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#5358: MATERS OF THE CROSSROADS by Madison Smartt Bell, reviewed by , Bob Corbett
>From Bob Corbett:
MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS. By Madison Smartt Bell. New York:
Panther Books, 2000. ISBN: 0-375-42056-8. 752 pages, plus
Glossary and historical chronology.
$30.00 hard bound.
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
Some of the most perplexing questions of the Haitian Revolution concern
the person and intent of Toussaint Louverture. Who was Toussaint
Louverture? What were his plans for Saint-Domingue? What faction was he
most loyal to? Haitian and foreign historians alike have addressed these
questions for two hundred years and no definite accepted analysis has
emerged. Toussaint remains opaque, ambiguous, while interpreters seem to
line up according to biases they had before looking carefully at the
Madison Smartt Bell presents one of the most vividly argued positions I've
read of Toussaint and he comes down squarely and appropriately on the
fence. Bell's Toussaint is essentially his very ambiguity, his shifting
indecisiveness, changing with the circumstances he faces while wishing he
could position a slave-free colony of France with shared power. Yet he
can't trust any of the factions: not his own essentially black army, not
the native Saint-Domingue people of color, not the French. Nor can he
look outside. Neither the British or Spanish is a safe mother hen, and
the weak and struggling North American state, while useful as an arms'
trading partner, is too uncertain. That would seem to lead him on to
independence, but that move is fraught with dangers and likely to lead to
long-lasting foreign wars from all sides and bitter and destructive
Perhaps it is not Toussaint who is ambiguous. Rather, it is the
historical situation in which he lived and fought which offered no real
solution and Toussaint was simply doomed to push forward into this
hopeless morass of history.
Thus I see Bell's Toussaint as essentially a confusion and frustration to
himself, wanting a utopia which history is busily denying him.
The brilliance and delight of Bell's novel is the presentation of the
evidence -- the evidence is the novel itself, nearly 700 pages of
fascinating people living their lives in Saint-Domingue when all things
revolved around the moves, hopes and ambitions of Toussaint Louverture.
MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS is a novel and the second volume of a planned
trilogy. The first volume was Bell's ALL SOULS' RISING. I criticized
that novel for having brilliant fictional characters, but a less vivid
portrait of Toussaint himself, the seeming central character. I now think
that criticism was misguided. In this second volume all my old friends
and enemies are back from ALL SOULS': my favorite, the ex-slave,
ex-maroon Riau who usually talks about himself in the third person and is
as often as not possessed by Ogun; Dr. Herbert, white French physician who
eventually faces up to the prejudices of his time and marries his mulatto
lover, Nanon; Tocquet, gutsy French gun-runner and middle man who will
sell anything to anyone, knowing no loyalties; the witty and sexy Madame
de Cigny who bears a black man's child, but lacks the courage to accept
the child as her own; the evil and warped mulatto Choufleur who fights a
deadly hand-to-hand battle with Dessalines; the delightful child-like
Moustique, son of a Catholic priest who was killed off in volume one, who
grows to adopt his father's Catholicism while adapting it to include the
Guinee mysteries as well --- and on and on and on. The cast of
significant characters is long and one person is more real, vivid and
memorable than the next.
Each character is vibrant, alive, convincing, lovable or hateful, amusing
or disgusting in turn. What is central is that each is somehow related to
Toussaint and reveals a different aspect of Toussaint's person. The
melange is to lay bare a Toussaint whom we experience through the other
characters. The sum is contradictory, of course, thus the Toussaint who
emerges is complex, confused, indecisive and a victim of circumstances.
I missed this aspect of the structure of the novel first time round.
Toussaint is the complete center of this novel, but Toussaint is not
revealed by his acts nor the power of his own (fictional) person. Rather,
he is revealed in the lives of the many developed fictional characters and
in their understanding of Toussaint in his dealings toward them and
Were there a clear REAL Toussaint in the historical literature he would
have been laid naked to us by now in the analyses of historical research.
Bell's valuable contribution is to make the Toussaint of essential
ambiguity live for us in the believable fictional characters of this
The title, MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS is phenomenally rich and symbolic. On
one level the crossroads are the myriad moments of critical decision when
Toussaint simply MUST decide. ALL SOULS' took us from the beginnings of
the revolution in 1791 until late 1793 when Toussaint had settled in with
Jean-Francoise and Biassou on the Spanish side.
