulnes, one of the young women whom Sancher has impregnated, decides that her life will become a quest for knowledge about her enigmatic lover. Dinah Lameaulnes, Mira's stepmother and another of Sancher's lovers, decides to leave her husband and "look for the sun and the air and the light for what's left of the years to live" (84).

The reflections of Lucien Evariste, nicknamed the Writer, and Emile Etienne, the Historian, illuminate the novel's concern with Third World, small-town intellectuals and the elusive nature of history. Evariste is an idealistic young writer who has not yet found a subject; when he hears that a writer, perhaps a revolutionary Cuban writer, has moved, to Riviere au Sel, he can barely contain his excitement. The two become friends, and although Sancher has nothing to teach Evariste about the craft of writing per se, Evariste finds his motivation to write and the hero of his novel in the person of Francis Sancher. Lucien decides to write about his now-dead friend, and to do so he must "check out the footprints he had left along the paths of life," "put himself in Sancher's shoes" (189). Emile Etienne, called "the Historian" since he compiled an oral history of neighboring Petit-Bourg, renews his determination to compile an oral history of the entire island of Guadeloupe. Sancher encouraged him in this project while he was alive, and his death pushes Etienne toward action, past his fear of again "being scoffed at by the pedants" (198).

Etienne is also the confidante to whom Sancher has told most of his story. Sancher's great-great-great-grandfather was a white Guadeloupean planter cursed by his slaves. This curse, Sancher believes, has led to the deaths of all the men in the family, unexplained deaths that always take place when the men are in their early fifties. He has returned to Guadeloupe to face this history and to die, ending the curse by ending the family line. Yet the Historian is unable to find any record that confirms the family documents Sancher carries, and he concludes that Sancher has precipitated his own death simply through his belief in the curse--in other words, that Sancher has frightened himself to death. The ambiguous nature of the curse and the difficulty of ascertaining facts about slavery are important elements in the novel. Even for those who want to turn and face history, this feat is easier said than done. Only in the final monologue, that of Xantippe, the old loner who lives at the edge of the village, do we learn that "a crime was committed here, on this very spot, a long, long time ago" (204-05) and that Francis Sancher is connected to this crime, even though he does not know it. Sancher has been killed by his fear of a history he does not fully understand.

The irony characteristic of CondO's work is apparent in this suggestion about Sancher's death and in many of the circumstances surrounding his brief life in Riviere au Sel. Though he identifies himself as a writer, no one reads what he has written; he may, in fact, have written nothing. Though he is waiting for his own death and trying to bring his supposedly cursed family line to an end, he impregnates two young women. Conde even gently mocks herself in the novel. Lucien Evariste can find no writers to talk to because "the few Guadeloupean writers who did exist spent most of their time holding forth on Caribbean culture in Los Angeles or Berkeley" (182); Conde taught at the University of California, Berkeley, for a number of years.

The translator, Richard Philcox (also Conde's husband), is clearly aware of his role in bringing this novelist, well-known in the Francophone world, to an Anglophone audience. He takes the opportunity provided by the translator's preface to note the similarities between Conde's work and that of Virginia Woolf, saying that Woolf's To the Lighthouse provided him with an English analogue for Conde's style in Crossing the Mangrove. Philcox's comparison is a precise and illuminating one for the English-speaking reader; it is also strategic, alerting non-French speakers to the stature of Conde's achievements. Philcox does a fine job of rendering the deceptively simple prose of "this most Guadeloupean of Maryse Conde's novels" (vii) into lively English.

All in all, Maryse Conde's Crossing the Mangrove is a delightful novel, well-translated. She has crafted her main character as a prism through which the lives of more than a dozen characters from rural Guadeloupe are, briefly but sharply, reflected.
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Author:Keizer, Arlene R.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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