Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Conde

“Crossing the Mangrove,” by Maryse Conde is set in 1986 on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The story is told through the eyes of the many inhabitants of the island who are uncomfortable with the arrival of a strange foreigner who has come to live amongst them. Francisco Alvarez-Sanchez mysterious story invokes themes of past and present Caribbean life and stories from the villagers are combined to connect the fascinating tale. The novel reflects the Creolite diversity of the inhabitants of Guadeloupe.

In “Crossing the Mangrove,” several recurring themes prominent in Caribbean life are evident. Colonization and class perspective are amongst the more dominant themes. Guadeloupe was colonized by France in the 17th century and, like many Caribbean islands, Guadeloupe became a slave trading center. A story told by the strange recluse Xantippe shows how colonization ideals of the past are still present on the island today. As a young man Xantippe was happy go lucky. This gave the French ruled gendarmes (police) reason to interrogate him. They insinuated that he had enemies and burned his cabin down. Xantippe describes how he lost everything and his life was changed for the worse, forever. This activity is reminiscent of Cesaire’s equation: colonization = “thingification.”

Class perspective exists on the island of Guadeloupe but to a lesser extent than in the previous novels. The Ramsaraz and Lameanes families are upscale. They own land for farming and flower nurseries. They have large houses and they drive French built Peugeots. Although a peasant and servant population exists it is not featured prominently in the novel. Instead, something of a middle class society comprises the majority class of the characters. Moise the mailman, Emile Etienne the historian, and Lucien Evarist the writer are amongst a cast of Francis middle class friends. But it is assumed that Francis belongs to the upper class due to his tales of travel and adventure, his ability to purchase the aging Alexis estate, and daily truck deliveries of household appliances such as a TV set, a refrigerator, a stereo set. The inhabitants of Riviere au Sel are envious of this and question his occupation and work ethic as a writer. They ask, “Was a writer a do-nothing, sitting in the shade for hours on his veranda, staring at the ridge of mountains for hours on end while the rest sweated it out under the Good Lords hot sun.” One must get the sense that the class perspective presented in “Crossing the Mangrove,” is a good representation of society in Guadeloupe today.

Strong themes that are current to Guadeloupe society are that in a male dominated society women are forced into the practice of arranged marriages. But many of the women of Riviere au Sel have contempt toward their estranged husband’s and their fathers who make the unusual arrangements. Forced marriages are common and based in tradition in this island society but oddly enough explanations are not provided as to why a parent would want to marry off their young and attractive daughters to older men with dubious intentions. What is the motivation of the parents who take part in this practice? Yes, these men are wealthy and the young women will live in comfort, but are the parents receiving some compensation for their generous contribution to the men? The young women all seem to come from families that are well established. Do the parents take into consideration the trauma and unhappiness their daughters will suffer?

In Riviere au Sel, Dinah’s father arranged for her to marry Loulou. Dinah was in favor of this but later became repulsed by her husband. Dinah said, “It’s been years since Loulou slept in my bed. Once darkness has fallen I lock my door and curl up like a fetus between my sheets.” Rosa, of Indian decent, is forced to marry Sylvester; the practice of arranged marriages is also common in India where a social caste system still exists. In her passage in the novel she wants it to be known that, “When they married me off to Sylvester Ramsaran, nobody asked for my opinion” and “Sylvester hurt me. He tore me.”

Just as her Indian mother before her, Vilma’s marriage was to be arranged. Vilma’s father Sylvester, arranged for her to marry a man named Marins Vindrex. But Vilma revolted by running away from home saying, “Marins Vindrex. But I don’t love him.” In the ultimate act of vengeance against her father she took up with the hated Francis Sanchez. Now in a position to forever poison the appalling marriage to the dreadful Vindrex, she allowed herself to become impregnated by Francis. Sylvester is defenseless to act while the questionable motives of Francis intensify amongst the villagers of Riviere au Sel who are already suspicious of him.

Conde connects the vinettes together in “Crossing the Mangrove,” by establishing the relationship each villager had with Francis Sanchez as the story progresses. Every member has a strong opinion or emotion about Francis. Some of those thoughts are positive and some are negative. Central to the story is the wake of Francis which is held in Riviere au Sel. It rains a lot in Riviere au Sel and on the Thursday afternoon of Francis wake, it was no different. The rain seemed to act on behave of Mother Nature in cleansing the congregation of friends, enemies, and former lovers who gathered to witness Francis swan song.

Moise, the mailman is the first character that Conde provides us with insight into the relationship he had with Francis. Oddly enough there was some speculation in the community that there may be a homosexual relationship involving Moise and the great womanizer Francis Sanchez. “There were wicked sneers. There was something fishy about that friendship and the two men were Makoumeh! (Homosexuals). Adding even more to the oddity is the fact that many considered Moise a “Misgotten freak,” and ‘ugly.’ These allegations aside, the two were friends but the friendship was awkward and unusual. One moment we see Moise cradling Francis in his arms when something upset Francis. The next moment we see Francis accusing Moise of stealing money from his mysterious trunk.

But Francis also had his enemies. Both Loulou Lameaulnes and Sylvester Ramsaran have similar reasons for despising Francis. Francis had sexual affairs with their daughters impregnating both of them. To these two men Francis was a villain for his indiscretions but in both cases it was the young women who approached Francis. Both women hated their fathers and hated the lives they led under their father’s roofs. Perhaps the fathers should have blamed themselves for forcing their daughters out of their arms and into the bed of Francis. Vilma and Mira both shared the same bed with Francis and both attended his wake. They did not speak to each other. Oddly, Loulou and Sylvester were also in attendance and both felt a strong sense that in Francis death justice had been served.

The congregation exited the wake with the sober realization that they had just mourned for a man that they hardly knew. Francis had that ability. People were drawn to him but they didn’t know why. The novel ends with the inhabitants of Riviere au Sel raising the same ironic questions about Francis as when they had first laid eyes on him. “Who was Francis Sanchez? And subsequently, “Who was this man that chooses to die amongst us?