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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : The Part of Paradise You Won't See in the Travel Posters : CROSSING THE MANGROVE, by Maryse Conde ; Anchor/Doubleday; $9.95, paperback; 224 pages

August 21, 1995|ACHY OBEJAS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Caribbean is illusionary--its topography and foliage, its smell and mythology depend a great deal on where we are standing. Those on the outside looking in may see a romantic paradise, a leisurely get-away where we relax in the soothing arms of nature. In this way, the tropical wilderness is magical, the natives lucky to have this beauty at their disposal every day of their lives.

But for those who experience the Caribbean on a daily basis, who understand that nature is not just the benign gust harnessed for para-sailing, but also the destructive and unpredictable force of the hurricane, this is a wholly different world. Here, the extremes include not only those occasional and sensational bursts of energy, but also the maddening, mundane existence of island life.

In Maryse Conde's "Crossing the Mangrove," those on the outside are invited inside. Here, Guadaloupe, the capital isle of the French Antilles, is ripped right off the travel posters promising salt-and-pepper beaches, accessible rain forests and active, yet domesticated, volcanoes.

In "Crossing the Mangrove," Conde exposes Guadaloupe as strangling and provincial, a small town surrounded by endless turquoise water. It's arid, dark and incestuous, both in fact and metaphorically. In Conde's Guadaloupe, the natives are as suspicious of as they are dependent on strangers. When they catch a glimpse of the tourists, they back away, not just out of fear, but alienation.

So imagine then what happens when Francis Sancher, "this burly, heavy-built man as tall as a mahogany tree crowned with a mass of curly, graying hair," sails up, spending money, telling wild stories about people and places the natives can only imagine. Sancher doesn't just talk about New York and "French France," as the locals refer to their colonial master, but about Africa and Cuba and South America. And he sets up his headquarters in the Alexis house, a structure so riddled with evil spirits that no carpenter on the island will touch it.

Sancher occupies a curious place in Guadaloupe's society: neither transient tourist nor lethargic native. He seems thoroughly unconnected, with no kin, no debts owed to anyone, no hotel checkout.

This freedom, though, is deceptive, because Sancher is cursed. His journey to Guadaloupe is final, meant to fulfill or end a deadly prophecy that's been killing male members of his family for generations. Through his research, Sancher has traced the origins of the spell back to the little town of Riviere au Sel. He sets up a typewriter on a card table on his veranda at the Alexis house and begins to peck at the keyboard, immediately becoming the object of rumors, lust and envy.

Sancher emerges as troubled, sensual, filled with regret and fear, and genuinely oblivious to the havoc his mere presence has wreaked in Riviere au Sel. What we also discover is that while most--and definitely not all--his neighbors assume a cool attitude toward him at one point or another, they all use him as a measure of their own lives, and as a catalyst for change. Some of them loved Sancher, others discover that they were blind to that love.

In the process of presenting these reminiscences (some in first, some in third person), Conde gives us an intimate look at this tiny, suffocating society, its fragilities and its heart. Her language is vivid, deceptively simple, and often imbues nature with the qualities of human beings: the moon, for example, "closes her eyes."

There are problems with "Crossing the Mangrove," however. The voices in the different sections are not always as distinct as they could be. It's hard to tell if the fault lies with Conde, who writes in her native French Creole, or with her translator/husband, Richard Philcox, who explains in his introduction that he was looking for "a similarity of purpose and mastery of style" to Virginia Woolf.

Why he thought Woolf would be an useful model is a mystery even after reading the novel, but it leaves the impression that perhaps he involved himself in the manuscript more than a more detached translator might have. It's hard to say.

Some readers also will be disturbed by how often Conde, who splits her time between Guadaloupe and the eastern U.S., presents leaving the island as the only way many of her characters can realize their dreams. In fact, given the mysterious way in which the Caribbean shifts, an escape from paradise may well prove to be exactly the opposite.

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