Madison Smartt Bell
Haiti - History - Revolution
Published: Nov 9, 2004
In 1995 Madison Smartt Bell published __, earning both critical plaudits and a National Book Award nomination for this fictional account of Haiti's 18th-century slave rebellion. Now he continues the saga with Master of the Crossroads, the second volume of a projected trilogy. Even in his earlier narratives of contemporary America, the author has always been attuned to the byzantine politics of color. But by focusing on the figure of Toussaint Louverture--the black general who led the Haitians to independence only to be jailed for treason against the French Republic--Bell allows the politics of race to point him in unexpected and rewarding narrative directions. This is a big, muscular book, which derives much of its strength from the author's willingness to paint his tumultuous political and physical landscapes with broadly sweeping strokes. But it is also a work of surprising delicacy, whose finely drawn characters come to life with the minutest gesture or softly whispered word.
The crossroads herein are not merely literal but metaphorical. Yes, the former slaves and their courageous leader are pinned down in the island's remote interior, caught between the English forces and the Spanish army (their nominal yet treacherous ally). But more to the point, Haiti's intricate progress from slavery to freedom brings each of the characters to a crucial, defining moment of energy or introspection. And finally, swirling through the book like an island mist, is the voodoo figure of Mâit' Kalfou, or the "Master of the Crossroads." Straddling the worlds of the dead and the living, this ecstatic spirit may at any time inhabit the body of a believer:
Between Legba and Kalfou the crossroads stood open now, and now Guiaou could feel that opened pathway rushing up his spine--passage from the Island Below Sea inhabited by les Morts et les Mystères. His hips melted into the movement of the drums, and the tails of the red coat swirled around his legs like feathers of a bird. With the other dancers he closed the small, tight circle around Legba and Kalfou, who faced each other as in a mirror: the shining surface of the waters, which divides the living from the dead.
Throughout, Bell's captivating vision of the battlefield bears witness to his rigorous research. Still, the voodoo celebrations, and the author's sly evocation of their unexpected resonance, remain the novel's strongest moments. Why? They speak, perhaps, to the apocalyptic nature of the Haitian rebellion. And more intriguingly, they permit Bell to play with the deceptive nature of belief and reality--a move that, in an avowedly historical novel, hints at the ironic fluidity of history itself. --Kelly Flynn
Bell manages the bravura feat of bringing coherence and novelistic focus to the intrinsically complex history of Haiti's national liberator in this second installment in his brutal, sweeping trilogy. The first volume, All Souls' Rising, a National Book Award finalist, took the slave revolt in Haiti up to 1793, when the great leader Toussaint Louverture was consolidating power. Continuing his stunning historical fresco, Bell traces the intricate weave of Toussaint's campaigns with an intelligence and verve reminiscent of Shelby Foote's classic military histories, braiding his rich character studies into the larger scheme. Racial classification was a science in Haiti in the 18th century, and the subtlest variations in skin color determined the treatment each person received. Riau, Toussaint's godson, is an ex-slave. For him, the desire of the white planters to reintroduce slavery, and their fundamental racism, is evident, but Riau's hatred doesn't vitiate his humanity. Riau does trust Toussaint's secretary, a white doctor, Antoine H bert. A subplot running like a silver thread in the shadow of the war is H bert's quest for his mulatto mistress, Nanon, after she runs away from H bert's plantation with Choufleur, a sadistic mulatto planter and Nanon's former lover, who exploits the psychodynamics of slavery in a frightening erotic context. The faltering planter aristocracy is represented by Michel Arnaud, who returns to the island although his house and lands were torched in the first phase of the revolt. Arnaud's past is one of murderous cruelty. Now, he is slowly rehabilitating himself, thanks to Claudine, his wife, who suffers from possession by the darkest Vodou spirit, Baron Samedi. Bell continually integrates his history with the sacred Vodou landscape, and as events channel between crossroads, trances, dreams and bloodshed, this mesmerizing, disturbing saga of a half-forgotten war takes on the ominous outlines and biblical proportions of a prophetic vision. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.