"The Stone That the Builder Refused," Madison Smartt Bell's final novel of his Haitian trilogy, ends the epic of a remarkable revolution with messianic...
“The Stone That the Builder Refused,” Madison Smartt Bell’s final novel of his Haitian trilogy, ends the epic of a remarkable revolution with messianic overtones. The title, while ostensibly taken from singer Bob Marley, was originally a biblical prophecy and is very appropriately applied to a great leader, Toussaint Louverture, father of this hemisphere’s first black republic.
Bell’s first novel of the series, “All Souls’ Rising,” painted a graphically violent portrait of the massive slave revolt of 1791, one of the larger echoes of the French Revolution two years earlier. The second novel, “Master of the Crossroads,” finds the short, aging, initially unimpressive former slave Toussaint in firm command of the freed blacks of the island.
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“The Stone That the Builder Refused” covers the last two years of the life of this amazing figure of Haitian history, who is contrasted favorably with another short military genius, then in charge of the related imperial power: Napoleon Bonaparte.
It is more than Toussaint’s story, though. It is a tale of Bonaparte’s benevolent mistake in attempting to control the island, of Toussaint’s respectful refusal to remain a French vassal, of Captain-General Leclerc’s mixed motivations as the French enforcer.
It is also the continuing tale of white former slave owners struggling to regain fallen power, of black freedmen resisting the return of bondage, and of the wealthy but powerless mulatto class in limbo, looking for a political opportunity in the chaos.
It is a grand, sprawling conflict, but Bell localizes the story many times over. The large scenes of battlefields are continually punctuated with complex, personal dramas in dozens of bedrooms, ship decks and alleyways. He examines so many lives so minutely, it’s no wonder he takes his cues on narrative construction from Dostoyevsky.
But Bell is a gifted craftsman. Even readers who are mentally juggling lists of characters and settings can appreciate the finesse of his pen. He’s the sort of writer one can always turn to on faith; he seems incapable of writing an inelegant phrase.
He captures the flavor of the island with depth and obvious love, including enough French and Creole for linguistic flavor, and interweaving English translations for clarity. The balance is close to perfect.
What is most remarkable about this novel, and indeed the entire trilogy, is how he can make the pieces add up to the whole, like a pointillist painter, and how that whole can ultimately point to one amazing man.
While Haiti’s troubles remain to this day, it was still far ahead of its time in its revolutionary leanings, and the novel gets inside the heads of these historical characters in ways no historian could.
We feel Toussaint’s chills and humiliations, balanced by his indomitable dignity as he is strip-searched in his cold prison cell. We empathize with his faithful assistant Riau, even as he cuts the throats of French women.
And we feel, along with white cane farmers, black soldiers and French military rivals, the overwhelming awe for a remarkable man in a remarkable time. Napoleon should have been so admired.