Bell's 'Stone' caps acclaimed Haiti trilogy

By KEVIN LANAHAN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, November 14, 2004

The country of Haiti, beset by centuries of political violence and grinding poverty, might seem several worlds away from the lush Tennessee horse farm where fiction writer Madison Smartt Bell was raised. But the struggling nation -- the site of the only successful slave rebellion in history and the world's first black republic -- has permeated Bell's soul to its core.

The 47-year-old author has penned 12 novels during his career, covering a diverse array of characters and subjects, from heroin junkies in New York City ("The Washington Square Ensemble") to a London-based hypnotist hired to help Scotland Yard crack a difficult case ("Doctor Sleep"). But Bell's most ambitious and stunning project to date may be his recent trilogy of historical novels set at the close of the 18th century, chronicling the bloody Haitian Revolution and the life of Toussaint Louverture, the charismatic freed slave who led the uprising.

On Tuesday, Bell will read from the trilogy's final installment, "The Stone That the Builder Refused" (Pantheon, 768 pages, $29.95), as part of the New York State Writers Institute's Visiting Writers Series.

Idyll childhood

In the 1950s, Bell's parents -- Vanderbilt University grads who counted Southern Agrarian poets Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle as friends -- purchased 100 acres outside of Nashville, where they raised horses and ran a summer camp for kids. There, Bell lived an atavistic childhood that included mending fences and plowing fields for crops, and grew close to one of the hired hands, a black man that Bell says was "broadly talented -- (he) could repair most anything, build anything, make anything grow." At the same time, Bell became cognizant of how the legacy of slavery had shaped the region, and the way that racial division cast a shadow on the culture.

In the 1980s, following his graduation from Princeton, Bell was researching material for his first novel when he became fascinated with the subject of voodoo, its prevalence in Haiti and the historical significance of the island. Eventually, this material would lead to the writing of 1995's "All Soul's Rising," the first book in his Haitian trilogy, which was released to wide praise and became a National Book Award finalist.

Because the country was under a U.N. embargo during the writing of "All Soul's Rising," Bell didn't actually set foot in Haiti until after the book was published. "I had planned to go in '91, but there was the coup d'etat (against then-President Jean Bertrand Aristide), and my risk tolerance went down seriously," Bell said from Goucher College in Maryland, where he is a professor of English.

"I had to make radical transitions to imagine the subjective experience of what an African imported to Haiti as a slave would have been like." For this, he relied on "books and maps, pictures and imagination."

Before finally visiting Haiti in 1995, Bell brushed up on his French, and learned Creole -- a difficult dialect that combines features of English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. When he arrived, the Haitian people embraced him.

"The first book made a nice calling card, and the people immediately recognized I'd done my homework in considerable depth," Bell said. "The next two novels were much enriched by my actually going there -- but by the same token, when you get out of Port Au Prince (the capital city), you find the culture hasn't changed much since the 17th century."

Living history

"All Soul's Rising" tells the story of Louverture's rise to prominence and the violent beginnings of the revolution. The second installment, "Master of the Crossroads" (2000), picks up in 1794, as England, Spain and France vie for control of the island, and depicts Louverture's victory against his enemies and the establishment of a new constitution. "The Stone That the Builder Refused" shows the birth of that new society, and the Napoleonic offensive sent to put Louverture down.

"I was attracted to the story, not just because of the anarchy and violence prevalent throughout, but because it really is a depiction of what it means to be human," Bell said. "Albeit it's a lesson we in America and Europe have neglected to acknowledge, and continue to ignore."

Bell returned to Haiti often during the writing of the second and third installments of the trilogy, and even served as tour guide through the country for novelist Robert Stone ("Dog Soldiers," "A Flag for Sunrise").

"Going to Haiti is a fairly big step in the relationship," Bell said. "It's less than easy to get around; but it was a good marriage." Stone's most recent novel, "Bay of Souls," reaches its climax in a fictional Caribbean nation whose political turbulence and voodoo-drenched culture are indubitably Haitian.

Faith in the future

Despite Haiti's current political and social unrest, Bell still believes in the nation's future, going so far as to buy land in the country. "This has not been an encouraging year, but I love it there and I love the people," he said.

"It wouldn't be difficult to help (the Haitians) save themselves. And the U.S., frankly, has an interest in doing it -- if for no other reason than that the violence finally stops."

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Madison Smartt Bell