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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

The Horrors of a Brutal Regime That Continue to Haunt : ALL SOULS' RISING by Madison Smartt Bell; Pantheon $29.95, 530 pages

February 26, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The true "white man's burden" is a nightmare of poetic justice--of black people doing as they have been done unto, with no Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela to moderate their rage.

In this major novel, which bears comparison with William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," Madison Smartt Bell revisits a time, 1791-1805, and a place, Haiti, where the nightmare came true. Slaves on French sugar-cane plantations, led most notably by Toussaint L'Ouverture, revolted and won independence in campaigns marked by terrible atrocities on both sides. After L'Ouverture died in prison in France, his followers massacred Haiti's remaining whites.

The numbers tell the story: In 1791, Haiti had 39,000 white residents, divided between royalist plantation owners and an artisan class that supported the French Revolution; 27,000 people of mixed race, who could own land and slaves but had no political rights; and 452,000 black slaves, kept in bondage by "abuses and cruelty . . . much more frequent and severe . . . than in the southern United States."

Two-thirds of the slaves were African-born, Bell says, because "through suicide, infanticide, abortion, starvation, neglect, overwork and murder," they died off so fast that 20,000 more had to be imported each year to make up the loss.

Bell, who has written seven other novels and two collections of short stories, tells the story of several men and women caught up in the horrors that this brutal regime brought down upon itself--horrors that, he makes clear, exert a poisonous influence to this day, and not only in Haiti.

To keep the story uncluttered, he uses a historian's devices. A preface sums up the political situation. A chronology at the end is an invaluable reference, as well as some of Bell's most stark and powerful writing--though the book could have used a better map.

Bell's fiction intersects history at two points. In 1791-92, waves of fire, rape and slaughter sweep over Haiti's northern plain. And in 1802, after a decade of bloodshed, L'Ouverture is tricked into captivity. Napoleon readies an invasion force to restore slavery--unaware that the blacks, the English and yellow fever will thwart this plan and that L'Ouverture was the only black leader who might have kept the killing in check.

Bell's L'Ouverture, a former house slave, is educated, disciplined and quietly commanding. His white counterpart in the novel is Antoine Hebert, a balding, pear-shaped doctor whose liberality leads him to love a mixed-race woman and whose marksmanship helps him survive treks across Haiti in search of his missing sister.

The supporting cast includes Capt. Maillart, a proud royalist who ends up training L'Ouverture's black troops; Isabelle Cigny, decadent mistress of a Cap Haitien salon, who warns Hebert that "whoever marries a black woman becomes black"; landowner Michel Arnaud and his alcoholic wife, Claudine, who both commit unspeakable cruelties and find, in the collapse of their world, a curious redemption; and Riau, an escaped slave and adherent of voodoo--a religion Bell describes with unusual sympathy--who is torn between the free life of a fugitive and the regimented life of one of L'Ouverture's officers.

Bell succeeds in creating well-rounded characters against a backdrop of chaos that seems to render character irrelevant. His choice of realistic narration works best in the first half of the novel, when his lucid, even elegant style describes the nightmare at its worst. Later, the intensity falls off a little--in part because, except for Riau, a maroon rather than a typical slave, the blacks' point of view gets lost. Styron, in "Nat Turner," did better in this regard--but he was writing of his native Virginia. Bell had to research "All Souls' Rising" from scratch; and the result, though imperfect, is a remarkably sustained, illuminating feat of imagination.

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