Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (1995)

translated (from French) by Richard Philcox.

A Favourite Author

Maryse Conde Crossing the Mangrove WIT MonthMaryse Condé is one of my favourite authors and I’ve been slowly working my way through her books since she was nominated for the Booker International Prize in 2015, back when it was held every two years, for an author’s lifetime works.

I started with vignettes from her childhood, then moved on to a novel about her grandmother whom she’d never met, then her masterpiece of historical fiction Segu, her own favourite The Story of the Cannibal Woman, A Season in Rihata and now this very Caribbean novel Crossing the Mangrove, which I absolutely loved. Links to my reviews below.

This is almost a form of noir novel; a death provides the catalyst to revealing an island society, portraying all it diversity and colour, its social good and evil – poverty, discrimination and exploitation, and rather than seek a tidy resolution of that death, it demonstrates the folly of that way of thinking, creating instead, a thought-provoking insight into a multi-layered, multi-ethnic mix of minds and bodies, in their states of love, bliss, paranoia, anxiety and confusion.

It is such a great read, I had to force myself to pause halfway in order to savour it. I can imagine rereading it, it’s such a multilayered novel, that can be read for pure entertainment value or thought about more deeply in how it attempts through exquisite storytelling and characterisation, to lay bare the complexity of such a diverse community, it’s impossible to keep up with who is who is what from where, demonstrating how farcical that is anyway and yet nearly everyone contributes to it, the labelling, the judgements, the superiority and inferiority complexes. Brilliant.

“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’s 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.”

Can You Cross A Mangrove?

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Mangrove of Sainte Rose, Guadeloupe

The trigger for all of this, in a novel where every chapter takes the perspective of a different character, is the wake of a man found dead in the mangrove. No one really knew Francis Sancher but everyone had had an encounter with him and there were rumours aplenty.

“Nobody ever understands, Madame Ramsaran. Everyone is afraid of understanding. Take me, for instance. As soon as I tried to understand, to ask for an explanation for all those corpses, all that blood, they called me every name under the sun. As soon as I refused to go along with the slogans, they kept a serious eye on me. Nothing is more dangerous than a man who tries to understand.”

I don’t know about the mangroves in Guadeloupe, but recalling the mangrove swamp from a biology field trip at school, they are incredibly difficult to navigate, like a natural defence system, with spiky roots sticking up out of the water, preventing a way forward. They become a tangled array of wet and slimy roots, attracting many species of bugs, insects and critters and are found in locations where salt water and fresh water mix, a buffer between land and sea.  An apt metaphor for navigating a life, for understanding a complex society.

Stories in his Wake

We come to know more about this intriguing stranger who came to Rivière au Sel expecting to die, we learn who cultivated a desire for that to happen, who fell for his charm, a variety of voices that convey the life stories of this diverse group of villagers – young and old, men and women, siblings and parents, illiterates and intellectual elites, peasants and upper class Creoles, those who belong and those who would always be considered outsiders.

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

The multiplicity of voices, narrated through nineteen characters attendant at the wake, creates a portrait of the social, cultural, political, linguistic, intellectual and economic diversity of this Caribbean island society, complete with desire, unrequited love, arranged marriage, jealousy, disappointment, bitterness, greed, exploitation, revenge, racism, classism, joy and hilarity.

“I would say you are a man of great wisdom!” I murmured.

He smiled.

“Wisdom? I wouldn’t say that. Rather that I tried to untangle the skeins of life.”

The dead man is only given voice through those attending his wake, like the author who is given voice through her characters.

The quote above reminds me of all the narratives of Maryse Condé, of her life, her research including the all important oral histories and her own insatiable appetite for “untangling the skeins of life”, presenting them to us through her essays and novels. She truly is a magical and gifted writer, and in this novel she returns to a landscape closer to home, evoking it through this collection of characters beautifully.

“Now Francis Sancher is dead. But he alone has come to an end. The rest of us are alive and continue to live as we’ve always done. Without getting along together. Without liking ourselves. Without sharing anything. The night is waging war and grappling with the shutters. Soon, however, it will surrender to the day and every rooster will crow its defeat. The banana trees, the cabins and the slopes of the mountain will gradually float to the surface of the shadows and prepare to confront the dazzling light of day. We shall greet the new face of tomorrow and I shall say to this daughter of mine:

“I gave birth to you, but I misloved you. I neglected to help you flower and you grew stunted. It’s not too late for our eyes to meet and our hands to touch. Give me your forgiveness.”

