Comments of Bob Corbett
Madison Bell has arrived at the third and final volume of his trilogy of historical fiction on Toussaint Louverture. The earlier volumes, All Souls’ Rising and The Master of the Crossroads, have taken us up to October 1801.
As this novel opens we find Toussaint in his freezing prison cell of Fort de Joux. He is still pleading his case, professing his interest in peace. The jailor, under strict orders from Napoleon, not only turns a deaf ear to Toussaint, but continues to treat him rudely, with no respect.
We then travel back in time toward San Domingue joining Leclerc’s ships bearing down on the colony in December 1801. They carry proclamations of peaceful intentions and promises there is no intent to re-enslave the people. Yet we are privy to conversations among French officers of their orders and plans to capture Toussaint and take him to France.
In the next 700 plus pages of this hefty volume we follow the war in San Domingue from the Leclerc landing until Toussaint’s death. This ending date is significant, April 1803. It wouldn’t take much for Bell to continue the story to its conclusion at Vertieres in November 1803, but this trilogy is a study of Toussaint, not the Haitian Revolution itself.
Bell’s historical research is impeccable. However, were we to want merely the history of Toussaint we could turn to prose histories which would be much shorter, a bit more systematic and filled with more historical detail.
We turn to the literary artist for something quite different. We expect a significant degree of sophistication in style and form of presentation, and we expect a persuasive subjective entering into the lives and times, revealing the period, the revolution itself and Toussaint’s person in a challenging, satisfying and artistic manner.
Madison Bell not only delivers on all counts, but once again stirs up what could become a fascinating counter-factual historical controversy.
In the first two volumes he has created numerous characters each representing various personality types we might have found in revolutionary San Domingue. All of the key characters who survived alive in volumes one and two reappear in this final volume, and new characters are introduced, including a persuasively nasty presentation of Leclerc’s sexy and unfaithful wife, Pauline.
I immensely enjoyed Bell’s characters in all three volumes and the rich detail of their lives and response to the revolution has been revealing. I followed the world of collaborationist medical doctor Herbert with delight; a white man allied to Toussaint’s troops. In this volume he is ever-present, but in Bell’s placing him inside Crete-a’-Pierrot and among the white hostages, allows a profound insight into the feelings and fears of those prisoners. He is judged by Dessalines himself as “yon neg”(a black) and spared execution.
I have been fascinate with Claudine Arnaud, a French woman who follows the lwa (spirits of Voodoo) and is nearly always possessed. In this volume her “met tet” (main spirit) is no longer the angry Erzili Je Rouge, but the more pacific Erzili Freda.
The second major figure whose life is centered in Voodoo is Riau, my favorite character of all. He is an ex-slave, member of Toussaint’s honor guard, who reads and writes and does many letters for Toussaint. He even delivers these letters in secret and dangerous missions. Riau is distrustful of everyone, including his beloved Toussaint, and pragmatic to the core. Like Toussaint himself, Riau has only one consistent desire – the growth of a free land of non-slaves. As such he flits around from side to side. He is the sole minion of Toussaint in whom such “betrayals” are accepted. Riau is often guided by the lwa in his choices and in this final volume he finally takes the ason becoming a houngan.
Riau’s absorption with Voodoo may explain a curious phenomenon. He often refers to himself in the third person. “Riau was doing thus and so.” Were he possessed and being ridden by a lwa this would make sense. It wouldn’t be Riau speaking, but the lwa, thus Riau would be referred to as an outside person.
The two characters Claudine and Riau underline one aspect of Bell’s association with Haiti. From the three novels of the trilogy and other writings, one discovers a man with a profound knowledge of, interest in and respect for Voodoo. It is not the typical interest of so many foreign white observers – an interest in the exotic and bizarre – but the interest of one deeply respectful of and even, perhaps, one personally attracted to Voodoo as religion.
This final volume introduces us to four young French officers who are in charge of Toussaint’s two sons Placide and Isaac, being returned to San Domingue from school in France. The sons are to be the pawns of the French in capturing their father. However, Bell weaves the characters of the officers from the hate-filled Paltre to the more honest and eventually politically confused Dasir. These characters were well-conceived, humanizing even the French. That’s not common in novels concerning the revolution.
