Monday, February 8, 2010

Readings — Avengers of the New World

Avengers of the New World
by Laurent Dubois

I read this book several months ago for an article I wrote about Toussaint L’Ouverture. It’s a highly-readable narrative account of Haitian independence, from the first uprisings in 1791 through to the country's formal winning of freedom from France over a dozen years later. Dubois has a strong feel for character and incident, and he makes a highly-complex story surprisingly clear, illuminating the way in which factions refuse to be reduced to easy labels.

He also situates Haiti’s story within the overall narrative of Western history, showing its links to the progress of Enlightenment ideals and democracy. I think it’s this aspect that makes the book stick in the mind, especially in light of recent events in Haiti. Without being a propaganda piece, it makes a clear and precise statement for the importance of the country, establishing what its history gives the world.

Haiti’s story is a story of people of three continents, really — the Americas, Europe, and Africa. Dubois makes that clear, and shows how these different groups and different individuals with different perspectives bounced off each other and came to form some kind of whole. That’s a valuable accomplishment, and not an easy one.

Are there difficulties with the book? Sure, since it’s a difficult subject. Dubois has to abandon chronological order at several points to explain one theme or another; that’s obviously not uncommon in historical writing, but I don’t know if it’s always for the best here. It has a tendency to feel, if not exactly vague, at least abstract. Generally, I would have liked to see more a bit more concrete narrative, precise outlines of L’Ouverture’s military campaigns, for example, rather than quick mentions of his brilliance. That said, it would have made for a much longer book, and might have distracted from the points Dubois was making.

Of course it’s impossible right at this moment to think of this book and not think of Haiti’s current situation (reading about a terrible battle around Jacmel, and then seeing that the city is being used by Canadian forces as their headquarters, is oddly sobering). But I don’t know that there’s a direct connection. The story Dubois presents is a human story, men (and very few women) dealing with other men. There’s not much to do with threats of the natural world. The book also gives us a story of, essentially, empowered people; it is in a sense the story of a people coming to power. The nature of the earthquake seems to have been an overthrowing of human agency (certainly the narrative I've seen in North American news reports has focussed on relief efforts from other countries). I suppose the only point I can think to make is that no such disaster can overthrow or obliterate history. Dubois establishes (for those who did not already know) that Haiti’s history is not merely colourful and dramatic, but important.

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