Bell’s grand, multifaceted novel shows a nation, splintered by actions and in the throes of chaos, carried to liberation and justice through the undaunted tenacity of one incredible visionary.
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 1, 1957
Place of Birth:Nashville, Tennessee
Education:A.B. in English, Princeton University, 1979; M.A. in English and creative writing, Hollins College, 1981
Read an Excerpt
Fort de Joux, France
Citizen Baille, commandant of the Fort de Joux, crossed the courtyard of the mountain fortress, climbed a set of twelve steps, and knocked on the outer door of the guardhouse. When there was no reply, he hitched up the basket he carried over his left arm and rapped again more smartly with his right fist. A sentry opened to him, stood aside, and held his salute. Baille acknowledged him, then turned and locked the door with his own hand.
"Les clefs," said Baille, and the sentry presented him with a large iron keyring.
"In the future," Baille announced, "I will keep these keys in my own possession. Whoever has need of them must come to me. But there will be no need."
Citizen Baille unlocked the inner door and pulled, heaving a part of his considerable weight against the pull-ring to set the heavy door turning on its hinges. He stooped and picked up a sack of clothing from the floor, and carrying both sack and basket, passed through the doorway and turned and locked it behind him.
The vaulted corridor was dimly lit through narrow loopholes that penetrated the twelve-foot stone walls. Baille walked the length of it, aware of the echo of his footfalls. At the far end he set down the basket and the sack and unlocked another door, passed through, and relocked it after him.
Two steps down brought him to the floor of the second vaulted corridor, which was six inches deep in the water that came imperceptibly, ceasely seeping from the raw face of the wall to the left--the living stone of the mountain. Baille muttered under his breath as he traversed the vault; his trousers were bloused into his boots, which had been freshly waxed but still leaked around the seams of the uppers. Opening the next door was an awkward affair, for Baille must balance the sack and basket as he worked the key; there was no place on the flooded floor to lay them down.
Ordinarily he might have brought a soldier or a junior officer to bear those burdens for him, but the situation was not ordinary, and Baille was afraid--no (he stopped himself), he was not afraid, but . . . He could not rid his mind of the two officers of the Vendée who had lately escaped from this place. It was an embarrassment, a scandal, a disgrace, and Baille might well have lost his command, he thought, except that to be relieved of this miserable, frozen, isolated post might almost have been taken as a reward rather than a punishment. He still had little notion how the escape had been possible. There was none among his officers or men whom he distrusted, and yet none could give a satisfactory explanation of what had taken place. The prisoners could not have slipped through the keyholes or melted into the massive stone walls, and the heavy mesh which covered the cell windows (beyond their bars) was not wide enough to pass a grown man's finger.
His current prisoner was vastly more important than those officers could ever dream to be--although he was a Negro, and a slave. From halfway around the world Captain-General Leclerc had written to his brother-in-law, the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte himself, that this man had so inflamed the rebel slaves of Saint Domingue that the merest hint of his return there would overthrow all the progress Leclerc and his army had made toward the suppression of the revolt and the restoration of slavery. Perhaps only the whisper of the name of Baille's prisoner on the lips of the blacks of Saint Domingue would be sufficient cause for that Jewel of the Antilles, so recently France's richest possession overseas, to be purged yet another time with fire and blood. So wrote the Captain-General to his brother-in-law, and it seemed that the First Consul himself took the liveliest interest in the situation, reinforcing with his direct order Leclerc's nervous request that the prisoner be kept in the straitest possible security, and as far away as possible from any seaport that might provide a route for his return.
The Fort de Joux, perched high in the Alps near the Swiss border, met this second condition most exactly. One could hardly go farther from the sea while still remaining within French borders. As for security, well, the walls were thick and the doors heavy, the windows almost hermetically sealed. In the case of the recent escape there had most certainly been betrayal. The officers had somehow obtained the files they used to cut their bars, and probably had enjoyed other aid from some unknown person in the fort. For this reason Baille had chosen to wait upon his new prisoner himself and alone, at least for the present, despite the inconvenience it occasioned.
