By Marcela Valdes
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; C02
ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA
By Isabel Allende
Harper. 457 pp. $26.99
It's one of the most dramatic stories of the 18th century, and the only completely successful slave rebellion in the world: In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, hundreds of thousands of slaves revolted in the tiny French colony of Saint-Domingue, eventually creating the new, independent nation of Haiti.
At the time of the revolt, Saint-Domingue was one of the richest colonies in the world, thanks to its exports of sugar, coffee and indigo. It was also one of the most brutal. And when the slaves overthrew their masters, they exacted revenge for centuries of atrocities by burning plantations and slaughtering colonialists. The specter of such bloody fires haunted Latin America for decades and kept neighboring Cuba clinging to Spain for more than 100 years.
This extraordinary history forms the backdrop for Isabel Allende's latest novel, "Island Beneath the Sea." Yet, tellingly, Allende's most convincing characters are neither slaves nor rebels -- they're amoral rogues.
The first to enter the action is 20-year-old Toulouse Valmorain, a minor French chevalier who is brought to Saint-Domingue in 1770 by his father's impending death. In Paris, Toulouse had styled himself a man of letters and admired Rousseau. But in Saint-Domingue, the dandy confronts slaves dying of starvation and a father crazed with syphilis. His challenge: to preserve the family sugar plantation that keeps his Parisian relatives afloat.
Behind this reversal lies a great premise -- the Age of Reason meets the vicious slave culture that underwrites it -- but Allende doesn't bother detailing the process of Toulouse's inevitable moral corruption. In the novel's fictional universe, the good are always good, the bad are always bad. So she skips the corrosion and focuses on Toulouse's more essential flaws: vanity, selfishness and self-deception. Luckily, there's plenty to mine in these vices. In fact, the novel's fiercest bites come from contradictions in Toulouse's words and actions. For example, one evening after raping and beating a house slave, he tells her, "I have always treated you very well" -- and believes it.
Allende's other great character, Violette Boisier, is less deluded but equally determined to keep her own interests first. "The most sought after cocotte of the city, a free young woman with the reputation of being clean and healthy, African by heritage and white in appearance," Violette turns tricks with smiles and flattery. Once her clients have gone, she plots business maneuvers with her devoted slave. Cheery and shrewd, Violette is determined to die rich, and her ventures inject the novel with surprising Cosmo elements: beauty makeovers, sex lessons and interior decoration projects.
If Violette were at the center of Allende's story, "Island Beneath the Sea" might have been as much acid fun as Defoe's "Moll Flanders," which sent up a similar period in English society by showing it through the eyes of another canny whore. Alas, the star of "Island" is Allende's least believable character: a saintly, mixed-race house slave named Zarité Sedella. Bought by Violette for Toulouse (as part of a home renovation project), Zarité yearns for freedom, but she's soon turned into Toulouse's concubine. Toulouse also steals her firstborn, beats her and makes her care for his white son.
Our long-suffering heroine finds her foil halfway through the book, when the three main characters flee to New Orleans. There Toulouse marries a Southern woman as despotic and cruel as Zarité is self-effacing and kind, and the novel quickly descends from historical romance to farce. The face-off between Zarité and the Evil Wife produces scenes so broad that they'd fit easily in a Disney production of "Cinderella."
Amid such shenanigans, the novel's account of Saint-Domingue's transformation into Haiti begins to feel increasingly pro forma. From the start, the political passages in "Island Beneath the Sea" read like a warmed-over textbook. By the end, 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."
Later in the book, Zarité sneaks out to New Orleans's famous Place Congo, where, she tells us, slaves and free blacks "danced from midday to night, and the whites came to be scandalized, and to give them bad thoughts our behinds whirled like windmills, and to make them envious we rubbed against each other like lovers." But black culture was not merely a performance for whites, just as African religion consisted of much more than an ethereal belief in spirits.
Marlon James's recent, dazzling slave narrative, "The Book of Night Women," recognized the real intelligence at work behind these cultural practices, and I can't help wishing that Allende had made a more serious effort to do the same.
Valdes is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.