Saturday, January 08, 2005


Historical fiction is at its best in “All Souls’ Rising.”

Haiti today is one of the world’s least fortunate nations, half an island of misery situated in the lap of nature’s luxury. It’s hard to believe that the land was once the pearl of the Antilles, the richest square miles in the entire world.
All that, of course, was before the first successful slave revolt in history, when Haitian bondsmen and women, informed by the course of the French Revolution and fueled by years of abuse, rose up and made Haiti a black republic.
No history of those times would be complete without acknowledging Toussaint L’Ouverture, who secured the revolution and set in place a dream of an egalitarian Haiti to which the best in that tortured society still aspire.
In “All Souls’ Rising,” (Vintage, $15), author Madison Smartt Bell uses the power of historical fiction to present the clearest explanation yet written about the birth pangs of the first Haitian republic ever written.
Consider that the Haitian struggles at the end of the 19th century were a mix of all the worst and oldest conflicts to which humans have been heir. First, there was class warfare, as rich whites and poor whites glared at one another across an enormous gulf in wealth. The grand blancs, mainly sugar planters and other landed aristocrats, despised the petits blancs, the Haitian version of rednecks. Then add race conflict, as all whites united in fear of the overwhelming black slave majority.
Nevertheless, it was even more complicated. Both races feared a growing mulatto population, the fruit of forced and consensual intermingling of whites and blacks. In turn, the mulattoes joined with blacks or whites as circumstances dictated. Over that was the natural disdain French visitors and officials from the mother country held all Creoles, the term for folks born in the colony. Simmering below the mélange of hatreds was the resentment of women of all races subjugated in a Franco-Spanish culture of paterfamilias knows best.
Bell navigates this messy confluence of race, class and sex with skill, guiding readers through the twists and turns of Haitian politics and culture during the awful times of the revolution. His pacing is amazing, as he holds himself and his narrative in check to explain, slowly and incrementally, how a former coachman named Toussaint became the great “L’Ouverture.”
His book is sublime in its synchronicity and detailed overlays. The chapters weave together and often bend back on one another, appearing as if to naturally build a unified whole from acutely diverse streams of consciousness and experience.
Here are two examples:
Near the end of a chapter in which Toussaint, not yet the man of legend, is considering how to sign a letter announcing universal manumission, he picks the brain of Riau, a former field hand who has become a rebel:
“I am Toussaint…” he said again. He held out the empty hand like he was feeling for a weight to balance the word that he was speaking. But I did not know what to say to him. Of course I knew he was Toussaint.
“It wants something,” Toussaint said. “More -- another name.”
“Toussaint Breda,” I said then.
“No,” he said. “Not that.” He was even angry I had said this. But he had been called Breda forty years. I was not sorry, though, if this name was finished for him then.
Then, in the next chapter, two white officers who have decided to work for Toussaint contemplate a congruent conundrum:
“Will we go and offer our serves to this black general then?” the captain asked.
“I think we will,” Vaublanc said. “I’m a stranger to these times as much as you but Tocquet always falls on his feet, wherever the moment may drop him.”
“I can well believe that,” said Captain Maillert. “What was the name of this black fellow, Toussaint? Toussaint what?”
“”I don’t recall,” Vaublanc said, cheerfully enough. “What does it matter?”
Different voices, with different agendas, yet all speak to the same issue. Toussaint knows he is about to step onto history’s stage, his auditor and the two officers are similarly aware that the wheel is about to turn. That sense of pregnant greatness or great change suffuses the two chapters, unifying men of different races, classed and cultures in a shared adventure. Better, Bell’s ability to tell the story through different voices, from that of an unlettered slave to those of elegant European-trained officers, makes his narrative more accessible and compelling.
The tragedy of Haiti is that it offered the world a lesson in how people of different races, classes and cultures could have come together to make a new, healthier society great than, not riven by, the parts of its sum. That was L’Ouverture’s dream as he built an army and government of diversity, with whites, mulattoes and blacks all welcome to rise based on their individual merits.
In that respect, he modeled himself after Napoleon, who declared that his army would be open to all talents.
But for those who believe that Haiti descended into its historical and endemic hell because of the shortcomings of the freedmen and women, Bell sets the record straight. L’Ouverture co-opted the racial and class struggles of Haiti to create a republic, while proving true to his dream of pluralism; Napoleon co-opted a revolution and, in the full fever of empire, could not countenance a black general dictating Haiti’s constitution.
Those who know history know how this story ends. Napoleon’s greed and perfidy cost both Haiti and the world, yet his name is remembered with greater reverence than is that of L’Ouverture’s.
Historians, to say nothing of the lay reader, will be astonished and gratified at how well Bell tells a tale that deserves his master’s touch.
James M. Abraham is an independent book columnist. He can be reached at

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