"Master of the Crossroads," by Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon Books. 732 pages. $30.
The historical novel "Master of the Crossroads" begins about five years after the poor of Paris stormed the Bastille for a piece of cake and the universal rights of men. It recounts the bloody revolt of the African slaves in the French colony of Saint Domingue led by Haiti's liberator, a black Spartacus, Toussaint L'Ouverture. Madison Smartt Bell, author of 11 previous novels, journals this natural-born leader's emancipation of the towns and coveys of the enslaved land. Bell, rather than deifying L'Ouverture, conveys a balanced view of the commander who was nobly single-minded in his quest for black men's freedom, but who perhaps, on a spiritual level, left his countrymen enslaved.
Anyone intrigued by Haiti must read this, the second carefully documented novel in Bell's trilogy. Although the first of the triumvirate, "All Souls Rising," was a finalist for the National Book Award, at times this second work plods along with the black leader on his white steed, Bel Argent.
Then, however, the captivating subplot -- a romantic intrigue between the liberator's white physician and a mulatto prostitute -- carries the reader from page to page. Because the novel reveals so much about the sociology and spirituality of the Creole mind, the student of the Caribbean will be compelled to continue.
Why have so many Haitian leaders subsequent to L'Ouverture been marked by cruelty? Bell describes how the scars on the soldiers' backs branded white and mulatto masters as perpetrators. He goes on to recount how many of the victorious generals under L'Ouverture's command were atrocious in retaliation. So regular were the bloody reprisals that the commander's men suspected that he knew and either directed or condoned them by his silence. Poignantly, the author uses the words of a liberated slave to explain the pattern. "What they did to us, we have learned to do to ourselves."
"Master of the Crossroads" details the liberation of the Pearl of the Antilles that ended much like the French Revolution. Just as the bloody swath of the guillotine cleared the stage for Napoleon's dictatorship, so the guerrilla war poised Haiti for absolute rule. As the novel concludes, L'Ouverture pens a constitution assigning near-total power to himself for the duration of his life.
Beyond L'Ouverture's legacy of dictatorial rule, his spiritual syncretism left servitude. Bell's character, a black soldier, relates how the commander decided upon his name. "Toussaint always claimed that he served only Jesus, not the loa [spirits]... But in calling himself Toussaint of the Opening he meant to say it was Legba [the voodoo god of the crossroads] working through his hands."
In the novel, the beat of the drum calls the islander from sleep. Walking zombie-like to a crossroads he is mounted by a spirit and is no longer his own master for several hours. These narratives of spiritual enslavement leave the reader asking the right question, "Who did L'Ouverture leave as master of the Haitian crossroads?"
Marcia Piepgrass lived in Haiti for six years during the Duvalier and post-Duvalier eras. She was formerly a reporter for the Richmond Times Dispatch and is currently an assistant English professor.