cover image All Souls' Rising

All Souls' Rising

Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon Books, $25.95 (530pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43989-9

In an astonishing novel of epic scope, Bell (Save Me, Joe Louis) follows the lives of a handful of characters from radically different social strata during the period of Haiti's struggle for independence. Nothing about that period was simple. In 1791, when the Caribbean island that native Amerindians called ``Hayti'' was divided between a Spanish colony in the east and the French colony of Saint Domingue, a slave revolt broke out in the French territory that claimed 12,000 lives in its first months. But the fighting wasn't only between black slaves and white owners; the colony had a Byzantine social structure that recognized 64 different ``shades'' of mulatto; of the half-million blacks in Saint Domingue, some 30,000 were free mulattos whose political interests often ran contrary to those of the slaves. The country's 40,000 whites were themselves divided over the outcome of the recent revolution in France. During the next 12 years, to increase their power bases, four racial/political groups--white royalists, white republicans, free mulattos and black slaves--formed and dissolved a string of unlikely alliances at a dizzying clip. Bell's principals here include a runaway slave looking for real freedom, the disturbed mistress of a razed sugar plantation and a royalist soldier in the embattled Cap Fran ais guard. Central to the narrative are Toussaint L'Ouverture, the enigmatic 51-year-old leader of the revolt, and Doctor Antoine Hebert, a Frenchman who shows up in Haiti just before the revolt breaks out. Hebert, who spends time as Toussaint's prisoner, falls for a freed mulatto. Warned by a young married Frenchwomen that ``Who marries a black woman becomes black,'' the physician is appalled, yet heeds the very words he dismisses. Toussaint, too, bears the mark of contradiction. He appears to be a simple, devout man, but he has ``learned a way to make his words march in more than one direction.'' A handful of chapters are set in 1802, when Toussaint is taken across the Atlantic as a prisoner. By omitting the middle of the revolutionary's story (during which he takes over Haiti, names himself governor-general and refuses to declare it independent), Bell astutely indicates that Toussaint, who saw himself as a noble warrior, was in fact motivated by a bizarre and self-defeating concept. By alluding to the end of the revolution only in a beautiful and haunting epilogue, moreover, Bell avoids the sense of victory that mars so many novels about revolution. Here at least, after more than 500 wrenching pages of rapes and massacres and fetuses impaled on pikes, there can be no question of a winner of the battle for Haitian liberation. Surviving it was feat enough. In Bell's hands, the chaos, marked by unspeakable acts of violence, that surrounds these characters somehow elucidates the nobility of even the most craven among them. (Oct.)