The Stone That the Builder Refused
Madison Smartt Bell
Pantheon: 750 pp., $29.95
In any bin marked “historical novels,” one is likely to find two diametrically different kinds of reading. The first bulging pile consists of collages of good-to-middling research and stagy period drama. A second, much smaller stack glows with unquenchable life. These are the true time machines, books that completely transport, that seem not so much to have sprung from a writer’s imagination as to have taken possession. It’s here one would find, say, Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius,” Gore Vidal’s “Burr” or Yukio Mishima’s “Spring Snow.” Now the stack is a little taller with the addition of the final volume of Madison Smartt Bell’s sweeping trilogy of the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the only slave colony to throw off its own shackles.
Bell portrays Toussaint L’Ouverture as a runt who was born into a slave system so ruthless that fresh field hands had to be steadily shipped from Africa because the resident slaves died so quickly. Toussaint and his country (then Saint Domingue, now Haiti) gained freedom in part by bloody uprisings, in part by convincing the authors of the French Revolution and subsequently Napoleon Bonaparte to apply the beautiful rhetoric of fraternite and egalite to their island.
The man who would become Gov. Gen. Toussaint L’Ouverture was a self-lettered, brilliant visionary, a wily statesman and military commander, a liberator. “The black general was slight in stature, with a jockey’s build....[H]is head, with its long heavily underslung jaw, looked ill-balanced and distinctly too large for his body....[B]ut Toussaint had a knack of projecting some force outward from himself, which made him seem larger than he really was....”
“The Stone That the Builder Refused” covers only the last two wrenching years of Toussaint’s life but on a broad canvas. Though Toussaint beats at the story’s heart, he is less seen or heard from than the array of characters who surround and reflect his destiny as the French seek to reassert their hold on Saint Domingue. These include oldest son Placide, newly returned from school in France, mulatto wife Nanon, rescued from a brothel, the treacherous French general Leclerc, soldiers on both the French and Haitian sides, and a palette of plantation whites prospering again in the tolerant society crafted by Toussaint. At more than 750 pages, this final Stone, when added to volumes 1 and 2, “All Souls’ Rising” and “The Master of the Crossroads,” surpasses that grandfather of all doorstoppers, “War and Peace.”
To compare Bell’s newest novel to Tolstoy’s masterpiece is irresistible. Both epics unfurl grueling battle scenes, scrutinize warfare from every angle and mood -- glorious, sickening, damning, justifying. Both begin with a formal party scene, the charm of peace before the slaughter, an opening waltz tempo that sets crucial characters interacting. And, not least, both play out under the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte at his imperial height.
Along with such parallels, differences are worth noting. While Pierre, Natasha and the other Russians display personal vulnerabilities rooted in childhood, there is an archetypical gloss to Bell’s flamboyant, well-chosen characters. Even our close guide through hell, Bell’s alter ego, the white doctor He’bert, loyal to Toussaint in his bones, remains in the killing fields enviably pure and stoical -- a martyr to white guilt.
For all his fervor, Bell spares his novel Tolstoyan historical philosophizing. The closest he comes is a casual epitaph: “There is no death ... There’s only change.”
The great beauty of this work is its language, the authoritative formal lilt of English and French, the weaving in of Creole as spoken then. Just as characters in “The Stone” are possessed by the lwa -- spirits who guide souls -- so too has Bell opened to the spirits of his characters, imagined and real.
Kai Maristed is the author of the novels “Broken Ground,” “Out After Dark” and “Fall.”