Bell's 'All Souls Rising' -- Haiti, historically

October 15, 1995|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"All Souls' Rising," by Madison Smart Bell. New York: Pantheon. 544 pages. $25

The first thing to know about Madison Smartt Bell's 10th book, All Souls' Rising, is that it is a work of breathtaking stylistic expertise on a large scale, easily this 37-year-old author's most daring and accomplished novel. The second thing to know about it is that it is far from an unqualified success.

The fact-based story Mr. Bell tells here, of the slave uprisings in the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) around the time of the French revolution, is a Technicolor epic of catastrophe. A round of voices-including those of a doctor, a soldier, a runaway slave and a deranged plantation mistress-narrates the action, which combines often bafflingly complex military-political maneuverings with prolonged, stomach-turning scenes of torture, murder, mutilation and rape. At novel's center is the legendary Toussaint L'Ouverture, the former slave who rises to assume control of the rebellion and ultimately declares himself governor-general of the island.

Burning cane fields, voodoo ceremonies, doomed love affairs, mutilated priests, fetuses impaled on spikes-it's all very grand, bringing to mind, with its sometimes stilted dialogue and purple sunsets, a sort of Hobbesian "Gone With the Wind." It's also a book whose betrayals and alliances - between white royalists, white revolutionaries, land-owning mulattoes and black slaves-can be dizzyingly hard to follow. (This is a novel that is virtually unreadable without constant reference to its explanatory preface, detailed chronology of events, and glossary of French and Creole words.)

Why was this book written, and for whom? Nobody is going to bTC read it for pleasure, certainly, and those seeking historical instruction would find more clarity in a textbook. It's hard, also, to see it as a heartfelt appeal to end racial oppression. The authorial voice is extraordinarily detached, except for a portentous epilogue warning "you who believe yourself inured to atrocity" that the fires of revolution are still burning, which reads as if it were hastily and rather half-heartedly tacked on.

There is no denying the power of this enormously painful story, or Mr. Bell's prowess in telling it. But his books have been accused of hollowness before, and there is something missing here as well. It's not that I question his depth of feeling; it's that the depth of feeling never adequately transfers to the reader. The authorial voice is too removed; too much is lost in the translation, and that rumbling epilogue comes along far too late to be effective.

In nine previous works of fiction Mr. Bell has proved himself a master of milieu. Atmosphere is what one remembers most clearly in his novels, whether close or distant, exotic or familiar, and I believe that in "All Souls' Rising" he lost sight of both his audience and his subject in his passion for pure evocation. While one can admire Mr. Bell's virtuosity here, one can't help coming away with the notion that this is a very impressive novel whose only intention is to impress.

Donna Rifkind writes frequently for the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, the New York Times and The New Criterion for which she used to be assistant managing editor.

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