While pursuing this uneasy rumination, he had crossed the third corridor, which was set at a higher level than the one before and therefore was less damp. He opened and relocked the final door and turned to face the openings of two cells. Clearing his throat, he walked to the second door and called out to announce himself. After a moment a voice returned the call, but it was low and indistinct through the iron-bound door.
Baille turned the key in the lock and went in. The cell, vaulted like the passages leading to it, was illuminated only by coals of the small fire. Baille's heart quivered like a jelly, for it seemed there was no one in the room--he saw with his frantically darting eyes the low bed, stool, the table . . . but no human being. He dropped the sack and clapped a hand over his mouth. But now the man was standing before him after all, not five paces distant, as if he had been dropped from the ceiling--or had spun himself down, like a spider on its silk. Indeed the barrel vault overhead was filled with dismal shadows, so that Baille could not make out the height of its curve. The vault dwarfed the prisoner, a small Negro unremarkable at first glance, except that he was slightly bandy-legged. Baille swallowed; his tongue was thick.
"Let us light the candle," he said. When there was no response he went to the table and did so himself, then turned to inspect the prisoner in the improved light.
This was Toussaint Louverture, who had thought to make the island colony of Saint Domingue independent of France. He had written and proclaimed a constitution; he had, so rumor ran, written to the First Consul with this arrogant address: "To the first of the whites from the first of the blacks." But now, if this arrogance had not been exactly punished, it had certainly been checked by many rings of stone.
Baille faced his guest with a smile, feeling his lips curve on his face like clay. "I have brought your rations," he said.
Toussaint did not even glance at the basket, which Baille had set down on the table when he struck the light. He looked at the commandant with a cool intensity which Baille found rather unnerving, though he did his best to hold . . . after all, it was not quite a stare. Toussaint's head was disproportionately large for his body, with a long lower jaw and irregular brown teeth. His eyes, however, were clear and intelligent. He wore a madras cloth bound around his head and the uniform of a French general, which was, however, limp and soiled. Apparently he had had no change of his outer garments since he had first been made prisoner and deported from Saint Domingue.
"I have brought you fresh clothing," Baille said, and indicated the sack he had dropped on the floor in his first surprise. Toussaint did not shift his gaze to acknowledge it. Presently Baille picked up the sack himself and stooped to lay out the contents on the low bed.
"This uniform is not correct," Toussaint said.
Baille swallowed. "You must accept it." Somehow he could not manage to phrase the sentence with greater force.
Toussaint looked briefly at the coals in the fire.
"Your uniform is soiled and worn, and too light for the weather," Baille said. "It is already cold here, and soon it will be winter, sir--" This sir escaped him involuntarily. He stopped and looked at the woolen clothes he had unfolded on the bed. "Acceptez-les, je vous en prie."
Toussaint at last inclined his head. Baille sighed. "I must also ask that you surrender any money you may have, or any . . ." He let the sentence trail. He waited, but nothing else happened at all. "Do you understand me?" This time Baille suppressed the sir. "Yes, of course," Toussaint said, and he turned his head and shoulder toward the door. Baille had already begun walking in that direction before he recognized that he had been dismissed, that he should not permit himself to be so dismissed, that it was his clear duty to remain and watch the prisoner disrobe and see with his own eyes that he held nothing back. However, he soon found himself against the outside of the door, unreeling in his mind long strings of curses, although he did not know for certain if it were the prisoner or the assigned procedures he meant to curse.
After a few minutes he called out. The same indistinct mutter returned through the door, and Baille opened it and went back in. Toussaint stood in the fresh clothes that had been given him; his feet, incongruously, were bare. Or rather Baille felt that he himself would have looked absurd and foolish standing barefoot in such a situation, but it detracted in no way from the dignity of the prisoner. Toussaint motioned toward the table with a slight movement of his left hand.
Table of Contents
Author of Master of the Crossroads
Q: Let's begin with your personal interest in Haiti. What sparked your curiosity and what perpetuates it?
A: First the religion, Vodou, which I discovered while researching other work, and then the story of Toussaint Louverture which I came across in the same manner. Then I began to become more broadly fascinated with the Haitian Revolution and its broader significance. When I first went to Haiti in 1995 I fell in love with the place, as many have done. For all its problems, Haiti has in some respects a superior culture to our own.
Q: In what way?