In 2018 Maryse Condé was declared the winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature.

Further Reading

Tales From the Heart: True Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

The Story of the Cannibal Woman

A Season in Rihata

A Season in Rihata by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Marysé Conde is a Guadeloupean writer I came across in 2015 when she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, at a time when it was a two yearly prize for a lifetime’s work.

It has now evolved into an annual prize split between the author and translator for a book translated into English that year and in 2016 it was awarded to Han Kang (South Korea) and Deborah Smith (translator) for the novel The Vegetarian.

Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize back in 2015, but was the author on the list who most appealed to me.

Since reading about her at that time, I followed her own recommendations in terms of what to read to be introduced to her work, starting with a collection of vignettes in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood, then Victoire: My Mother’s Mother and finally, the grand masterpiece and novel she is most well-known for, especially in academic circles, as it is widely studied and recognised as an important work of historical fiction set in the African Kingdom during a significant period of change: Segu.

I’ve wanted to read more of her work, so tracked down a couple more books that have been translated into English and was fortunate enough to have listened to her speak at our local library earlier this year – though she lived in France for many years, she is now retired and has returned to her native Guadeloupe to live, though still active in literary circles.

A Season in Rihata – reviewSeason in Rihata

Zek and his Guadeloupean wife Marie-Hélène live in a small fictitious African town of Rihata, with their six children and another due any day. It is far from Paris where they met and lived in very different way and far removed from the kind of life Marie-Hélène’s remembers on the island home of her childhood.

Like all men of his ethnic group, Zek had been brought up with a kind of fear and contempt of woman – malevolent creatures whose dark instincts had to be mastered. Love had taken him by surprise. He had difficulty accepting the power Marie-Hélène held over him and was convinced that no other man except him had undergone such humiliation.

Neither are happy; Zek has never been able to get over the feeling of being looked down on by his father, even though he is long dead, and remains resentful of his younger brother Madou, who found favour without having to do anything and who was the cause of him having to relocate his family due to the unwanted attentions of his brother towards his wife.

Influenced by a father who made no pretence of his preferences, Madou had soon considered Zek as a person of limited ability and in all ways inferior; although this did not exclude a certain brotherly affection.

Now Madou is coming to Rihata, he is a political Minister coming to conduct negotiations, his presence causing many to feel uneasy, a disruption in the sleepy town where not much usually happens.

It is a novel of discontent, of the effects of selfish behaviour, which none are immune to or able to rise above. Contentedness is within their reach, but so is temptation and the effect of indulging it ricochets through all members of the extended family and the rulers of the country.

While it doesn’t reach the heights of her other work I’ve read, it’s a worthy contribution to her body of literature and I look forward to reading more.

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The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart tr. Barbara Bray #WITMonth

Bridge of BeyondAbsolutely brilliant, astonishing, loved it, one of my Top Reads of 2016 for sure.

Originally published in 1972 as Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, The Bridge of Beyond is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of Caribbean literature. It was republished in English in 2013 as an NYRB Classic, with an introduction by Jamaica Kincaid, beautifully translated by Barbara Bray, described as ‘an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery’.

Telumee is the last in a line of proud Lougandor women on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. It is a novel best left to speak for itself, as the many quotes from the novel that follow here illustrate, a work infused throughout with a vital and vibrant female energy, a force that empowers them to forge ahead, no matter the circumstances, one that will permeate the reader, instilling courage and awe at the language that creates this positive, intoxicating feeling.

In the first part we learn about her people, her mother Victory,

“a laundress, wearing out her wrists on flat stones in the rivers, and her linen emerged like new from under the heavy waxed irons”

her father, his life cut short in a fatal stabbing,

“Angebert, had led a reserved and silent existence, effacing himself so completely
that no one ever knew who it was died that day. Sometimes I wonder about him, ask myself what anyone so kind and gentle was doing in this world at all.”

the man who pulled her mother out of her grief, and out of her daughter’s life,

“The fact is that a mere nothing, a thought, a whim, a particle of dust can change the course of a life. If Haut-Colbi had not stopped in the village my little story would have been different.”

and her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’, to whom her mother sent her to live.

