In 2018, when the Swedish Academy was shaken by the #metoo tsunami, the Nobel Prize for Literature was not attributed to anyone. Instead an Alt-Nobel was announced by the New Academy to Maryse Condé. Many new readers discovered the magic of Condé’s fiction thanks to this much awaited recognition. However, for french speakers, Condé is an extremely well-known and much loved name. Her works embrace the language and the culture of her Guadeloupe, a small island in the Caribbean which is actually French territory. Condé started writing at only age 39, but over the course of four decades has given the French language a new breath of life with literature that proudly incorporates creole and Caribbean culture.
One of her most popular works is Traversée de la Mangrove, an ambitious little novel that tries to recreate in all its glory the rich tapestry of cultures that forms the quintessence of Guadeloupe. Condé uses the death of a rather enigmatic “outsider” and the wake that ensues to bring together many of the island’s denizens. Origins are varied- from Tamil speaking Indians to people of African descent. Language is tempered by the culture and the way of life- from creole of the proud local to the refined French of the white man from the Metropole (i.e. France). Each character has an interior monologue as he or she contemplates the dead man. These monologues explore not just their relationship with the dead man (or the lack of it) but also reveal several facets of their character, their outlook towards life and their place in society in the melting pot that is Guadeloupe.
Condé explores the margins that exists within a society that, in the eyes of many, is already marginalized. Small fractures surface through out the narrative. And the one unifying factor is the fact that these divided people view the dead man, Francis Sacher, as a stranger. Some abhor him. Some love him. Some fear him. Few, very few, are indifferent to him. In trying to establish the dead man’s origins and his past, they reflect on their own past. Sancher, according to the several versions, may have died of an aneurysm, or too much rum, or of being too white, or for being a deserter. As each character contemplates their story and the dead man’s, very often contradicting each other, Condé’s ironic tale gathers more and more texture and richness.
Traversée de la Mangrove mixes fantasy, history, social commentary, irony and tragedy and narrates it in a polyphonic voice that is original and exhilarating. It is a must-read for any francophile as it opens new horizons to the language and lets the reader get a glimpse of a culture that no book on history or sociology can capture with as much deftness and all encompassing humane intelligence as this masterpiece.