November 5, 2000
Black Spartacus
Madison Smartt Bell continues his fictional re-creation of a historic slave uprising.

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  • First Chapter: 'Master of the Crossroads'

    By Madison Smartt Bell.
    732 pp. New York:
    Pantheon Books. $30.

    The Haitian slave revolt of the late 18th century has proved fertile ground for Madison Smartt Bell. In ''All Souls' Rising'' (1995), a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, he summoned a bloody vision of that war, complete with soldiers riding into battle with babies impaled on their bayonets, arms thinly waving. It all began in 1791, when the French National Assembly enfranchised the free mulattoes in Haiti. In cynical response, the royalist blancs, who ran the colony, incited their African slaves to revolution. This was meant to produce a counterrevolution, but the effort backfired. Led by the heroic but inscrutable Toussaint L'Ouverture, the former slaves eventually overwhelmed their oppressors: a lesson not lost on American slave owners.

    In ''Master of the Crossroads,'' Bell continues the story where he left off in the previous volume, although his attention turns more fully to Toussaint himself. It's a brilliant performance, the work of an accomplished novelist of peculiar energy and courage. This book alone, which concludes in 1801 -- still a few years before the uprising ends with a massacre of the remaining white population in 1805 -- contains nearly 700 pages of densely realized fiction, in addition to various prefaces and appendixes. As allegiances in Haiti continually fracture, adjusting to shifting politics in France and elsewhere, one never doubts Bell's superb command of his wildly complex material.

    Bell heels closely to the facts of history, mingling fictional characters with real ones, tracking the revolution from many angles -- white, mulatto and black. The narrative shuttles between Haiti during the middle years of the war (1794-1801) and a mountain fortress in France where a somewhat befuddled but still defiant Toussaint is held captive in 1802 -- a device that allows us to keep Toussaint and his accomplishments in perspective. Readers of ''All Souls' Rising'' will find the revolutionary landscape, and many of Bell's characters, familiar, although one can read this volume without referring to the previous book. (A detailed ''Chronology of Historical Events'' helps to keep everything in context.)

    At the center of the novel as well as the uprising is Toussaint, formerly Toussaint Bréda (named after the plantation where he labored, Habitation Bréda). On Aug. 29, 1793, he issued a ringing proclamation of freedom from Camp Turel, renaming himself Toussaint L'Ouverture, meaning Toussaint of the Opening. As his subaltern, Riau, explains, the name suggests that ''it was Legba working through his hands.'' (Legba refers to a god in the voodoo mythology that permeates this novel.) As one voodoo priest tells us, ''Legba waits at the gate and the crossroads and decides who shall pass, and by which turning.'' Toussaint appears, in Bell's rendering, a remarkably adroit master of all crossroads that confront him, even though he outwardly prefers Jesus to Papa Legba.

    Toussaint seemed less important in ''All Souls' Rising'' than many other characters, such as the grand blanc landowner Michel Arnaud; his wife, Claudine; and the French doctor, Antoine Hébert, through whose eyes much of the story was viewed. The horrors of the uprising in its early years haunted Hébert as he wandered, benumbed, through the ashes of burned villages in search of his sister, Élise. Even in the sequel, where he continues to play a major role, Hébert seems perpetually adrift, searching hopelessly for Nanon, his black mistress, who has transferred her affections to the bastard son of a landowner, an arrogant mulatto called Choufleur, one of Bell's most insidious creations.

    "His current prisoner was vastly more important than those officers could ever dream to be -- although he was a Negro, and a slave. From halfway around the world Captain-General Leclerc had written to his brother-in-law, the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte himself, that this man had so inflamed the rebel slaves of Saint Domingue that the merest hint of his return there would overthrow all the progress Leclerc and his army had made toward the suppression of the revolt and the restoration of slavery. Perhaps only the whisper of the name of Baille's prisoner on the lips of the blacks of Saint Domingue would be sufficient cause for that Jewel of the Antilles, so recently France's richest possession overseas, to be purged yet another time with fire and blood. So wrote the Captain-General to his brother-in-law, and it seemed that the First Consul himself took the liveliest interest in the situation, reinforcing with his direct order Leclerc's nervous request that the prisoner be kept in the straitest possible security, and as far away as possible from any seaport that might provide a route for his return."