“My mother’s reverence for Toussine was such I came to regard her as some mythical being not of this world, so that for me she was legendary even while still alive.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Telumee narrates the story of her life, in small details, in melodic, incantatory prose that lures the reader in, consuming her story with great pleasure. Every change of home, village, or great journey takes them across the Bridge of Beyond, a symbol of change and the unknown, the other side.

As she passes through various stages of life, she is guided but never pressured by her grandmother, remembering her stories, her songs, her advice.

“My little ember”, she’d whisper, “if you ever get on a horse, keep good hold of the reins so that it’s not the horse that rides you.” And as I clung to her, breathing in her nutmeg smell, Queen Without a Name would sigh, caress me, and go on, distinctly, as if to engrave the words on my mind: “Behind one pain, there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

She will fall in love, leave to work in the kitchen of wealthy white family, build her own home, experience both profound happiness and the depths of despair, brush up against madness and find its cure, and always the reassuring presence of her grandmother.

“Sometimes old thoughts arose in me, shooting up like whirls of dust raised from the road by a herd of wild horses galloping by. The Grandmother to try to whistle up a wind for me, saying we should soon be going away, for the air in Fond-Zombi didn’t agree with my lungs now.”

As Jamaica Kincaid articulates well in the introduction, The Bridge of Beyond is not a conventional novel, and it never tries to be. It is a fluid, unveiling of a life, and a way of life, lived somewhere between a past that is not forgotten, that time of slavery lamented in the songs and felt in the bones, and a present that is a struggle and a joy to live, alongside nature, the landscape, the community and their traditions.

The cultural traditions and historical events from which this work of art springs cannot be contained in a strict linear narrative. In fact, such a device might even lend a veneer of inevitability to them. For the narrative that began with a search for fresh water on an island one Sunday morning has no end – it circles back on itself, it begins again, it staggers sideways, it never lurches forward to a conclusion in which the world where it began is suddenly transformed into an ideal, new world. Schwarz-Bart’s prose awakens the senses and enlarges the imagination; it makes me anxious for my own sanity and yet at the same time certain of it; her sentences, rooted in Creole experience and filled with surprising insights and proverbs, resonate in my head and heart.” Jamaica Kincaid

It is one of the best books I have read in a long time, coming from a place of love and appreciation that reaches far back, acknowledging the gifts of all, that make up who we are. Outstanding.

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart was born in France(her parents were from Guadeloupe) in 1938, her father a solider, her mother a teacher. When war broke out, she and her mother returned to Guadeloupe. She studied in Paris, where she met her future husband, the writer André Schwarz-Bart.

They collaborating on more than one work of literature, including a six-volume encyclopaedia Hommage à la femme noire, (In Praise of Black Women), to honour the black heroines who were missing in the official historiography.

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Segu by Maryse Condé tr. by Barbara Bray

As I have been on something of a reading journey through Maryse Condé, I want to capture a little background leading up to how she came to write this masterpiece of historical fiction, set in a time of major change in this part of Africa where her ancestors came from.

Background

 Maryse Condé grew up in a large black bourgeoise family in Guadeloupe, well-educated, with regular family visits to Paris, in fact her parents felt French and were surprised when people they deemed of a lesser status than they, (like Parisian cafe waiters) commented on how well they spoke French, in a patronising way.

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé was the youngest of eight children, her mother married an older, financially and professionally stable man, she was a formidable teacher, a staunch, authoritative force to be reckoned with.

She died when Maryse was 14 and it wasn’t until years later that Condé began to question why her mother had been the way she had been with her and others, wondering what unseen forces had been pushing from within. this led her to research her grandmothers story, which she published as the novel Victoire, My Mother’s Mother (reviewed here).

Her own childhood she writes about in the beautiful set of vignettes, autobiographical essays collected in Tales of the Heart, Stories from My Childhood (reviewed here).

What she discovered in researching her mother and grandmother’s lives was a history of struggle, of single, compromised women, forced by the abuses inflicted upon them – for which they were harshly judged, though little more was expected of them – to raise their children alone and make do as best they could.

While Condé’s mother was fortunate to have been gifted the opportunity to acquire an education, it was a favour she wanted little or nothing to do with, never sharing the reasons  or people behind it, for her mother Victoire, had been the open mistress of her employer, a friend of his wife, a situation her daughter detested and determined to remove herself far from.

