Bell, Madison Smartt (2004), All Souls’ Rising, Vintage
This is the way of the world. Those who write the history books keep getting accolades. If we discuss leadership and success, 90% of the time we’ll discuss people like Napoleon Bonaparte or Margaret Thatcher but not Olaudah Equiano or Toussaint Louverture. It doesn’t matter that during the past decades we have learned more, we have grown as a culture, it doesn’t matter that we’ve dredged people up from the fringes of history and learned to look at the dark aspects of success stories; if you look at sources of inspiration, those who identify with the norm will still come up with Napoleon and Thatcher, it’s enough to make you sick. But once in a while a book comes along that does right by people like Equiano or Louverture. Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising (1995), the first novel in a trilogy that charts the slave revolt on Haiti that started in 1791, is, despite its flaws, such a book. Let’s start with this: All Souls’ Rising is an excellent novel that leads you into a strange world full of memorable characters and dark and troublesome stories, and into the swamps of history, where easy judgments are thwarted but moral conscience and commitment is never abandoned.
That was maybe a bit much as a lead-in to a review of an outstanding but not necessarily great novel, one which is, after all, frequently caught up in the nooks and crannies of its plots and rarely finds time to come up and breathe and provide further perspectives or contexts (something that may come in the two other novels); this is, however, at the same time one of its strengths. Bell’s writing here resembles a wave of ideas, plots, voices, it’s an onslaught of creative energy and we cannot help but think that this novel could easily have been three times as long without losing that sense of necessity, of economy, even. Every image, plot strand or change of perspective feels needed, nothing is superfluous; Bell demands much of his readers, he presents them with a historical novel that tries to read the history on hand on its own terms, handing it enough room for contradictions, confusions and reversals, unlike much of E.L. Doctorow’s historical prose, for example. Although I consider novels like Doctorow’s The March superior to All Souls’ Rising, it is undeniable that Doctorow reduces historical complexities to simple situations that can easily be used to extract a message; intellectually, they have a pamphlet-like quality, which has its advantages and is maybe more honest than the equilibrium that Bell aims for.
Nevertheless, Bell’s endeavor is admirable. He wants us to understand the scenario in all its complexities. In order to achieve this, he takes several measures. One of these is issuing us with a plethora of material that helps us to contextualize the novel’s events. There is both an explanatory preface as well as a thorough time-line of the revolt on Haiti that encompasses all of the revolt, not just the events of All Soul’s Rising. The second measure may seem to contradict the goals the first measure achieves but is, in fact, complimentary: as the novel proceeds, Bell is depriving us of a broader context by plunging us into the stories of small people who are so caught up in their worlds that none of them can see the broader picture; things happen around them, as they try to survive in the maelstrom of history. Unlike Doctorow in The March, Madison Smartt Bell completely refrains from telling the leaders’ stories from their perspective. Leaders, people with political power walk on and off the stage but we never see things from their point of view. We are never partial to political reasoning, to political intrigue, to the usual trappings of many historical novels. Although Bell’s not the first nor the last to do this, I find his utter refusal to lend a voice to those in power and explore the stories of those near it or even those far from it, remarkable and it makes for peculiar effect.
The angles and voices he does choose come from different strata of the society on the island and they are not all accorded equal amounts of air time, so to say. Some of the most interesting characters, despite staying an integral part of the story, get their say only once or twice, such as the creole wife of a landowner, who murders one of her slaves first and then leads a group of women to safety through a burning, violent, apocalyptic landscape. She sort of fades into the fabric of the novel later, but doesn’t vanish either. True to the efficient manner of storytelling that I claimed earlier, Bell focuses on those characters that can serve multiple functions: they are all highly active, moving all over the island, thus being ideal instruments to efficiently chronicle the tumultuous events of the revolution without dividing the reader’s attention between too many personal histories. After the first hundred pages, we learn to recognize the voices and know what to expect from each of them. Besides various smaller roles and voices, there are three characters who fairly dominate the narration. They are a black writer, a liberal doctor and an officer in the French army.
These three characters are well chosen. The officer in the army is low enough in the ranks that he’s just as struggling with the small tragedies of his life as the others, he has no elevated position from which to regard political developments. When disaster strikes -and it’s one of this novel’s peculiarities that disaster strikes not once but several times- he’s frequently in the middle of it, not overseeing the situation but ducking an enemy’s bayonet, more often than not. Although we have different characters that can offer us insight into the white population, the officer is important in showing us along which lines loyalties divide, because each party is anxious, as could be expected in a situation like this, to get the support of the army. The white population, huddling together in the two large cities, confronting the bands of former slaves who roam the island, is, indeed, far from united. The French Revolution, the state of the mulattoes, i.e. the so-called “gens de couleur”, the rights of slaves, and class conflict between poor workers in the city and the rich landowners, leads to outbreaks of violence between whites. Thus it’s, somewhat literally, not a black-and-white conflict that we witness. Instead, this is an island full of people struggling, trying not to drown in the heat, trying to create room for survival. The violence stems from the fact that all of a sudden everybody is clamoring and demanding rights, a voice, room. It’s a sudden explosion that plunges the island into a decade of war.
