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The Black Jacobins

MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS A Novel;By Madison Smartt Bell; Pantheon: 732 pp., $30

February 04, 2001|MALICK GHACHEM | Malick Ghachem is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford University. He is writing a dissertation titled "The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution: Colonial Variations on a Metropolitan Theme."

Novelists are forever treading the terrain of history, even (or perhaps especially) when their inventions seem to lack any visible traces of the footprints left by experience. And yet only when writers take up their pens in the name of something called "historical fiction" do academic historians tend to worry about protecting their own turf. It is the closeness of the historical novel to history, not their distance from each other, that makes some scholars feel the need to maintain a constant line between the "sacred" space of the factual and the "profane" realm of the imagined.

It would be unfortunate, however, if the debate over the nature and scope of scholarly objectivity were to overshadow the achievement of Madison Smartt Bell's superb novel about the Haitian Revolution. For one part of that achievement is to demonstrate again why history is about more than simply guarding the boundary between truth and falsehood (whether intentional or not). If the task of recovering the lived experience of bygone ages did not have an inescapably literary dimension, it would be easier for professional chroniclers of the past to overlook the work of their counterparts in the world of creative writing.

Not that Bell's subject has been difficult for historians to ignore. Long consigned to the sidelines of scholarship on the late 18th century Atlantic (that is, French and American) revolutions, the modern world's only successful slave uprising unfolded between 1791 and 1804 in what was then the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue on the divided territory of Hispaniola. That Haiti's revolution is finally beginning to emerge from the historiographical shadow cast by its two more famous counterparts is the result in part of writers such as Bell, whose exuberant and epic novel is marked throughout by a palpable passion for the troubled Caribbean nation and its contributions to the shaping of the modern democratic world. Reading this book, one can begin to understand what it might have meant to live in the Haiti of two centuries ago, how it could have felt to travel across its mountainous landscape, labor in its plantations, taste its sugar, coffee and rum.

Over the course of more than 700 densely packed pages, the novel weaves between the personal and public lives of its main characters with a consistency that both disguises and betrays its grounding in historical sources. This narrative approach will be familiar to readers of Bell's previous book. A finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, "All Souls' Rising" covered the opening years of the Haitian Revolution, beginning in August 1791 with a voodoo-inspired slave revolt in the northern plains of the colony. "Master of the Crossroads," the second book in a planned trilogy, picks up the narrative in the latter half of 1793, just as Toussaint L'Ouverture is beginning to acquire the grass-roots military support that will make him the undisputed leader of the black revolution.

On the eve of the revolt, Saint-Domingue was populated by about 450,000 slaves (mostly African-born), roughly 30,000 mulattos (or persons of mixed race) and about 40,000 whites (who were in turn divided into grand blanc slaveholders of royalist inclinations and petit blanc artisans of republican sympathies). Old Regime society was characterized by endemic, crisscrossing tensions among all three of these groups, tensions that the revolution intensified. Indeed, as Carl von Clausewitz might have observed, one could well interpret the history of Haiti between 1791 and 1804--and to some extent even beyond--as the continuation of colonial racial politics through warfare.

That at least seems to be the underlying thrust of Bell's narrative of the slave revolution. "Master of the Crossroads" takes us beneath the surface and into the heart of this epidermal maelstrom, portraying the unfolding events from the divergent perspectives of a handful of black, mulatto and white characters. (Some of these personalities are carried over from the previous volume, but it is not necessary to have read "All Souls' Rising" to follow its successor).

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