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6721: A return to 18th-century Haiti, with sweep (fwd)

From: nozier <nozier@tradewind.net>

BOOK REVIEW A return to 18th-century Haiti, with sweep
By John Freeman, 1/21/2001
Master of the Crossroads  By Madison Smartt Bell  Pantheon, 732 pp., $30

This story ran on page F3 of the Boston Globe on 1/21/2001

 The last year brought Americans a host of unusually accomplished, very
long novels. From Joyce Carol Oates's ''Blonde'' to William Vollmann's
''The Royal Family'' to Michael Chabon's ''The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay,'' the epic is back in a big way. On the cusp of a new
era, American novelists have, not surprisingly, looked backward to
history to discern where we are going.
 No single work published in the last year matches the historical
authority and gravitas of Madison Smartt Bell's richly rewarding
historical novel,''The Master of the Crossroads.'' Replete with a
glossary, chronology, and  lavish endpaper maps, it announces itself as
fiction in the grandest, most ambitious form, and it lives up to these
expectations with aplomb.  It bears noting that ''Master of the
Crossroads'' is the second installment in
a projected three-volume series about Haiti in the late 18th century.
Following a brutal, bloody slave revolt in 1791 - which Bell chronicled
in  ''All Souls' Rising,'' a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award -
the  island, then called Saint Dominique, was French in name only. Its
population had splintered into a dizzying array of factions. The
 Spanish, and French governments retained military presences
throughout   Haiti; 2,000 whites had been killed and 180 plantations
torched. Bell picks  up the story here in August 1794, when the worst of
the looting, fighting, and lynching had ceased. As the fires around them
smolder, former slaves, mixed-race landowners, and white colonists face
a crossroads between  freedom and slavery, between France and Spain, and
between violence  and healing.
''Master of the Crossroads'' tells the grimly fascinating tale of how
Touissant Louverture leveraged control over these disparate groups and
united them under the French flag. Bell adroitly recasts the tactical
minutiae of warfare, as this novel relishes the chess game of battle as
well as any in recent memory. Step by step it reveals how Louverture
outsmarted and  outmaneuvered his competitors, many inside his own
ranks. Louverture's
 maniacal command sets off a ripple of action, and later, a wave of
second-guessing his deeper motivations. Bell refracts each one of
Louverture's decisions through multiple perspectives, from his
confidant,Doctor Antoine Hebert to Riau, a former runaway slave who
narrates in the first person.
 Although Bell shifts deftly between his supporting cast, his focus
remains on  the shadowy figure of Louverture. In his demonstrations of
bravery and  devotion to the cause of liberty, Louverture has earned the
fierce loyalty of  thousands of soldiers. Yet none of them truly knows
him. Ironically, in most  of his scenes he is flogging his scribes. The
pen, it turns out, is Louverture's  weapon of choice. Following each
conquest, he fires off dispatches to the  white French General Etienne
Laveaux, himself sandwiched between English and Spanish forces.
Heartened and inspired by Louverture's  gesture of patriotism, Laveaux
begins to rely on the black general for good  news. Over the course of
the novel, Louverture advances from soldier to governor general of the
island. With each battle he becomes stronger, appropriating men,
weapons, and most importantly, clout. When he enters the gates of a city
with 4,000 impoverished but brutally organized black men, white men
 ''Master of the Crossroads'' proceeds on this journey at a glacial
clip, trudging over Haiti's mottled landscape, its fields fetid from so
many shallowly buried bodies. Where in previous books Bell's language
felt rushed and unfinished, here it comes across as polished and
efficient. Bell   pounds each word like an anvil. Often the prose
swaggers muscularly, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy in the Border
Trilogy; at other times it
 grows florid and surreal, in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bell
captures the syncopated march of an army over rough terrain; he evokes
the way military engagements often consist of long stretches of boredom
intermingled with a few costly hours of bloodshed; and he juxtaposes
death with a natural beauty so overwhelming it inspires a religious
sense of awe. Though military history forms the crux of this novel, Bell
also develops  numerous side plots in which he shows how the island's
political realities
 affect personal lives. Each citizen on Saint Dominique lives in a
racially demarcated zone. Slave owners such as Claudine Anraud feel the
need to  pay penance and throw themselves at the mercy of people they
once considered chattel. Even in Louverture's army, a bastion of liberty
and   fraternity, conflicted ideas about race exist. After routing the
English on the  battlefield in the name of equality for all, some of
Louverture's own generals retire to a card game in which they place bets
on soldiers they formerly
  owned as slaves. Old habits die hard.
 The characters that are most fraught by race are the mulattoes; their
wealth   affords them the accoutrements of whiteness, yet their blood
continually  betrays them. Chief among this group is Chofleur, a violent
man whom  some readers will remember from a scene in ''All Souls'
Rising'' where he  skins his white father alive. In this volume,
Chofleur's temper has only  slightly abated. He boldly takes his
father's name, dons the finery of a  pure-blooded Frenchman, and
strategically employs an ironic smirk to raise
 the ire of his enemies. After his rebellious faction is routed by
Louverture,he slips south to the general's headquarters and reaps his
vengeance by  stealing away Dr. Hebert's wife. Nanon, who is also
mulatto, thrills to their coupling. At one point, Chofleur ties a chain
around her neck and lashes  her to the bed. Eventually, she refuses to
remove it, even when Chofleur has left her behind.
The tighter yoke of race remains. As if to remind their opponents what
they  fight for, a few of Louverture's generals tear off their shirts in
the heat of  battle to expose their torsos tattooed with the white scars
and brands of  slavery. In many ways, Haitian history resembles a
microcosm of the  United States, where racial schisms form active fault
lines in our society. Haiti worked through its issues of slavery in 14
years, while the United
 States has dragged it out over three centuries. Today, race, as
Russell  Banks argued in a recent Harper's magazine essay, stands as the
defining  narrative of American culture and Bell's novel is an important
addition to  that tradition. Sadly, ''Master of the Crossroads'' grinds
toward a conclusion that promises more bloodshed. Sensing this, it's
difficult as an American not to appreciate all over again how deep are
the wounds of
slavery. Powerful, horrifying, and impressive, this novel also reminds
us  how much blood will flow if we do not attend to those gashes.

                  This story ran on page F3 of the Boston Globe on
                  © Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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