A: There's a religion that works at all levels of life and a much stronger community spirit than we can claim in the U.S. nowadays.
Example: nowhere in the U.S. does anyone dare leave their child unattended for even two minutes in any public placethe next time you see your kid would be on a milk carton. In Haiti, someone caught harming a child can expect to have his head cut off by the crowd within the next five minutes.
There is in Haiti a more gruesome level of poverty and deprivation than the lowest strata of society in the U.S. could ever conceivebut along with it there is a tremendously strong spirit that responds to suffering with an enviable good faith. That is to say that for most Haitians whom I know the goal of life is a spiritual harmony from which material wellbeing will proceed. Quite a contrast to life in the U.S. where spiritual and material goals have been divorced for a long time and have nothing to do with each other at all.
In Haiti there is no such thing as an abstraction. Every spiritual action or event is at the same time material and concrete; every physical action or event is harnessed to its causes and consequences in the spiritual world. In theological terms, the spirit is immanent. Thus Haitians enjoy, in the midst of their terrible suffering, a wholeness of being which we in the U.S. can scarcely even imagine.
Q: Master of the Crossroads is the second installment in a trilogy that begins with the horrific slave revolution in 18th century Haiti (following the highly acclaimed novel, All Souls Rising, published in 1995). Where does it lead us?
A: Master of the Crossroads covers the period from 1794, when Toussaint announced his name of Louverture and began his rise to power over the entire island of Hispaniola, and ends in 1801, with his consolidation of power. I've divided the whole period of the Haitian Revolution into three parts for the purpose of the trilogy, and this middle part is the most difficult chunk of material for the novelist to digestfor its complexity and its many divergent issues. Readers of Master of the Crossroads will see an image of Toussaint developing against the background of the challenges he confrontedduring a period when he repelled Spanish and English invasion of the French colony, out-maneuvered the French civil service politically, led his party to victory in civil war, conquered the Spanish half of Hispaniola, and began laying the foundation of a new society based on universal liberty and human rights for all races.
Q: What are your plans for the third part of the trilogy?
A: The final volume should be somewhat easier to write (I'm hoping) because the time period is shorter (1801-1804, with most of the action happening between 1801-1802). A simple story line is already present in the material: Napoleon's decision to invade, depose Toussaint and eventually restore slaveryand the Haitian response, which was eventually triumphant. My working title for this volume is The Stone that the Builder Refused.
The whole trilogy is divided into two different alternating chronologies: Time A, which goes forward from the first insurrection of 1791 toward Haitian independence, and Time B, which proceeds from Toussaint's deportation to his death in a prison in the French Alps. At the end of the closing volume, these two time lines will flow together to make the conclusion.
My plan (si Dye vle) is to publish the third volume in 2004: the bicentennial year of Haitian Independence.
Q: Who was Toussaint Louverture and why have you decided to devote three fictional works to the exploration of his life and accomplishments?
A: The facts: Toussaint was born in slavery but free at the time of the revolution (this latter fact is not very well known and is something which Toussaint himself sought to suppress, in order to identify himself more successfully with the great mass of people freed after 1791, which was his power base). But it has been known since the 1970's that Toussaint had been freed in 1791, long enough to own land and some slaves himself. Most likely he had purchased his freedom, as some skilled slaves were able to do.
Toussaint could read, had read the Bible, Epictetus (the stoic slave philosopher) and Raynal's prediction of a Black Spartacus who would overthrow slavery in the West Indies. He was an expert horseman and trainer of horses, was also trained in European veterinary medicine as it existed at the time, and also had a reputation as an herbal doctor. He was a devout Catholic; I believe he was also a Vodouisant. A self-educated man, he became, in the early phase of the revolution, a military tactician and finally a strategist to reckon with. He created a small, well-disciplined fighting force sufficient to tip the balance of power when the French colony was being contested by England, France and Spain. A little later he showed enough political sagacity to outwit the diplomats of both France and England, making the colony independent, under his rule, in everything but name.
This extraordinary ascent from obscurity was followed by an equally sharp decline, when Toussaint, because of a couple of ambiguous decisions and some treachery from his own subordinates as well as the French, was captured and sent to France to die in prison there. In this respect the trajectory of his career follows the arc of classical tragedy.