MASTER opens with Toussaint's first crossroad of this volume, his famous
"volte-face," the cross back over to the French. In the course of Bell's
story he has several other crucial historical crossroads:
-- to expel or not expel Sonthonax
-- to defeat or go over to the British
-- to expel or not expel Laveaux
-- to promulgate or not promulgate his constitution
-- to kill or not to kill Moyse
and more. Throughout the novel we are gently reminded of the title in
many scenes where the physical crossroads, literally the meetings of
roads, play an important role. There are times of confusion when
Toussaint doesn't know which road to take, other times when attempted
assassinations occur at crossroads, another occasion when Toussaint
hurries back to the Cape before Rigaud can get there and does so by
judicious use of crossroads and alternative paths, and so on.
The second sense of the crossroads ties into its meaning within Voodoo.
Again, as in the characterization itself, it is not in Toussaint that we
see the theme played out, but in the fictional characters. Voodoo is at
the center of Bell's account and three characters particularly emphasize
the role of Voodoo in Revolutionary Saint-Domingue. Toussaint himself
remains aloof, even retreating more and more toward a fairly conservative
version of Roman Catholicism, broken only by the hint that at times he may
have been possessed by Ogun.
But Moustique embraces Voodoo with passion. Only one central character
was killed in ALL SOULS', the French Catholic priest, Pere Bonne-chance.
Moustique is his illegitimate son and Toussaint seeks to provide him with
a good Catholic upbringing. He flees that safe world after discovering
the African mysteries of his mother's side. As he grows through his teens
he becomes increasingly at the center of a curious and thorough wedding of
Catholicism and Voodoo, becoming a de facto if unordained Catholic priest
as well as a dedicated houngan. His versions of both Catholicism and
Voodoo are seemingly idealized versions of quite late 20th century values
of love and fellowship, but no matter, he sweeps people into his vision
and serves both communities.
Riau, again in this volume as well as the first, my favorite character, is
a former slave whom Toussaint knew at Breda when Riau was but a child. In
ALL SOULS' he went into Toussaint's army, learned to read and write,
became a captain in the army with a blood-thirsty love of white blood and
one of Toussaint's trusted secretaries. Eventually he simply tired of the
war and went into marronage, and more important, desertion of Toussaint's
army. As MASTER opens he is on a journey back to Toussaint to beg
forgiveness and offer to rejoin the army, a grace Toussaint readily
grants. Riau's Voodoo is gut level. He's known it since childhood. He
attended the ceremony of Bois Cayman and felt moved by a petro Ogun, was
moved to kill and destroy with vengeance. Now, in his more mature life,
he is very often possessed by Ogun and one is never quite sure when one is
dealing with Riau and when Ogun. Since he often refers to himself in the
third person one suspects that may really be Ogun describing Riau.
A third character who helps emphasize the role of Voodoo in Toussaint's
world is the French woman, Claudine Arnauld. In volume one she had gone
insane, the result of her guilt and horror over her own acts in the time
of the uprising. Not only did she cut off one of her own fingers to more
quickly remove a gold ring to use to save friends, but she murdered one of
her slaves on her plantation. It is only in Voodoo and in being possessed
by relatively benign spirits that she slowly
gathers back her sanity and humanity.
What we see in these three characters as central and to a lesser degree in
others is Bell's interpretation that Voodoo was a central force in driving
the entire Haitian Revolution, thus the crossroad theme, even without
Toussaint's personal commitment, has this important aspect.
I have to admit to being troubled by Bell's seemingly contemporary sense
of value being imposed on late 18th century Voodoo and Catholicism. In
both the characters of Claudine Arnauld and Moustique we have a sort of
late 20th century God of love and internalized virtues. Then the
characters of Dr. Herbert and Claudine's husband, Michel, in trying to
make sense of what Claudine and Moustique are about come to an
understanding and acceptance of Voodoo which would make the most
politically correct contemporary multiculturalist most happy.
I just couldn't accept this level of contemporary sophistication in the
characters of these old salts of Saint-Domingue.
Once again, as in my reading of ALL SOULS' RISING, I come away from MASTER
OF THE CROSSROADS believing Bell a gifted writer of historical fiction.
He makes the past live for me so vividly I forget I am not there. I
forget this is a special recreation. I find myself reading as though
these were contemporary reports transcribed. I mentioned earlier that
Riau had deserted Toussaint at the end of ALL SOULS'. The opening chapter
of MASTER is a ten page description of Riau's walk across northern
Saint-Domingue from near the Santo Domingo border to Toussaint's camp near
Ennery. We read:
"He was walking north. The knife, swinging lightly with his step, reached
a little past the joint of his knee. The country was in low rolling
mounds like billows of the sea, dry earth studded with jagged chunks of
stone. There were spiny trees like the one where he'd sheltered at
midday, but nothing else grew here. He walked along a road of sorts, or
track, marked with the ruts of wagon wheels molded in dry mud, sometimes
the fossilized prints of mules or oxen. Sometimes the road was scored
across by shallow gulleys, from flooding during the time of the rains.