Embarking on her own education, the young Maryse Condé, discovered that though she’d had the best education possible, enabling her to find success in France and Guadeloupe, she learned little about her own history or that of  her people. It was a gap in her education she couldn’t live with, that she wished to fill and it sent her off on a historical pursuit to understand both her maternal history and the voyage of her ancestors.

HeremakhononHer novel Heremakhonon(1976), which I’ve not yet read, is a semi-autobiographical story of a sophisticated Caribbean woman, teaching in Paris, who travels to West Africa in search of her roots and an aspect of her identity she has no connection with.

It is an insightful and somewhat disappointing experience, however for Maryse Condé personally, it was a springboard to the research and work that would follow, as her subsequent novels explore issues of race, gender and culture in a variety of historical periods and locations.

From this context, we come to what is considered a significant and radiant accomplishment, Segu (1984), set in the 19th century Kingdom of Segu (contemporary Mali), entering the soul of the African continent, at a point of prophetic enlightenment, as multiple forces and influences enter into the lives of those, who until now have known great spiritual power and authority.

Review

SeguIn 1797, the kingdom of Segu is thriving, its noblemen are prospering, its warriors are prominent and powerful, at their peak. 

Their people, the Bambara are guided by story-telling griots and divining priests, their lives ruled by the elements and tradition. However their visions fall short in preparing their followers for what is to come.

From the East, religion revolutions have spread Islam across two-thirds of West Africa; from the West, despite laws passed to stop it, the slave trade continues to flourish, and from within merchants make new demands for tropical goods, developing legitimate commerce.

Segu follows the life and descendants of Dousika Traore. He is the king’s most trusted advisor and the fate of his four sons epitomise the challenges that threaten to tear their family and society apart, in this historical turning point of African history. 

Dousika falls out of favour with the King and his son’s each go off in search of adventure outside the kingdom, where they discover quite a different perception of their people and their race.

Tiekoro, renounces his people’s religion, travels North to become a religious scholar and embraces Islam. He is by turn revered, scorned, returns to his home and becomes respected. However his position is always in flux and the balance of power between peoples and their associated beliefs are continuously challenged, he falls in and out of favour.

Siga, initially accompanies his brother and must survive in the same town, but without the introductions his brother has received to help him, he retains his belief in the Bambara gods, defending tradition and becomes a merchant. Although he was born on the same day as Tiekoro, his mother was a slave, so he must accept a less ambitious, less well-connected future.

Naba, is snatched by slave traders and sold and somehow ends up as a slave on a plantation in Brazil. He escapes, only to live on another plantation, a kind of free slave, to be near the woman he loves, whose children will reconnect with the family through a series of coincidences.

Malobali, the youngest, could no longer bear to listen to his older prodigal brother preaching, storms off one day in contempt, never to return. He becomes a mercenary, spending a period of time in a makeshift army, eventually converting to Christianity to improve his chances and has an encounter with the spirit of one of his brothers.

Based on actual events, Segu transports the reader to a fascinating time in history, capturing the earthy spirituality, religious fervour, and violent nature of a people and a growing nation trying to cope with jihads, national, tribal and family rivalries, racism and suspicion, amid the vagaries of commerce.

It shines a light on the impact of cross tribal marriage and partnership, of slavery, both that perpetuated by the Europeans and from within the African continent. The role of the son and the daughter, the rules of marriage, the perceptions of religion, the rise of Islam, the practices of fetishists and superstitions of their followers. The importance of relaying history through the storytelling griots, an inherited role, passed down from family member to family member.

Intuition

Just as with Condé’s previous work, here too there is communication and connections between family members not present, whether alive or manifesting as departed ancestors, they enter via dreams, intuition, providing guidance and reassurance. The presence and guiding voice of ancestors and the reincarnation of souls is important, as is the effect of love/lust on each of them.

As with the best of historical fiction, Segu takes us through a period of significant change, by engaging the reader with a family and its members, its traditions and those who wish to rebel against them, the will to modernise, to make their way forward in a world that is rapidly changing.

It engagingly portrays the balance of power and perceptions between people from different ethnic groups, where one is judged on everything except character. We encounter historic family feuds, feuds between peoples, religion and the rise of Islam, fetish priests, slaves, concubines and nobles, a complex society.

It was a deliberately slow read for me, but at the same time riveting, a book that scratches at the surface of a significant and fascinating subject and does wonders to assist in helping that era and people become more understood.

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