Q: Tell us about the history of the Haitian Revolution.
A: The Haitian Revolution is the ignored revolution (among three) that created the modern world as we know it: The American Revolution (1776); The French Revolution (1789); and the Haitian Revolution (1791).
French Saint Domingue (the colony that would become Haiti) reacted to the two earlier revolutions: Among landowners and slaveowners there was a movement to make the colony independent in the style of the American Revolution. Among the colored population (those of a mixed African/European blood, recognized by the French colonial system as a third race) there was a movement to claim for themselves the basic human rights pronounced by the French Revolution: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
All of the controversy on these political points was audible to the black slaves of Saint Domingue, who numbered roughly half a millionthe white and colored populations amounted only to about ten thousand each. In the midst of various intrigues and coup attempts among different factions of whites and colored persons, a major slave insurrection broke out in the north of the colony in 1791, and could not be put down.
While both the American and French Revolutions were based on an ideology of basic human rights, neither extended those rights to black people, or even thought of doing so. Only the Haitian Revolution followed through on the logical consequences of the ideology of the French and American Revolutionsproffering basic human rights to everyone regardless of race.
Q: Touissant Louverture's given name is actually Toussaint Bréda. From where did the name "Louverture" come?
A: There are several different stories about how Toussaint Louverture, known during slavery time as Toussaint Bréda, came by his revolutionary surname. One story has it that French Commissioner Polverel, hearing of Toussaint's string of victories for the Spanish, exclaimed "Cet homme fait l'ouverture partout!" (That man makes an opening everywhere!). Another story goes that the nickname was applied because of a gap in Toussaint's front teeth, caused by a spent cannonball that struck him in the face. Others say he assumed the name deliberately for reasons of his own. The first time he is known to have used it is in his proclamation from Camp Turel, issued, probably not by coincidence, the same day as Sonthonax's proclamation of the abolition of slavery.
The proclamation from Camp Turel was intended to place Toussaint at the head of the struggle for general liberty of all African slaves in Saint Domingue. "L'ouverture," or opening, suggests that lunge for liberation. At a deeper level, the word also suggests the figure of Legba, the loa of Haitian Vodou who is keeper of the crossroads and who must be invoked, at the beginning of ceremonies, to open the passageway between the world of the living and the world inhabited by the spirits. Attibon Legba is a beneficent deity of crossroads, gates and passages. In the Petro rite, which is "hotter," more violent, more closely associated with the violence of revolution, Legba appears in the aspect of Mait' Kalfou, in French, Maître des Carrefours, or Master of the Crossroads. Kalfou, however, is a less benign figure than Attibon Legba, being capable of guile, trickery, maleficence, and the release of demonic forces.
Toussaint Louverture stands at the crossroads between Europe, Africa, and the preColumbian Indian world, controlling the passageway from slavery to freedom, controlling even the pathway from feudal and monarchical systems to the new sort of society which the French and American Revolutions had just begun to invent. He is known to have been a devout Catholic, but in Haiti Catholicism is not inconsistent with the practice of Vodou. In writing this book I have come to believe that Toussaint, as well as being the avatar of French Revolutionary ideology carried to its logical conclusion (equal rights for all human beings, not just whites) also embodied, even literally incarnated, both Attibon Legba and Mait' Kalfou.
Q: Were you surprised by the story of Toussaint Louverture when you started your research?
A: Yes, I was. I was amazed that there was such a great story out there and that I didn't know itFew white Americans did. The story of Toussaint and of the Haitian Revolution in general is better known among black Americans than among white. In Franklin, the county seat of my home county in Tennessee, the black cemetery has been called since time immemorial, Toussaint Louverture Cemetery, although I never knew just why. When I struck upon the story I thought, what a great discovery it was for a novelistthis magnificent tragedy lying in wait for an audience that hadn't seen and heard it all before.
Q: One of the more compelling elements of Master of the Crossroads is the multi-cultural perspective on Louverture. What is the cultural makeup of Haiti today? How does this play into current conflicts?
