'The Fire Still Burns' Raising the alarm: For madison Smartt Bell, 'All Souls' Rising' acts as a warning that race-inspired hatred still smolders.

April 17, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Novelist Madison Smartt Bell ascends to the pulpit of the Lutheran church across the street from the Folger Shakespeare Library dressed like an existential outlaw in gray and black punctuated by a skinny tie as blood-red as a recent razor cut.

He reads from his book "All Souls' Rising" with the odd, flat diffidence of a hesitant bank robber. His accent recalls faintly his Tennessee birthplace. In the church, there's a hint of the oldtime country and western song about the soldier who uses his deck of cards as a prayerbook.

In the grand sweep of "All Souls' Rising," the first volume of a planned trilogy, Mr. Bell chronicles racial hatred, burning passion, brutal cruelty and fiery revenge during the Haitian slave rebellions of 200 years ago. At readings, he often gives his audience a choice between "blood and thunder and romance."

"They always elect blood and thunder, and are sorry afterward," he tells his listeners in the Capitol Hill church. He's certainly unsparing in his depiction of blood, if not thunder, in his book. "So tonight I'm going to do romance."

He reads a chapter devoted to the sultry Creole courtesan, Nanon, who receives in turn three men who have been her lovers. The chapter begins with a new mirror and ends with a dead monkey and threats of death by poison and fire.

This is dark romance, indeed, but the audience of about 200 responds with warm and generous applause.

Mr. Bell's book, written mostly in his Baltimore attic, has already received wide critical acclaim, a National Book Award nomination and now a chance at the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the richest annual juried literary prize in the United States.

"All Souls' Rising" is one of five books selected from among about 300 novels and 66 short story collections published in the United States last year. The others are the Pulitzer Prize winning "Independence Day" by Richard Ford, "The Tunnel" by William H. Gass, "When the World Was Steady" by Clarie Messud and "The Good Negress" by A. J. Verdelle. The PEN/Faulkner is worth $15,000 to the winner and $5,000 each to the other finalists. "The first among equals" is expected to be announced this week.

Mr. Bell's reading last Friday was a kind of prelude to the award ceremonies scheduled for May 18 at the Folger library, where the foundation that administers the prize is headquartered. He shared the pulpit with Edwige Danticat, the 26-year-old Haitian emigre, whose "Krik? Krak!," a volume of short stories about life in Haiti and the United States, was also nominated for the National Book Award.

Violence erupts frequently, casually and often horrendously in "All Souls Rising."

The book reconstructs the rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture, a house slave who became a brilliant general in a rebellion that swept across Haiti almost exactly two centuries ago, against the background of the Revolution in France. Mr. Bell orchestrates a dozen characters with great skill and panache in recounting the unfolding of the only successful slave revolt in history.

The rebellion of the slaves and the reaction of the grand blancs, the white planters, created a war of unspeakable horrors. Mixed-race creoles became a third party to the carnage.

"From the very beginning it was genocidal warfare," Mr. Bell says. "Each of these factions wanted to completely exterminate the other two."

His book opens with the image of a woman slave nailed to a pole by a planter. But the horrors are not imagined. "I didn't make any of this stuff up," he says. "I could have put a whole lot worse stuff in there than I did."

He ends "All Souls Rising" with a sharp warning for our time: The fire still burns.

Coda to novel

In a three-page sentence that forms the coda to his novel, he addresses his readers directly from the heart:

"You who believe yourself inured to atrocity, to murder in the street. . .The most assiduous fire is still striving to find its way into the future, to throw some illumination on your life, be it faint and slight as the pinpoint of green luminescence on your watch dial -- it is coming still, it is still here. But no one sees the light."

Mr. Bell says this prophetic finale reveals a lot about his motives for writing the book.

"What I was doing," he says, "was to make the point...that the kind of racial inferno created in Haiti in the 18th century and early 19th century is still going on in our country today. We still have not solved this problem."

At home in Cedarcroft, Madison Smartt Bell looks less like an bandit and more like a bookman. At 38, he's a tall and rangy guy with rumpled hair, wearing an Oxford shirt and round, wire-rimmed spectacles. He lives in a roomy, art-filled home on Pinehurst road with his wife, Elizabeth Spires, a much-admired poet, and their daughter, Celia, just about 5. He is writer-in-residence and Ms. Spires is poet-in-residence at Goucher College. Both have taught in the Johns Hopkins University writing seminars.

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