After 15 Years, Madison Smartt Bell Brings His Benchmark Haitian Trilogy to a Close
It may be the most obvious explanation for the pilgrimages that Bell has made since 1995 to a country that to most Americans seems to grow more chaotic and dangerous with each passing year. It could also be the motivating force behind his work. There aren’t many writers today who would have the time and inclination to set out on a three-volume, 2,000-page historical epic—particularly when neither Haiti nor long novels are in fashion.
“When I write I’m in a trance state, whether I cultivate it or not,” says Bell, who has taught at Towson’s Goucher College since 1984 and is director of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing there. After intense research and years of preparation, he has, in a literary sense, become a sort of agent for voices and characters from Haitian history. Bell’s trilogy of Haitian novels—which chronicle the rise and fall of Toussaint Louverture, the ex-slave who led the Haitians to independence in 1791—will be complete once the third book, The Stone That the Builder Refused, hits bookstores this November.
It’s been a long trip. The first volume of the trilogy, All Souls’ Rising, which depicts Haiti’s slave rebellion in the 1790s, came out in 1995 after what Bell says was a very difficult search for a publisher. It was nominated for a National Book Award. That paved the way for his second volume, Master of the Crossroads (2000), which focuses on the rise of Louverture as the military leader behind the struggle for Haitian independence. The Stone That the Builder Refused closes out the tale of Haiti’s violent struggle for independence, portraying both the nation’s and Louverture’s later battles. Significantly, this final book in the trilogy will arrive in bookstores at the close of the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s establishment as the only nation ever formed by ex-slaves.
Unfortunately, the bicentennial has been overshadowed by recent events in Haiti. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic ex-priest who was first elected president in 1991, was overthrown Feb. 25 in a coup d’état engineered by a complex union of private militia members, old hands formerly in the service of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, and right-wing U.S. groups. Bell is slow to point fingers, given the complexity of the relationships, but at the very least, he says, the U.S. military was complicit in the overthrow of Aristide, who has always been a bit at odds with American economic and political aims in the region.
“When Aristide was under attack in February, 60 U.S. Marines were sent in to protect diplomats and surround the presidential palace” Bell says. “There was a maximum of 200 rebels at that point, and the Marines had secured the airport, so if they couldn’t bring them under control they could have easily asked for a couple of hundred more men. But it was just, ‘Well, Mr. Aristide, we have a plane out there on the tarmac, and there are these guys who want to kill you. We don’t really care what you do.’” Aristide, understandably enough, chose the plane.
This August, Bell returned to Cape Haitian, a city in northern Haiti that he has frequented through the years. Warlords and roaming bands of militia are facts of life there, and improvised roadblocks make it a difficult trip for any foreigner. Although the roads are passable, Haiti is not the tourist haven that it used to be.
One of the destinations of his recent journey was the historic mapou tree of Bwa Kayman. In Haiti, trees are an endangered species, because the combination of drought, coal mining, and global warming has turned much of the country into a hilly desert. But this tree had a special place in Haitian history: Slaves congregated around the mapou in 1791 for a ceremony that marks for many the beginning of the Haitian revolution. In Bell’s own writings about the region, Bwa Kayman is a symbol of frail but surviving hope for Haitian democracy.
When he arrived at the site this August, though, the tree was gone.
“From a materialistic angle I guess you could attribute the death of the tree to drought,” Bell says. “But from a spiritual angle, it sends out a grave message. Now it seems that even the trees people want to save are disappearing.”
His accounts of the recent journey don’t inspire much confidence in the chances for a democratic election any time soon. Even rental-car agents seemed to have their own private militia, he says.
“I get a ride to the car rental and it’s walled by a gate. Then I pull up to a two-story iron gate, which has a tower with a machine gun,” Bell says. “I thought that was a lot for a Hertz car rental, but U.N. troops had decided to use it as their base. . . . I don’t think it’s going to turn into another Somalia, but there’s a point where you get so destitute. . . . You know these little armies are trying to survive, so armed conflict is a constant, because people do for themselves what they need to exist. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think you could say the chance for a real democracy is blown.”
That would seem to be a discouraging postscript to a trilogy about the founding of the Haitian republic. After all, the writers of the Haitian constitution had envisioned a republic with democratic rights extended to all inhabitants, regardless of race. The actual political history of Haiti, meanwhile, is one of political upheaval, terror, violence, and dictatorships. At first glance, that would make Bell’s Haitian trilogy the history of a pipe dream.
But Bell’s take is more positive. His epic is not the story of the successful founding of a democratic state; it’s the story of a revolutionary leader who very nearly succeeded in realizing a dream of racial equality more than 150 years before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came on the scene. For that reason alone, Bell feels, Louverture deserves more publicity than he gets in the United States.
But Bell’s Haiti is a land possessed by forces and spirits beyond its control. In the language of Haitian vodou, the demons that drove Louverture in the 18th century still inhabit modern Haiti. While certain characters—like the 38-year-old doctor Herbert—seem closer to Bell himself, Louverture is the novel’s enigmatic center, a spiritual battleground for the destructive and visionary spirits that were at the heart of Haiti’s revolutionary movement.
Bell says his fascination with Louverture dates back to the early 1980s. While he didn’t know it at the time, he says that only after he began researching did he find that his own Tennessee ancestors could very well have been slaveholders. He was surprised to find that no one had written a novel about Louverture, and in 1991 he began work to place him at the center of his Haitian trilogy.
The figure who emerges in All Souls’ Rising is a fervent idealist whose character has been forged in the violent, cruel world of French slavery. It’s an odd combination of forces that possess Louverture almost to the point where he is unrecognizable as an individual. While he is a considerate and loving father, he’s also capable of forcing old comrades in arms to shoot themselves in the head when he suspects them of betrayal.
“[Louverture] had a mixture of qualities,” Bell explains. “He had a progressive vision of what the world could be like—using the democratic ideals of the French revolution, but not just applying them to whites. And it was remarkable how close he got to getting there. But he was also capable of ruthlessness. It’s not what we’re used to in America, where Bill Clinton might admit he has a few character flaws while insisting he’s a good leader. Toussaint Louverture was either one or the other. He was two different personalities from one moment to the next.”
While reluctant to make too many parallels, Bell says things haven’t changed much over the last two centuries. The recently deposed Aristide, who spoke obliquely of Toussaint as a sort of alter ego, is a bundle of similar contradictions. In his early years, Aristide’s charismatic idealism seized the overwhelming support of the poorer Haitian population. “At first, Aristide was totally committed to democratic ideals,” Bell says, “and you can’t take that away from him. But his later use of corruption and intimidation are pretty hard to get off the record.”
Bell points out one more thing Louverture and Aristide have in common: They spell(ed) trouble for external powers struggling for influence in Haiti. Both men showed themselves capable of directing revolutions from abroad. Napoleon’s military attaché Leclerc, when directing the imprisonment of Louverture in 1802, asked that he be sent “as far away from the ocean as possible.” Aristide, meanwhile, was taken to the Central African Republic after the recent coup.
Louverture isn’t the only ghost who seems to have come back to haunt modern-day Haiti. Military strongman Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who took control of Haiti in 1805 and looms large in The Stone That the Builder Refused, initiated a ruthless campaign against white landowners and is said by many to have had a soul mate in Jean-Claude Duvalier, the ruthless dictator who took power in 1957 and managed to hold on to power through a mixture of terror and luck for 15 years before passing it on to his son, Baby Doc. If this is a confusing set of parallels and spiritual archetypes, this is only the beginning for Haiti, even if it’s the end of Bell’s trilogy.
Going Short (9/23/2009)
Some authors simply prefer compact storytelling over the novel's wordy road
Let's Get Short (9/23/2009)
City Paper's Big Books Issue 2009 takes a look at fiction's overlooked gems
Neverending Stories (9/23/2009)
Short stories continue to be where sci-fi writers explore their big ideas
Creative Proof (7/14/2010)
Documentarian Steven Fischer pushes artists to talk about what makes them make art
Green Machine (7/7/2010)
The Charm City Circulator is more than a cool free bus--it's part of a hopefully sustainable relationship
Drama Splice (5/20/2010)
Recent Towson University theatrical conference wants to break contemporary Russian playwrights onto American stages
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201