In reading this long volume I kept notes on characters distinguishing several categories including those I designated as:
The sheer number of KEY figures to the narration who were in the first category was huge. I can’t begin to treat them all, but so many of them were clearly representations of classes of real living people, and written with power, detail yet palpable individual reality.
In addition to those mentioned above some who deeply enriched my understanding of the revolutionary period were:
….. The list goes on and on. Bell’s ability to create vivid and believable characters is simply astonishing. My hat is off to him on this exceptional art and skill. I do envision him having some sort of gigantic chart on the wall of his writing room keeping track of these people over the three volumes.
One bit of social history which I found particularly interesting was the level of general promiscuity in the colony, especially the significant degree of inter-racial promiscuity.
In any period of prolonged war one tends to find an increase in promiscuity, but both the degree and path it took in revolutionary San Domingue surprised me. I don’t doubt Bell’s portrayal, just startled by it. In this especially prudish time in the U.S. I found this revelation to be refreshing.
But the central character of all three volumes is Toussaint Louverture. In my review of the first volume, ALL SOULS’ RISING I wasn’t convinced Bell had understood Toussaint correctly. In volume two I was less critical, but still unsure. Now, in this last volume Madison has finally convinced me of “his” Toussaint, or perhaps its just that our views come together on the Toussaint of this period. Perhaps it is because I wish his Toussaint to be an accurate portrayal. I simply LIKE this Toussaint very much.
In his first volume Bell introduced a highly controversial fictional device, one that in my review and later internet discussions, I called “the plot theory.” On that account, after the French Revolution of 1789 and subsequent statement of “the Rights of Man,” free people of color of San Domingue rallied to the spirit of the Rights of Man doctrine and demanded French citizenship and the vote. Of course the revolutionaries of both France and the U.S. had not intended the rights of man to apply to people of color, nor to women and only in a limited fashion to white male citizens who were not property owners.
Thus began the militancy of free people of color from San Domingue.
All this is quite standard history. But on Bell’s fictional plot theory a group of rich white planters, including Toussaint’s “owner” Breda, decided to fund and encourage a slave uprising. They held, again on this fictional conceit, that once this rebellion was under way it would quickly solidify FRENCH public opinion against the San Domingue claims. After that issue was settled, it would be quite easy for the whites of San Domingue to put down the slave uprising as they had done countless times in the past. The key to Bell’s fictional hypothesis was that among the slaves selected to foment this uprising was Toussaint Louverture.
In my early review I attacked this fictional device as:
A rather significant and long discussion followed on-line and in the process Bell seemingly backed away from this device and ironically, I became convinced that there was some troubling historical evidence that this seemingly crazy fiction might actually have been true.
Now, in this volume, Bell uses his delightful freedom of fictional invention to drop a bomb of speculation into his account of the person of Toussaint Louverture and of the strategy used during the revolution.
One of the unresolved, perhaps irresolvable, historical questions is: What really accounted for the victory of the slave armies? Was it:
the warring and strategies of the slave armies
Many historical accounts deal with this issue and take one side or the other. More measured accounts seem to say:
BOTH were critical factors. And there is much evidence to cite for both accounts. Yet there is a sense that to just say: BOTH -- evades the central issue.
Yellow fever clearly played a role in the deaths of tens of thousands of French troops, but to what extent did Toussaint and his generals consciously know and plan on that fever as an actual tool in their strategy?
In this final volume of his Toussaint study Bell takes a very strong stand and introduces another historical fiction to support it.
His general stand is that Toussaint knew – knew before a single troop of the Leclerc expedition landed – that yellow fever was potentially the slave army’s best weapon. Throughout the novel Toussaint consistently takes the stand:
Bell’s Toussaint repeats this mantra over and over.
However, one may counter, this is manifestly false historically. The slave armies fought all along. This reply is not inconsistent. The slave armies picked their battles as they could. Two particular campaigns are central to the novel – the February 1802 battle and carefully timed retreat in Ravine a’ Coulevre and the stand with eventual withdrawal at Crete a’ Pierrot in Feb/ March 1802.