All that is not to deny that race is one of the most important issues and areas of conflict here. But, again, it’s not being duked out between the “white” and the “black” race. There are five distinct groups although not every character can tell all of them apart. There are the rich white landowners who are the whitest of all, mostly because they wield economic and political power. Then there are poor ‘whites’. They insist upon their own whiteness in the course of their rivalry with the third group, the mulattoes, but they are not necessarily seen as ‘white’ by the rich whites, they have to fight for acceptance. Mulattoes, in contrast, are almost accepted. Having black blood separates them from the whites but as it turns out they can attain positions that allow them to order poor whites around. They are only attacked as non-white by those who are their rivals, poor whites on the one hand and, interestingly, women on the other, because many men keep themselves a mulatto mistress. And then there are the slaves, who, in turn, split into two groups. Slaves that come from Africa either themselves or in the previous generation and slaves that are descended from a longer line of colonial slaves. Just as whites are very conscious of the distinction between real, i.e. rich whites on the one and poor whites on the other hand, so are the slaves conscious of the distinction based on descent. In a more general way, it could be said that while these distinctions are multicausal, the color of the skin is one of the least important factors, with mulattoes who could easily pass as white and similar details crowding the book, breaking up certainties.
The question of color and power and voice becomes even more apparent in the second of the three characters, Riau, who is Bell’s nexus for comments upon storytelling. Riau is one of the few literate slaves and becomes for a time Toussaint’s secretary. Just as the officer is our window into the city population and the forces that compel and disturb that group of people, Riau is our insider witness to the slave revolt. There are three significant ways in which he fulfills that function. The first is recounting things that happen, of course. It is not until two thirds of the book have passed that Toussaint gains dominance among all the black leaders on the island. Some of those leaders have been able to take power because they were the most outspoken, most ruthless, most violent among the slaves; some, like Toussaint are natural leaders, they were part of the original power structure, having had responsibilities on the farms, and they don’t want a revolution either, their goal’s a reform. Through the hurricane of events they are then thrust into a role they don’t like but are immensely qualified to fill out.
It is maybe here that I should mention the intense amount of violence that permeates the whole book. Early on in the book we see someone shoot a dog and it is this shot that is like a hint of the darkness to come. Later, on the same plantation, a woman kills in a cold rage verging on madness the black mistress of her husband, making a bloody mess of it all. A short time afterward the revolt begins and we the readers are treated to pages of carnage, pages and pages of descriptions of slaughter, but these are not the images that will stay in your mind. Bell is nothing if not goal-oriented, precise and so he creates a series of images that each encapsulate a complex of issues. The most striking image is that of a white woman, leading a trek of female refugees to the city. Upon being held up by a group of evidently bloodthirsty rebels, she offers them her ring, but doesn’t take it off, instead she slowly, calmly cuts off her whole finger. This display of bravery or madness turns the rebels away, thus saving her and her companions (Its way with female characters is the novel’s most glaring flaw. Women are curiously flat, almost like caricatures.). Despite the restraint that comes from using the force of single images rather than overwhelming the reader with rivers of blood, the amount of violence is stunning, as is the destruction wrought by the angry former slaves.
This is part of conflict between structure and destruction, as it is mapped onto the different parties in this war. Rich whites are violent as well, but they destroy nothing for this, their violence is achieved with (and even: through) the structure. Reading the book, one cannot help but feel that Bell denounces all violence, even what is frequently called ‘necessary’ violence to uphold central elements of the structure, because Bell demonstrates how quickly it can all spill over into madness (although ‘madness’ would put you into a very specialized part of the structure, but that would go too far now I think). Riau does not reflect upon all this, but he is perceptive, it is through his perceptions that we gain insights into the revolt, especially into the role of religion. The book is full of French and Creole phrases, not all of them directly or obviously significant, except for one sort, words from the voodoo cult. Riau is a devout adherent of voodoo, and keeps tabs on how rituals and beliefs support and undermine the efforts of the revolt. The danger of irrationality is plain at all times and Bell doesn’t shy away from making it obvious that Christianity is not better than religions like voodoo which can appear to be sectarian and obscure. There are several priests making an appearance and only one of those is painted in a positive light, a Jesuit priest with a black wife, and his endeavors are shown to be doomed.
I could go on like this for ages, I have notes on gender, linguistics, Paul Gilroy and some more on structure, but this is, after all a review. Suffice to say that this is a novel rich with ideas and that each and everyone works. The writing is good, bordering on sumptuous. It’s clearly more than adequate to its subject but then, it doesn’t really add much. Bell works through structure, characters and images, not language; his language is clean and poetical, but really not above the level of any good historical novel, although he does avoid the trap of faux-high-brow writing that is so ubiquitous in the genre. All Souls’ Rising is a very good book that draws you in, it makes for compulsive reading, and at the same time, as I said in the first paragraph, Bell should be credited with giving a voice and a story to those, as Carribean poet Martin Carter put it, “who had no voice in the emptiness / in the unbelievable”, those who “heard […] the iron clang”. He presents Toussaint as a hero who takes up the anger and hate and prejudice of the past and transforms it into an orderly revolution, but as a hero whose time has not yet come. Toussaint’s ideals and commitments show him to be an early proponent of the movement that, two hundred years later, Aime Césaire called “négritude”. In this sense, perhaps, Madison Smartt Bell is, after all, like Doctorow, hunting for the lesson, the lecturing line that is threaded through history.