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#5876: MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS Review by Carey Harrison

From: nozier@tradewind.net

TOUSSAINT L'OUVENTURE By Carey Harrison. October 22, 2000 

Pantheon, 752 pages, $30

On April 7, 1803, the former slave Toussaint L'Ouverture, liberator of
Haiti and "the black Spartacus," as he had been dubbed in his lifetime,
died in the chilly French Alpine confines of Ft. de Joux, where
Napoleon had detained him since the previous August. It is a grim date
in colonial history, for L'Ouverture's death not only robbed Haitians of
a leader who might have brought them unity out of the bitterest possible
division, but it deprived the entire colonial world of the precious
example this might have provided.
With L'Ouverture dead and the English taking a fresh hand in the future
of the island by siding with the former slave population against the
French (there was nothing noble about that move, because the English
would have sided with anyone against the French), L'Ouverture's
ruthless old comrade in arms, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, crowned
himself emperor of Haiti. Within a few years the new emperor had
initiated the blood-soaked postcolonial history of that tragic nation.
Could it have been otherwise in Haiti, if Napoleon had supported
L'Ouverture, his Haitian equivalent in strategic cunning and breadth of
vision? And the bigger question: Could it then have been otherwise
elsewhere, amid the postcolonial firestorms of the next 200 years, if a
 Haiti governed by L'Ouverture had supplied a beacon of strong yet
tolerant black nationhood? Or would the internal stresses of Haitian
politics, so convoluted and so vicious in its racial divisions that by
the end L'Ouverture himself was beginning to tumble into fratricidal
 absolutism, have undone his dreams of evenhandedness? In "Master of the
Crossroads," the newly published second volume of a trilogy that began
with 1995's widely acclaimed historical novel "All  Souls' Rising,"
Madison Smartt Bell keeps these questions in the foreground of the
reader's mind as he traces L'Ouverture's rise to political ascendancy
and the military campaigns by which he wrested sole control of Haiti
from a host of rivals. In the 1790s these included not only the
French-L'Ouverture's former colonial masters who were themselves divided
into bitterly opposed camps of royalist and Jacobin in the wake of their
own revolution-but also the Spanish and the English, as well as two
black generals of no less ambition than L'Ouverture's, and a mulatto
general, Andre Rigaud, who outlasted and outfought all the other
contestants to become L'Ouverture's final opponent.
This makes for an unusually complex military and political tale,
especially since all the major players were ready to change affiliations
at the drop of a hat, and L'Ouverture, in order to win, had to be more
devious than the rest. " `He is a wicked old fox, Toussaint, and no one
knows for certain what is in his mind,' " observes one of the supporting
cast in "Master of the Crossroads." It is a sentiment repeated by all
too many of the book's characters, in case we didn't get the point.
Bell does an accomplished job of fleshing out an enormous gallery of
contemporary Haitians, but the book belongs to his L'Ouverture, the
hero as enigma. What was he, this former slave with the verbal (if not
 writing) skills of a diplomat: A true humanitarian, a scheming
politician, or merely a tyrant in waiting? Bell's courteous,
unpredictable L'Ouverture dwarfs the subsidiary characters in "Master of
the Crossroads," just as L'Ouverture himself dwarfed his contemporaries,
combining physical tirelessness, strategic cunning and enormous patience
with a moral substance that commanded devotion from the former fellow
slaves who formed the core of his army, as well as from the men of mixed
blood who rallied to his cause. Their loyalty is all the more
believable, in Bell's account, because it is obtained without the use of
fear, without cruelty--for a time, at least, until betrayals and
repeated assassination attempts finally turn L'Ouverture into a man as
vengefully ruthless as his enemies. In what is in other respects a
conventional historical novel, full of characters conveniently
representing opposing points of view and arguing them out, Bell's
portrait of L'Ouverture is startlingly convincing, no mean achievement
where so divided a personality is concerned. Yet who on Haiti was not
divided, whether by politics among half a dozen temporary masters of the
island, by religion between Catholicism and voodoo, or by race amid as
dementedly exact an attempt to ascribe blood-allegiance as the world has
ever seen? A 1797 classification of the island's races, provided by Bell
in an appendix, cites 110 distinct human categories, each the product of
a different degree of miscegenation.
 "Master of the Crossroads" is exhaustively knowledgeable where Haiti
is concerned--one cannot say exhaustively "researched" when the
author's intimacy with his subject runs so deep. Yet one disappointing
aspect of the book is a tension between its rich resources and a
persistent concern to woo readers who might be bored by too intricate a
game of military and political chess. Romantic subplots take too much
attention from the panorama of political developments, which are more
intriguing. As a result, the reader struggles to keep abreast of the
ever-shifting power struggles but rarely loses sight of the
more-predictable love stories. Expressive of this recourse to the charms
of conventional historical fiction, with its anxiety to keep a toehold
in the contemporary world, is Bell's surprising use of quotes from Bob
Marley's song "Revolution" to introduce two of the book's four sections.
Nothing measures the distance between Haiti's ghastly history and
Caribbean music's facile appeal to revolt better than Bell's book. Yet
within it these epigraphs serve as a bizarrely inappropriate appeal to
hip readers and evoke only the abyss between Jamaica's history and
Haiti's, not to mention between showbiz and mass-murderous repression.
Within its limits, "Master of the Crossroads" is an absorbing and at
times majestic read, at its best when we are in the company of Bell's
sphinx-like L'Ouverture, or when the book slips the bonds of
representation and runs free across the ominous Haitian landscape, as in
an early section where a "colored youth" called Moustique follows
L'Ouverture and his famous white charger, Bel Argent, on a swift and
sure-footed ride through mountain foliage in shifting patterns of sun,
rain and moonlight: "[T]hey broke from the road and went down a
trail-less jungled slash in the mountainside, so steep that Moustique
thought the white horse must surely fall or break a leg, but Bel Argent
managed nimbly as a mule, Toussaint remaining mounted all the while.
They climbed the other side of the gorge and struck a well-worn trail on
the opposite height, a red wound in the dirt deep as the knees of
Moustique's donkey. Some passages seemed impossibly steep, but the white
war horse went up them like a man mounting stairs. The wind stepped up,
sudden and sharp; the trees swayed back away from it, and Toussaint
looked over his shoulder to grin briefly at Moustique, the white plumes
dancing on his hat, then squeezed and leaned and urged his horse a
little faster up the slope."  L'Ouverture, the white-plumed black
general on his white horse: The image still raises to iconic pitch our
hopes for a just society and our despair at the perversions we continue
to witness in society's name.Bell could not have chosen a more resonant
setting than Haiti, nor found a more telling figure in whom to summon
contemporary hopes and fears than Toussaint L'Ouverture--nearly 200
years dead and yet as potent and elusive a subject for political
meditation as any figure since.