Maryse Conde

Crossing the Mangrove

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Crossing the Mangrove Summary

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In Maryse Conde’s Crossing the Mangrove, a village on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe convenes at the funeral of a mystery man named Francis Sancher, whose short visit to the village left deep bonds and scars between the locals. The novel is the portrait of a place through the eyes of these locals who remain; though mysterious in plot, it is not a traditional mystery in that many stones remain unturned at the end of the novel.

The plot of Crossing the Mangrove is structured around the mourning speeches of a number of villagers, who have come together at the all-night wake being held for the stranger, Francis Sancher. Each chapter is written in the voice of one of these villagers, who reflect on the experience they had with Sancher and the lasting impact he had on the town and their own lives – some are loving and desperate, despite the short period in which Sancher was on the island, while others are resentful, bitter, and mean. Through the eyes of the villagers, the reader pieces together a patchy portrait of the man, Francis Sancher, and a much more cohesive portrait of the island of Guadeloupe, where economic troubles, racial tensions, and the lasting impact of colonial power have left stains on the community and its inhabitants.

Some of the characters who speak include Moase, a half-black and half-Chinese porter who greets Sancher when he arrives on the island for his visit, attaching himself to the man, who is also mulatto. Moase becomes so attached to Sancher that the villagers begin to think the two are having a homosexual relationship, but Moase is rejected by Sancher, after which he is bitter. Sancher has also impregnated two local girls in his brief time on the island, and both are present at his wake. One, Mira, is a stunning, light-skinned girl who gives birth to Sancher’s child; the other, Vilma, is an Indian woman who is currently pregnant with Sancher’s baby and wishes that, like her ancestors, she could burn on his funeral pyre to properly mourn his death. Vilma’s parents are also present, as well as Mira’s stepmother, and a number of other villagers, including the clairvoyant wise woman Mama Sonson, who provides the most reflective and philosophical interpretation of Sancher’s island visit.

Through these various accounts of Sancher’s time on the island, it is possible to piece together a short portrait of the man. Sancher arrived on the island, which was his birthplace, after traveling the world, though he hasn’t come back for decades. He is handsome and middle-aged. The villagers are unclear about his profession, but know that he has a lot of money – they think he could just as likely be a drug-dealer as a doctor. Sancher, however, takes no pleasure in his net worth. He has come to the island because he believes that the men in his family have been cursed to die suddenly, and without warning, at the age of fifty. In order to see this curse properly executed, Sancher has returned to his homeland where he wishes to be buried. He seems to await his death almost with a level of excitement, which confuses the people around him. Because he knows that he will suddenly die, Sancher remains separate from the community in many ways – even the two women he sleeps with and impregnates are essentially one-night stands. Sancher makes no significant bonds with other villagers, choosing, instead, to await his death alone.

However, Sancher’s appearance brings to light many of the issues and tensions that were present on the island before his arrival. The racial tensions between dark and light-skinned inhabitants of Guadeloupe are intensified when the mulatto Sancher appears, and there is a similar tension between “French French,” or colonial villagers and their Haitian counterparts – the French are seen as wealthy and pretentious, while the Haitians are viewed as lowly and worthless. The island has seen other changes in its economic prospects, which are only enhanced when the wealthy stranger Sancher appears – sugar has recently been replaced by banana plantations on Guadeloupe, and as such, the ability for common islanders to make money has dramatically declined, as the products are worth significantly less than they once were.

Though, ultimately, the mystery of Sancher’s life is never solved, this novel provides a glimpse into life on the island of Guadeloupe.

Maryse Conde is the French-Caribbean author of many award-winning novels, most famously, her book Segu. A scholar of Francophone literature, she is also a professor at Columbia University in New York. She was born in Pointe-a-Pitre Guadeloupe, and frequently sets her books on the island where she was raised. She writes her novels in French, and they have been translated into many other languages. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Latin America and Caribbean Literature Award, and been nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, among other awards.