    -- from the first chapter of 'Master of the Crossroads'

    In a world where rough justice prevails, Choufleur is dealt a hideous death in hand-to-hand combat with Dessalines, Toussaint's most vicious officer. Having crushed his opponent in a headlock, Dessalines ''lifted one of Choufleur's limp, dead legs, and inserted the sword point into the seam between his buttocks. With a quick, muscular thrust, pulling back on the leg he held at the same time, he impaled the body all the way up to the throat.'' The novel is full of thrilling fight scenes -- they are something of a specialty of this author, as one saw in his last novel, ''Ten Indians'' -- but they never seem gratuitous. Bell earns every slash of the sword by placing this violence in a dramatic context where it seems, if not justified, at least understandable from the point of view of his characters. This is, after all, a novel about a revolution, and violence is the language of war.

    As in the previous novel, Dr. Hébert often serves as the novelist's stand-in, watching and assessing the revolution as it evolves. As a member of Toussaint's personal staff, the physician works closely with the elusive general, and his observations bring us close, at last, to the so-called Black Spartacus himself. Toussaint holds our attention as he commands his troops to victory after victory, outwitting his enemies (many of them former friends and allies) and inspiring awe in those around him. Although described as ''a small, knotty man, with the build of a jockey, a long underslung jaw and strange deep eyes,'' Toussaint strikes a robust (if occasionally ludicrous) figure in his plumed hat astride his horse, Bel Argent. His innate modesty is coupled with a steely belief in his own considerable powers, which never seem to flag. An ascetic by nature, he eats sparingly, often taking nothing but bread and water at a banquet. He cannot easily be fathomed, even by his priest-confessor, who marvels ''how the man could use so many words in his confession yet still, in the end, reveal nothing.''

    Toussaint exhibits his cunning in scene after scene, as when he ''captured a French force twice the size of his own . . . by sheer ingenuity of maneuver, without a shot being fired, as if it had all been a chess game.'' Although ruthless in certain situations, Toussaint prefers to win by subtle means. Not surprisingly, his favorite proverb is ''The softest way goes farthest.'' He moves unpredictably, making ''sudden reversals of direction,'' favoring ''a constant rupture of his pattern of movement,'' so that he arrives without warning where least expected, his routes ''unpredictable and unknown.'' He can show compassion for an underling, as when he accepts Riau back into his fold after a desertion, but he can be ruthless, too, as when he commands a number of his soldiers to step forward and shoot themselves in the head. For the most part, Toussaint acts benevolently, a ''father of sorts to four or five or six thousand men.''

    Bell's writing has never seemed more vivid, a flexible instrument that carries a huge plot forward without strain, calling little attention to itself, although its concreteness compels respect, as when he writes, ''The rain came down all at once as if it had been dumped from a basin on high,'' or ''A pair of gulls came crying over the square, blown by the warm wind from the sea. The gulls banked into the wind and hovered, the wind pushing them slowly backward, then cried again and flew back toward the port.'' In lesser writers, these kinds of eye-catching images often feel gratuitous, bright verbal spangles that exist for no reason other than to show off the writer's panache. Yet Bell puts almost every image to use, setting a mood of anticipation in the first example or foreshadowing a scene in the second.

    Every aesthetic choice involves loss, and Bell's novel -- despite its length -- seems haunted by paths not taken. Étienne Laveaux, for example, the French general who played a central role in the period covered, would have been more visible in a work of narrative history. Instead, Bell merely gestures in the direction of establishing a fictional presence for Laveaux. Even Dessalines, the black general who eventually takes control of Haiti after Toussaint's imprisonment and death, seems thinly realized.

    On the other hand, the achievement here is considerable. One puts down ''Master of the Crossroads'' with a visceral knowledge of what it felt like to wage war in Haiti at the turn of the 19th century. As Riau observes, ''Each day was to rise before dawn and go out climbing the hills and shooting and hacking at enemy men until it was night, like a long day of cutting down cane in the fields of some plantation.'' The riddle of Toussaint himself is never quite solved, yet this seems right; the general must have found his own motives inscrutable. As for Bell's motives, they seem quite lofty. Refusing the easy path -- a barely disguised political tract that condemns the colonial oppressor and applauds the rebel cause -- he has instead allowed history, in all its chaos and complexity, to shape the fiction itself, giving himself over to the facts without letting them quell the artist's rage for order.

    Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches literature at Middlebury College. His new novel, ''The Apprentice Lover,'' will appear next year.

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