Tuesday, January 01, 2008
Madison Smartt Bell - All Soul's Rising
When I reviewed CLR James' magnificent work of history, The Black Jacobians, I commented that someone had described it as the greatest work of history ever written. I commented further that to read it, was to be inspired to challenge oppression and racism today.
Madison Smartt Bell's three volume work of fiction based on the events described in CLR James' book has that same aim - no one who reads it can fail to be inspired in the same way that James' work does.
The revolt of the San Domingo slaves against their oppression was violent and brutal. Decades of slavery, and it's associated violence, torture, murder and rape meant that the backlash against it echoed this violence. No one can condemn this though. The pages of the novel that deal with this, make for grim reading. But for every white slave owner tortured or raped, a dozen further atrocities are committed as the colonial rulers try to regain their power.
What makes "All Soul's Rising" so powerful, is that this violence reads like a history book. At no point did I think that this was some sort of fantastical fiction. Every event that is described here carries the feeling of historical accuracy. That doesn't make it easy to read - descriptions of rape and torture never are. But you feel that you are being carried along as an observer to a crucial moment in history.
The Haitian revolution had world-historical consequences, it was revolts like this, that sealed Slavery's fate. Certainly without the heroism of the black slaves who refused to continue to be ruled in the old way, many hundreds of thousands more would have suffered that terrible fate. Madison Bell manages to deal with the complex details of the rebellion extremely well. Though it's this complexity that presumably means that there must be three volumes to the story. However there is a handy time-line in the book that gives the background to events (and crucially, further details about events in Revolutionary France that so impacted those on the island).
Anyone who wants to understand how Slavery was ended should read this book, though I would recommended CLR James' history as well, if only to get a complete view of this great historical event.