Thus despite the fighting, the overall strategy was to APPEAR to be fighting, to win what could be won, then appear to be retreating in defeat, burning as one retreated.
Eventually, on this view, the fever would then join the slave army in its own mode of battle. Again, this is not a unique account.
What liberties Bell’s fictional Toussaint takes is to have this strategy quite consciously and consistently in mind from the beginning, before Leclerc even landed
But Bell has a much bigger surprise for us: Toussaint realizes this strategy will take longer than a single spring to achieve. Reinforcements keep coming and there seems to be an infinite number of French soldiers to throw into the battle. Bell writes that Toussaint observes fleet at Samana Bay and says:
“Get ready to die,” he said. His face was angry. “All France has come against me.” He passed one hand across his mouth and added, in a steadier voice. “They have come to enslave the blacks.”
Thus Toussaint conceives a strategy which is never revealed to a single person and which dies with him, the evidence burned with is effects – but known to the novelist Bell, since he gets to create THIS Toussaint, and Bell’s Toussaint himself tells us about it.
The second part of the “plan” as Bell conceives it is that Toussaint, knowing the French plan to arrest him and able to escape to the mountains if he wished, purposely allows himself to be taken, knowing that the subsequent treatment of himself and his eventual death will spark the final flame of rebellion. He knew that any lingering trust in the French claims that they wouldn’t re-enslave the people had to be challenged and the people had to rise up in a total and gigantic mass. Such an uprising, coupled with the second spring of fevers would do the French in.
The plan is logical, plausible and deliciously historically unverifiable!
A few remarks on the structure of the trilogy will set the scene. In each of the three volumes every unit of the novel begins with a very short section situated in Toussaint’s cell at Fort de Joux. In the few pages of these sections some “event” in the steady progress of his deterioration toward death occurs.
Then we shift to San Domingue and some very long history – often over 100 pages – of actions from the revolution.
In this structure of alternating from Fort de Joux to the earlier war in San Domingue we are taken from 1791 to 1802 in volumes 1 and 2. In this last volume under review, Napoleon’s frustration, anger and growing brutality toward Toussaint is witnessed. It is the bitter cold of winter and Toussaint is subjected to daily body searches of his cell and body. He is stripped naked and searched, even body canals are included. Toussaint’s deep cough and physical condition deteriorates toward death.
Ostensibly the searchers are to find clues to the whereabouts of Toussaint’s suspected hidden fortune and/or evidence of connections to co-plotters within France.
During all this Toussaint wears his mouchwa tet, his scarf. Of course the mouchwa tet itself is searched. However the (fictional) key evidence to Bell’s amazing historical conceit is actually hidden in the knot itself which held the mouchwa tet on his head.
We read in the Fort de Joux scene:
And the absurdity of Amiot’s program of searches … The giddiness of rising fever made Toussaint want to laugh. There was no contraband information left to discover, any more than there was an object to find. The blancs already owned every piece of information. They knew everything and understood none of what they knew.
Toussaint tightened the knot of his mouchwa tet. Firm pressure worked to dam the flow of pain through his head. With a fingertip he checked the tiny fold of paper beneath the cloth just above the knot. Here he had cached his final testament -- let Amiot find it after his death. A footnote to the long, dissembling memorandum he'd composed for the First Consul -- no more than a line or two, but sufficient to make sense of all the rest.
You thought I was deceived by Brunet's letter. Fool, I knew what was to come. I knew when you faced me, you faced one leader. When you removed me, you would face five hundred thousand.
Outside, the wind had risen. Now it moaned across the grate. With the wind, a puff of fine snow spiraled through the grate into the cell. A dusting of snow on Toussaint's face refreshed him momentarily from his fever, like the touch of a cool cloth. A scatter of snowflakes settled on his open hand, prickling at the skin like furry legs of bees. Then the flakes melted and joined in a droplet which magnified the crossing of lines on his palm. Toussaint let his arm go slack, spilling the water onto the ground, as fever washed him into sleep.
