It is one of Caribbean history’s cruellest ironies that its first, and possibly most important, revolution degenerated so quickly into dictatorship and economic ruin. The 13-year conflict that destroyed French-owned Saint Domingue and gave birth to the independent state of Haiti in 1804 reverberated around the world, hastening the end of New World slavery and rocking the very foundations of European colonialism. Napoleon’s formidable military machine was routed, as was a powerful British expedition, by what strategists had rashly dismissed as a rabble of ex-slaves, helped by their lethal ally, yellow fever.
But what emerged from the ruins of Saint Domingue was a caricature of the freedom fought for by the thousands of former slaves. Haiti was at last an independent nation; but, shunned by its neighbours, reviled by the European powers, it turned in upon itself, its military leaders seizing the spoils of power with as much brutality as the old colonial masters. From the ashes of the plantation system arose new forms of forced labour, while the generals and their cronies divided up the once-wealthy sugar estates, driving the poor peasants higher into the mountains in search of a plot of land. It was the beginning of the catastrophic social inequality which has scarred Haiti’s two turbulent centuries of existence.
The vast and forbidding Citadelle Laferrière, 15 miles south of the coastal city of Cap-Haïtien, is one of the most awe-inspiring sights anywhere in the world. A gigantic fortress perched upon a 3,000-foot peak, it was constructed by one of Haiti’s early rulers, King Henri Christophe, a former hotel cook who had risen through the revolutionary ranks to seize power in 1807. Nothing symbolises the tragic enormity of Haiti’s early and bloody history more eloquently than this spectacular folie de grandeur, built at the cost of an estimated 20,000 lives to deter the French from attempting another invasion. Its ranks of cannons were never fired, for the French never returned. As you stand on the ramparts looking down into the abyss below, it is hard to imagine that the stones used to build these 120-foot walls were carried one by one up the mountain by King Henri’s cowed subjects.
The Citadelle is one of the central motifs in The Kingdom of This World, an extraordinary recreation of the Haitian revolution and its aftermath. Standing as a monument to Christophe’s megalomania and paranoia, it also comes to represent what the novel depicts as the bitter truth of Haiti’s independence struggle — that the enslaved had no sooner thrown off their shackles than they were again subjected to the overseer’s whip.
This short and vivid piece of fiction first appeared in Mexico in 1949, the second major novel of the Swiss-born, Cuban-educated writer Alejo Carpentier, the son of French and Russian parents. The author was then 45, living in Venezuela, where he was a university literature professor and journalist. His radical political views had landed him in trouble in Cuba, where in 1927 he had been imprisoned for signing a revolutionary manifesto. A long period of exile in Europe was followed by Carpentier’s return to Cuba in 1939, but this was the time of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship and Carpentier opted for exile in Venezuela in 1945. He would only return to Cuba in 1959, after Castro’s revolution.
Fascinated by the African cultural heritage of Cuba, Carpentier had written a novel, Ecué-Yamba-O, a documentary fiction about a poor black Cuban, which was published in Madrid in 1933. But it was on his return to the Caribbean in 1939 that this most European of Cubans visited Haiti for the first time and was enthralled by the country’s history and culture. In the decaying streets of Cap-Haïtien, the ruined plantations of the long-gone French masters, the massive structure of the Citadelle, Carpentier imagined and reconstructed the momentous events of the world’s only successful slave revolution.
In the preface to the novel that appeared 10 years after that visit, Carpentier coined the term lo real maravilloso or “magical realism”, a concept that has been associated with a generation of Latin American writers from García Márquez to Isabel Allende. What Carpentier meant by the term, however, was the perception of recorded historical events through a highly imaginative, even surrealistic, narrative viewpoint. The stranger-than-fiction history of revolutionary Haiti lent itself perfectly to this sort of poetic treatment, and it is precisely in the imaginary interpretation of historical processes that the novel’s unusual power lies.
The period covered in The Kingdom of This World runs from the 1750s, the heyday of colonial Saint Domingue, to 1820, the date of Christophe’s overthrow and suicide. These momentous decades, however, are distilled into a novel of barely a hundred pages by Carpentier’s selective structure of episodic vignettes, which give the chaotic historical process a simple yet rich symmetry. And to hold the whole together, Carpentier created the figure of Ti Noël, the great survivor. Witness to some 60 tumultuous years of death and destruction, the ex-slave outlives all his masters and oppressors to personify the resilience of the human spirit among so much suffering.
The novel is built around four principal episodes, in all of which Ti Noël is both observer and protagonist. His fellow slave, Macandal, discovers the secret of obtaining poison from a fungus and begins the systematic killing of animals and humans alike. The appalling descriptions of Macandal’s victims are based in fact, for the slave leader and mass poisoner was burned alive in Cap-Haïtien in 1758. Ti Noël is then present at the 1791 ceremony at Bois Caïman, at which Boukman and others unleashed the slave insurrection. Accompanying his fleeing master to the safety of Cuba, Ti Noël does not return to Haiti until the autocratic rule of King Henri I is already well established. The third section concerns the building of the Citadelle and the absolute power of the chef-turned-king:
Heavy-set, powerful, with a barrel-shaped chest, flat-nosed, his chin half hidden in the embroidered collar of his uniform, the monarch examined the batteries, forges, and workshops, his spurs clinking as he mounted the interminable stairways . . . At times, with a mere wave of his crop, he ordered the death of some sluggard surprised in flagrant idleness, or the execution of workers, hoisting a block of granite too slowly up a steep incline.
Christophe’s suicide ends this chapter in Haiti’s long tale of tyranny, but Carpentier makes it abundantly clear that Ti Noël and his like are condemned to much more of the same. As the novel ends, “the Surveyors” are busy ejecting squatters from the old estates, preparing them for Haiti’s new masters.
Vivid in imagery both exotic and grotesque, cinematic in its ability to capture the subtle atmosphere of an interior or the vastness of a landscape, The Kingdom of This World brings to life the sheer magnitude of extraordinary events. And few events, as exemplified by the magnificent futility of Christophe’s Citadelle, are as extraordinary as those that brought the bedevilled nation of Haiti into being. ν
James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers)