The Stone that the Builder Refused: A Novel
By Madison Smartt Bell (Pantheon, 747 pp., $29.95)
The author will read from and sign copies of his book at Davis-Kidd Booksellers 6 p.m. Dec. 1
Short on history yet long on self-proclamation, America was never destined to inspire truly great novels about its past. There is no American Tolstoy, no Yankee Stendhal, because while historians argued and debated amongst themselves during the past half century, the United States slowly became a society where intellectuals do not matter. What passes as history in this country is actually what Roland Barthes dubbed myth, and novelists cannot compete with the great mythifying machine: television.
And so, in spite of mounting evidence which paints a more complicated picture, Americans continue to believe that the Civil War was fought entirely over slavery; that the firebombing of Tokyo and our two subsequent nuclear attacks on Japan left America's so-called moral authority intact; and that the civil rights era was painful but Things Are Getting Better. Every so often, a novelist like Don DeLillo (with Underworld), Russell Banks (with Cloudsplitter), or Thomas Pynchon (with Mason & Dixon) emerges with a Big Important Book that shatters these simplistic equations, and we thank them, briefly, for doing so. But these are not the kinds of books that fly off the shelves in Sam's Club or Wal-Mart. Then again, neither would Tolstoy were he writing today.
In this regard, it makes a certain kind of sense that the most powerful and complex historical epic to be written by an American since John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy should take place offshore, in a part of the world devastated by the same hurricanes that pounded Florida but unblessed by the media coverage bestowed on Floridians, a place where American soldiers now serve side by side with U.N. troops, though Americans themselves rarely hear about it: Haiti. For the past 10 years, Nashville native Madison Smartt Bell has been quietly amassing a 2,000-page masterpiece about this war-torn microcosm of our republic. The similarities are indeed striking. It was in Haiti, after all, where large-scale genocide of Indians first began and where the idea of African slavery was hatched. American and Haitian history proceed from the same gash, but we've dealt with it in different ways.
While the U.S. fought a civil war, Haiti had the mother of all slave rebellions. In 1791, the French colony imploded when 500,000 slaves revolted in response to the brutal conditions that had killed nearly 25,000 people each year for the past 100 years. By 1803 they had expelled whites from the island, and thousands of colonists were massacred in the process. The key figure in this brief but potent victory was a 40-year-old former slave named Toussaint Louverture, who was eventually captured and died in prison. (His deputy continued to lead the revolt and declared independence in 1804, establishing Haiti as the first republic in the world to be led by a man of African descent.)
This dramatic period forms the backbone of Bell's epic, and he has made the most of it. In 1995, he began with All Souls Rising, a hallucinatory novel about the slave revolt of 1791. Out of the ashes of this fire emerges his hero, Toussaint Louverture, known as the black Spartacus, who animates Master of the Crossroads (2000), which chronicled Louverture's rise to power, and his ultimate ascendancy over the smoldering wreck of a population. And now, 10 years after he began, Bell brings this story to a close with his magisterial new novel, The Stone That the Builder Refused, which covers the last two years of the revolutionary's life. It is an emotionally wrenching finale to a project whose only contemporary rival in scope and ambition is William T. Vollmann's ongoing Seven Dreams series, which dramatizes the settling of the North American continent.
Like Vollmann, Bell has taken a prismatic war between cultures, races, nations and religions and turned it into a cohesive narrative, a dazzling feat considering the complexities of the Haitian Revolution. Black slaves, white European plantation owners, free people of color and people of mixed races were all pitted against each other in this extraordinarily violent conflict. Without ever appearing to do so, Bell finds a way to dramatize each warring faction, bringing characters from various parts of the island into contact with one another, to fight, make love, and fall into dangerous affairs that challenge the all-or-nothing nature of the historical record.
While Vollmann's series suffers from its lack of a clear heroif anything, history is his protagonistBell's books come together because he has not one but two heroes. Louverture begins the trilogy as a coachman, the kind of black man the planter classes are used to having around to do things for them. But then he rises up, shrugs off the yoke of servitude and explodes in a welter of anger that is shocking to his masters and to readers, too. He is a husband and a father, a lover and, finally, a revolutionary who would sacrifice his own flesh and blood, not to mention his religion, to achieve total freedom.
Bell's second hero is Dr. Antoine Hebert, a Frenchman who is by Louverture's side so much he begins to forget that he himself is white. Throughout the Machiavellian chess-game maneuvers of the last novel, he acts as Louverture's secretary, a witness to his feats of greatness, and, essentially, the reader's eyes and ears as we try to get to know the mysterious general who is forever running off-screen.
The Stone That the Builder Refused opens with Louverture's imprisonment in a French garrison on the Swiss border. It is October 1802, and the great general and onetime governor of the French colony formerly known as Saint Domingue languishes, defeated, betrayed and slowly coming to the realization that this is where he will die. Bell then cuts back in time to relive the sequence of events that led to Louverture's capture. This takes us back to 1801, when Hebert was desperately trying to quell an epidemic of yellow fever which nearly obliterated the town of Cap Français. Hebert is the focal point to a web of characters that represent the many different facets of this historical moment. There's his wife Nanon, a mixed-race, former prostitute; his mercurial sister Elise, whom he came to the island to rescue; her smuggler husband Tocquet; Hebert's confidant, Maillart; former slaves Riau and Guiaou; Claudine, the wife of a plantation owner suddenly awakened to the horror he wrought; and many, many more.
Hebert eventually gets the epidemic under control, and it seems these people have escaped the worst of the violent struggles. Perhaps Louverture was just too gifted a politician for the Spanish and British, who tried to enter the conflict and failed. Louverture has written a constitution and sent it off to Napoleon, a document which would abolish slavery and permit the three racial groups to live in peace. He expects this to be quickly ratified, but what he gets in return is Napoleon's wrath. Warships are dispatched for the island carrying troops and Louverture's two sons, only one of whom will declare loyalty to his father's cause.
What follows from here is an astonishing, virtuoso display of historical imagination. The Stone That the Builder Refused recreates with stunning authority the day to day grind of battle. Schemes are hatched and dismissed, generals and agents betrayed, courage displayed and ignored. Chaos is evoked without being displayed in the tight prose. Though it may seem like an oxymoron, The Stone That the Builder Refused is a lean 750-page book. Here is Bell economically describing a scene that inspires a shiver of revulsion: "Daspir began to hear a regular whacking sound, accompanied by the grunts of a laboring man, from the post they were approaching. The sound was like that of a woodsman laying an ax into a tree, but what trees had been at this turn of the riverbank had long since been cut and trimmed to fortify the siege lines. When they came around the bend of the river, they discovered an infantry sergeant, stripped to the waist, panting and sweating as he beat an ancient Negro from his shoulders to his buttocks with a cane."
And this is what makes Bell's achievement so magnificent. With assiduousness that does not flag even through the most detailed of battle scenes, he has taken this shadowy historical figure and revealed what is essential, heroic and lasting in his legacy. Bell also allows him to carry contradictions to the bitter end. His Louverture is merciful, and yet his armies commit atrocities. He fought to free slaves but sent them back to plantations as conscript labor, and he forbade the whip even though his deputy, Dessalines, lashed prisoners. This is what negative capability means today: being able to tell the heroic story of a nation's coming into being without smoothing over its failures, however brutal. Clearly, Bell has this ability in spades. Now, would that writers with his energies turn their attention to the American experiment.
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