West of the road the land became more flat, a long, dry savannah reaching
toward a dull haze over the distant sea. In the late afternoon the
mountains to the east turned blue with rain, but they were very far away
and it would not rain here where the man was walking."
I easily become that walking man and am pulled into the moment. In doing
so I get opened to his views and thoughts on Toussaint as well.
Whether it's an intense battle scene, a dinner party with lively and witty
repartee, a heated moment of love and passion, Bell puts us there within
the senses of the characters. We feel the experience right along with
them. In this ability lies the power of the novelist to persuade us to
his point of view not by the power of crisp rational arguments of the
scholar, but to flood us with the sense of his created and believable
The narrator perhaps reveals a lot in the treatment of Toussaint's
strategy at Mirabelais. After taking the town from the British a large
force marches out from Gonaives to relieve the town. Rather than engage
them Toussaint leaves the scorched town and marches quickly around the
British to attack the now weakened and poorly defended Gonaives. The
British are confused and out of their element of orderly European wars
fought on the plains. The narrator comments:
"Once Simcoe had brought his army back, Toussaint faded his own troops
toward Gonaives and the Cordon de l'Quest; he did not mean to fight a full
engagement with such a large force on the Artibonite plain. A chess
player's victory of position: Simcoe would not risk another sally toward
the interior, and all his fresh men would remain pinned down on the coast.
Let fever take them."
Some of Toussaint's aims and strategies are clear like the one above.
Several times the narrator discusses Toussaint's conscious use of the
fever and particularly the penchant of the British to remain holed up in
towns and crowded barracks which Toussaint is sure contributes to the
fever's power. We may not know the whole of the character of Toussaint,
but some of the move immediate aims are quite clear. But the essential
overview, the BIG questions are answered only in the contradictory views
and experiences of the leading dozen or more major characters.
MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS takes us from Toussaint's decision to rejoin the
French in early 1794 until November 1801 when Toussaint rules supreme in
Saint-Domingue, but before Vincent has presented Toussaint's fateful
constitution to the French Assembly and Napoleon. Presumably the third
and final volume of this trilogy will wrap-up the story of Toussaint
Louverture and the Haitian Revolution.
The structure of the novel is to present a short scene from September 1802
in Fort de Joux where Toussaint is held prisoner. Then the book fades to
a long flashback in the earlier years. This pattern is repeated four
times and the four sections are titled:
-- Kalfou Danjere
-- Black Spartacus
-- Goute Sel
-- The War of Knives
The novel ends with a last short visit to Fort de Joux where Caffarelli,
Napoleon's interrogator delivers us the last view of Toussaint, Napoleon's
view -- that he was a traitor to the French, having hidden both a secret
treaty with the British and amassed a huge fortune which he has secreted
somewhere, perhaps in Saint-Domingue, perhaps in North America.
The title of each section speaks clearly to the situations Toussaint faced
in Saint-Domingue and which shaped his choices:
-- Kafou Danjere: the early period of daring and dangerous moves
on Toussaint's part to return to the French and face
Jean-Francois and Biassou.
-- Black Spartacus: (from a quote of Laveaux) the establishment of
Toussaint as a leader with great power and fighting ability.
-- Goute Sel: Toussaint's awakening of the Haitian people to the
gravity of their situation and the precariousness of their
freedom from slavery.
-- The War of Knives: the (temporary) settling of leadership and
unity in Saint-Domingue under Toussaint at the end of this
war when Rigaud fled to France.
These external events and movements parallel the inner life of the
powerless Toussaint in prison at Fort de Joux in 1802. He can't change
his material condition, but he rises in power vis-a-vis his interrogator,
Cafferilli, in parallel to how his work had progressed in Haiti.
At 680 pages of text followed by a glossary of terms and an extensive
historical chronology, this is a long book. However, it is well worth the
investment of time. The book is gripping and the pages fly by. The
familiar historical events are mixed well with fictional details of the
everyday lives of a large case of important characters.* I can't imagine
a lover of Haiti not becoming an attentive and appreciative reader of
MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS.
*[Were this novel ever made into a film it would be terribly expensive
simply because the list of important characters would require a massive
numbers of "stars" to fill the roles, as did the film version of Graham
Green's THE COMEDIANS.]