The who and how the revolution won is revealed in the plans and plot of Toussaint Louverture. On Bell’s account Toussaint not only PLANNED to use the fevers as a weapon of war, but planned his own sacrifice in order to stimulate the entire 500,000 ex-slaves to rise up in a final battle for freedom.
It is a strong testament to Bell’s intention that the novel is about TOUSSAINT, and not about The Revolution as the centerpiece that the novel ends not with freedom, but with Toussaint’s death in April of 1803.
This novel is wonderfully well-written, gripping, filled with intrigue, battle, passion and marvelous and memorable characters. While I would argue that all persons seriously interested in Haiti should read all three volumes, the volumes need not be read in chronological order since the basic story of the revolution itself is well-known. Thus this last volume could well be read first. Not even character development would be lost. I think I like volume three best of all, but I hope readers will eventually read them all.
In any work of this size there almost has to be a few things to stir the critical juices of any reviewer. What I find surprising is how little there is I want to quarrel about. Both areas of my dissatisfaction concern the Creole language.
The first complaint is minor and concerns a repeated claim made by French characters to the effect: “It (Haitian language) sounds a lot like French, and I recognize a lot of the words, but I can’t understand a thing.”
I’ve actually heard this several times in Haiti, so I don’t doubt people really say it and believe it. What aggravates me is that Bell repeats it at least four times, and I think more, in the mouths of different characters. I think it was an interesting insight the first time, but the excessive use of it, almost as though Bell had forgotten he’d already said that, was something I found distracting.
The second issue is more troubling to me. Bell sprinkles the novel with a fairly large sampling of Creole dialogue – a few words at a time. This is a common literary device to give a novel the flavor of a foreign language which the characters would be speaking, and I’ve found it useful in quite a few novels I’ve read. However, as Bell used it in this work it seemed not to work and became both distracting and off-putting for me.
First of all the phrases used were all quite short and trivial – How are you? Who is that? How much is this? No, it’s too expensive. The rum is good. And so on. Bell even seems aware these are artificial and often separates the Creole phrases and sentences from the translations which usually come a bit later in the paragraph.
For the non-Creole readers it seems to me a very confusing notion – the unreadable Creole phrase and the translation a number of sentences later. It would seem to cause a lot of back and forth reading. For the Creole reader it seems a total nuisance. Who is the audience of this conceit? Some non-Haitians will have the necessary touch of Creole to deal with it, but surely the market is too small for Bell to be targeting just Haitians and Creole readers.
The language of fluent readers of Creole extends far beyond this sample. Not, how are you? But, what do you think of the political situation? Or Here is our development plan…” And then a sophisticated discussion follows.
This isn’t a major issue, but I did find a stylistic conceit which troubled me and got in the way.
The novel actually ends in a short scene set in 1825. Riau, now a houngan living a quiet rural life is reflecting back on the revolution. He cites a list of the remembered dead. I was delighted in Bell’s handling of the list.
He begins with Makanda, Boukman and ends up leaping forward in time to: “Charlemagne Peralte, Sonon Pacquet, Antoine Izmery, Guy Malary, Brignol Lindor, Jean Dominique…”
I thought that was a specially nice touch.
This list is quickly followed on the last page of the novel by reflection back on Riau’s religious view of the world: “There is more of what we don’t see than what we do.”
I think this is not only generally true of the Haitian view of the world, and Riau, in particular, but I strongly suspect there is some self-revelation by Bell in this final remark of the novel.
Lastly I want to reflect just a bit on the title: THE STONE THAT THE BUILDER REFUSED.
As best I remember or noticed Bell never refers to the title in the text itself. I take it that Toussaint is the stone, Napoleon the builder and the edifice being built is the French empire. If so, then the title works beautifully. At the same time it also invites some counter-historical reflections:
Well, I guess the strongest reply is: Quit dreaming. Then Toussaint wouldn’t have been Toussaint and Napoleon wouldn’t have been Napoleon.
But the suppositions do intrigue me. Where might things have gone. Would San Domingue have remained a colony of France under some form of semi-independent rule and would it have remained in the FRENCH hands of capable citizen black leaders from San Domingue? Ah me, it is a curious notion.
However, Bell chose the title well. In the final analysis Toussaint may well be said to be the stone the builder refused.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com