A: This, too, is a complicated question, so I'll answer in very general terms. Jean Jacques Dessalines, emperor of Haiti from 1804 until his assassination in 1806, declared in his constitution that all citizens of Haiti would henceforward be known as nèg, or black, while all foreigners would be known as blan, or white, regardless of their skin tone. This rhetorical flourish did away with the very concept of racial difference as it is understood in the States and most other First World societies. It still remains in HaitiThat is to say that if a coal black African-American visits Haiti today, he is in Haitian terms blan, white, a foreigner. Likewise a person of 100% European bloodstock and pigmentation is, if fully accepted as a Haitian, reclassified as nèg, or black, or Haitian, or simply a person, which is another meaning of nèg.
There is a racial/social division between Haitian's todaybetween nèg and milat (mulatres are the colored people of the colonial era). Because the colored people of Haiti had a head start in terms of education, property owning, etc., they tended to float to the top of the immediate post-Revolutionary social economic structure. But in common parlance in Haiti today, "milat" refers to social-economic status more than to skin tone.
Q: You own land in HaitiHow safe is the current political climate in Haiti?
A: I own a small piece of land with, at present, no completed structures on it. If all goes well and the spirits are favorable, I and my Haitian friends will make a lakou (a community dwelling place) on the land.
Haiti has been without a functioning government for the last two years, due to Parliamentary gridlock, which stems, I think, from the conditions set by the international community (U.S. IMF, World Bank, etc.) for Aristide to return. I've been to Haiti several times in that situation and felt sufficiently safe. Haiti has been operating on something resembling the feudal system for a long time anyway, excepting the Duvalier period. They're used to not having much of a government and can get by without one.
There has been a sharp rise in entrepreneurial crime of the sort common in the U.S.armed robbery accompanied by murder sort of thing. This stuff was virtually unknown in Haiti until recently, and nobody likes it much. The causes are the presence of unemployed, starving, but armed ex-Haitian army members, (along with some elements of the old macoute organization I'm sure) who have no other way to make a living at the moment. Another cause is the deportation from the U.S. of young Haitian nationals who don't know anything but gangbanging.
The Haitian National Police force organized with the help of the U.N. is doing the best it can, but its members were very rapidly trained and they tend to be outgunned by the opposition, thought I've noticed their armament seems to have been upgraded in the last year. They certainly have maintained a higher level of respect for human rights than any other such force in recent Haitian memory, and have also managed to maintain political neutrality and respect and support for civilian democratic processes, which is perhaps their most challenging task for the moment. I think they command some admiration at this point though it's hard for them to keep up with the new wave of banditry, which probably represents the most significant risk in Haiti.
Q: What can we expect in the coming months?
A: The lead-up to the May elections was the spookiest period in recent yearsthe assassination of radio journalist Jean Dominique (the most prominent in a rash of attacks mostly on politicians) made a great many people fear that there might be some seizure of power by violence. This possibility still exists but seems to have receded for the moment, since the May elections went more smoothly than expected, with a much larger voter turnout than expected. Famille Lavalas, the party of ex-president Aristide, won the majority of the vote and despite some significant irregularities the legitimacy of the election has been endorsed by international observers.
There'll be some similar periods of instability around the elections in late June and especially the presidential elections in November. All sorts of nasty possibilities exist but I think they are not probable. I think the most likely case is that Aristide will be elected President again, with a majority of his party in the Parliament. This result would break the governmental gridlock and give Aristide a real chance at a sane government and substantial reform.
Q: And what do you hope for the future?
A: One way or another I think there will be some positive stabilization of the country after the fall elections, if only because it is in no faction's real interest to return to the conditions immediately preceding the U.N. intervention. Haiti offers all sorts of wonderful possibilities for investment and growth. A lot of foreign investment has already been halted by the governmental gridlock, and it is in the interest of all parties to renew it. In the interim, there has been a lot of wide-spread if small-scale investment all over the country on the part of the Haitian Diaspora, which has established itself, since 1957, all over the Western Hemisphere. This Diaspora is probably the most committed and stable source for the investment that Haiti so desperately needs, and I believe that whatever party comes to power at the end of this year will recognize the fact and act accordingly. If so, there will be a reasonable progress toward economic embetterment of the majority of the Haitian population, and also a reasonable respect for human rights and the principles of democracyimperfect, I would predict, but better than what there has been in recent years.