For a second time this year, a world-renowned novelist has tackled a French event within an Atlantic framework. Last issue we reviewed Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America; this time we turn to Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s retelling of the Haitian Revolution. The story, part history, part chick-lit, is told from the perspective of a female slave who, after the defeat of the first Haitian uprising, which she helped to organize, is taken to Cuba and then to New Orleans by the master she foolishly rescues. Wherever she goes she continues to fight for her freedom and that of her children, and to keeps her forebears’ religious traditions alive. This broad canvas allows Allende to examine cultural transfers of African music, religion, and practices to the New World, both in a plantation setting and in the peculiar French, Spanish, American, and African milieu of New Orleans in the early 1800s. Does her tale stand up to recent scholarship? An historian responds.
Few historical landscapes are so layered with symbolism and desire as that of the founding of Haiti. The story in a way resists telling: those at the center of the story – the enslaved people, most of them African-born, who were the motor of the Revolution – left only evanescent traces of their experiences and even fewer of their world-view. In recent decades, as historians have struggled to expand our understanding of this period, a series of novelists – most notably Madison Smartt Bell – have sought to capture this epic by bringing together historical figures with invented characters. Most recently, Isabelle Allende has offered a richly detailed story set during the period of the Haitian Revolution, Island Beneath the Sea.
There is something unsettling about this novel. The historical details are clearly well-researched, and in many ways the story is quite engaging. At the same time, I found it difficult to lose myself in the story, which often seemed to slip too easily into stereotype, especially when it came to describing African music and African-derived religion. It is not surprising that the novel has received very mixed reviews. In the Los Angeles Times, Bernadette Murphey presents it as a vital work that provides necessary insight into Haitian history. It allows readers, she writes, “to fully penetrate the world in which the slave rebellion took place — to understand what life was like on the sugar plantations, to enter the mindset of slaveholders and slaves alike, to examine the psychological drama at work in those relationships and, ultimately, to sense viscerally the drive for human dignity that impelled them to freedom.” Writing in the New York Times, meanwhile, Gaiutra Bahadur praises Allende for centering the novel on the experience of women in the Revolution. But she also faulted the book for trading “innovative language and technique for a fundamentally straightforward historical pageant.” “There is plenty of melodrama and coincidence in Island Beneath the Sea, Bahadur laments, “but not much magic.” A harsher reading comes from Marcela Valdes, writing in the Washington Post, who argues that the “shenanigans” of the romantic plot of the book ultimately undoes its value as a historical novel. The account of the political transformations of the period, she writes, feel “pro forma,” with many passages reading “like a warmed-over textbook.” “By the end,” she concludes, “it’s obvious that Allende’s real interest is not Haitian history but plotting worthy of romantic opera. For in this novel, slavery and revolution are little more than a colorful setting for tales of incest and star-crossed love, which explains the novel’s cringe-inducing takes on African religion and dancing. Among other startling suggestions, Allende implies that a taste for dancing is inherent to ‘African blood.’”
Some perspective on Allende’s novel can be gained by comparing it to one of the best known and classic literary accounts of the Haitian Revolution, The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier. Like this earlier classic, the new novel attempts to tell the story through a character who occupies a subordinate role in the society, and to imagine that character’s experiences and worldview. Carpentier set his book in both Haiti and Cuba; Allende also explores the broader Atlantic context of the moment by setting parts of the book in Louisiana. Most importantly, both works attempt to provide a vision, from the inside, of the religious landscape of Haiti during its revolution.
It was in the preface of his novel that Carpentier famously first used the term “magical realism” to describe his attempt to bring the religious culture of Haiti into the story as an actual living part of history. Carpentier’s vision of Vodou, though, was shaped in part by accounts such as William Seabrook’s famous travelogue The Magic Island, published in 1929. He travelled to Haiti during the period of the U.S. occupation but, as Kate Ramsey explores in a brilliant forthcoming book, never actually saw a real ceremony: they were heavily suppressed at the time under the occupation. Instead, he gained his “expertise” on Vodou by talking to U.S. Marines who, in the process of raiding temples and arresting practitioners, felt that they had also gained an ability to speak about and even on behalf of the religion. The source, of course, does not necessarily condemn Carpentier’s vision of Vodou, and yet it does shape the particular kinds of emphases the religion receives in the book. In addition, Carpentier’s book – along with other literary works – produces a relatively satisfying but ultimately too simple vision of the regime of Henry Christophe, in which he becomes an intensely ironic symbol: a leader of a slave revolution who ends up essentially re-enslaving his own people.
I have taught Carpentier’s book on many occasions, and will do so in the future, for it is a remarkable work of writing, with tightly-wound and drawn scenes that capture historical questions in a profound and riveting way. But I only do so in a context where students have plenty of other information about the history he describes, as well as about the Vodou religion, to provide them other angles on the central questions. Likewise, if I were to use Allende’s book for teaching, it would only be with similar preparation: it could be interesting for students who already have a pretty detailed knowledge of the revolution, and of Haitian culture, to explore and critique the way in which she puts them in motion in her novel. The book would certainly also work if placed into dialogue with other novels about the Haitian Revolution – such as those of Madison Smartt Bell – in the context of a detailed discussion about discourses and representations surrounding Haiti. But without such surrounding information and discussion, I would fear the novel would not give students the kind of nuanced historical vision I seek to transmit to them. I would look elsewhere: to the writings of Edwidge Danticat or Marie-Vieux Chauvet, for instance, or in a French class to one of the wide range of works by Haitian writers that grapple with the complexities of Haitian history. Among these is a remarkable recent novel by Evelyn Trouillot, Rosalie l’Infâme, which, like Allende’s novel, is centered on a woman’s experience of slavery but is more successful as a novel and as a depiction of Haiti’s historical experience.
Part of what is so intriguing about Allende’s novel is that in both its ambition – to tell the history of the Haitian Revolution from a woman’s perspective – and in the difficulty it has in delivering this vision, it highlights the limits and difficulties of historical knowledge and reconstruction itself. The voices Allende wants to reconstruct and foreground are, of course, precisely those that are most difficult to document. In his novels, Bell chose many figures who both wrote a great deal themselves and were described in detail by contemporaries, and then created other characters to provide lives and perspectives of the more “everyday” people involved in the period. Allende attempts to further de-center the traditional story, placing sexuality, religion and music in its place. For me, as for several reviewers, it somehow doesn’t feel like she actually accessed those. Still, the book is certainly worth delving into, if only because it raises the stakes and sets out a knotty challenge about how we represent this period, and particularly how we should think about the question of gender and sexuality in the making of the Haitian Revolution.
I read the book in the midst of a project archiving, recording and interpreting the songs of Vodou – many of which give a powerful and internal vision of the cultural, historical and spiritual forces at work within the religious practice. As a result, I can’t help but wonder whether a novel can actually contain and channel such information. Perhaps only a different form – that of song and ritual itself, of performance, of something else as yet unknown – can really do so.
- Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2010. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/14/entertainment/la-et-book-20100514.
- New York Times, May 2, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/books/review/Bahadur-t.html.
- Washington Post, June 7, 2010. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/07/AR2010060704353.html.
- Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World (New York: Knopf, 1957).
- Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
- Evelyn Trouillot, Rosalie l’Infâme (Port-au-Prince: Editions Presses Nationales d’Haïti, 2007).
Isabel Allende, Island Beneath the Sea, trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden. New York: Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, 457 pp.