When the committee for the Nobel prize in literature postponed its 2018 award, a group of Swedish cultural figures established the alternative New Academy prize and awarded it to the Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé. It was a fitting tribute to a writer who is still publishing new, acclaimed fiction, includinglast month’s novel, Waiting for the Waters to Rise, even as her backlist enters the canon of modern classics.
Crossing the Mangrove, first published in French in 1989, opens with a bang: as dusk falls in the fictional Guadeloupean village of Rivière au Sel, Cuban incomer and scoundrel Francis Sancher has been found dead, “face down in the sticky mud”. News of his death bounces around the village: “Who killed him?” As a crowd gathers, our narrator wonders if the villagers are being hypocrites, “for all of them […] had called Francis a vagabond and a cur and isn’t it the fate of a cur to die amid general indifference?”
But they are interested because most of them had their lives touched or overturned by Sancher and through the night the narrative meanders like a river, dropping in on each villager. The most intimately affected are Mira and Vilma. Mira has given birth to Sancher’s son, having fallen upon him as a stable point in her shifting life after her mother died. “At the age of five I ran away for the first time. I could not accept the fact there was no mama somewhere on this earth for me.” And Vilma, still a girl, is pregnant with Sancher’s child. She too had been searching, after her mother rejected her and she sought to climb free of her wrong beginnings.
Scattered through the book are words of Guadeloupean Creole, adding delicious texture to the dialogue
The villagers’ stories come in layers, each only a few pages long but adding to our understanding of the web of relationships. Vilma’s mother, Rose Samsaran, confirms her rejection of her daughter – “the heart does not accept orders” – which, it turns out, is a reaction to the death of an earlier child. Meanwhile Carmélian, Vilma’s brother, hates Sancher for what he sees as the rape of Mira, but not that of his own sister.
Yet this is not a tragic tale, but, rather, a story of life in all its flavours. There is wit in the account of the voluble Cyrille the storyteller and absurdity from drunkard Loulou, who dreams of being granted a royal warrant for his flower business: “The Queen of England smiles at me, she has a tooth filled with gold from Guyana in her lower jaw.” Nor is Condé, who taught at Columbia University, above poking fun at herself: one character, Lucien, reflects that discussing writing is impossible “since the few Guadeloupean writers who did exist spent most of their time holding forth on Caribbean culture in Los Angeles or Berkeley”.
Scattered through the book are words of Guadeloupean Creole, adding delicious texture to the dialogue – “Calm down! Sit still! Ou kon pwa ka bouyi!” (“You’re like peas on the boil!”). In an introductory note, translator Richard Philcox, Condé’s husband, says that his inspiration for the translation was Mrs Dalloway and the comparison fits: this is a fluid, mobile narrative, passing easily from person to person.
Sancher is a catalyst for the villagers. One, Dinah, decides to leave Rivière au Sel: “I’m going to look for the sun and the air and the light for what’s left of the years to live. Where will I find them?” she asks. “I don’t know yet. What I do know is that I’m going to look for them.” Similarly, the reader of Crossing the Mangrove may or may not find out who killed Sancher. But along the way, we will find fascinating and beautiful things we didn’t know we sought.
• Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (translated by Richard Philcox) is published by Penguin Classics (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply