From New International, Vol. II No. 3, May 1935, p. 112.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Black Consul
by Anatolii Vinogradov
translated by Emile Burns
438 pp. New York. The Viking Press. $2.75.
The revolution has need of all kinds of books. Babouk was an arrow shooting straight at the heart of the Negro problem. The Black Consul is a net that gathers up all lessons of the French Revolution in France and in Haiti, and lays them before us in orderly and related fashion. As Babouk is something more than a novel – a poem by reason of its intensity and unity – The Black Consul is something less than a novel by reason of its lack of pattern and development. It calls itself a “narrative”, which is fair enough, and it is certainly more than a mere history – perhaps the adumbration of a new art form – but still somewhat embryonic as form.
The moral of The Black Consul is that the French Revolution was emasculated and largely wasted by the property clause, especially, in Haiti, by Napoleon’s attempt to restore property in the form of slavery. With that one more rewriting that so many almost-excellent books cry for, it would have been possible to draw that thread more clearly and perhaps to shorten the book – at east to pattern and shade it and bring it closer to an art form.
“For decades Haiti, the Land of Mountains and Mother of all Lands, was to Frenchmen a symbol of all that is horrible ... For seven years not one French vessel came near the island, and then the island passed from the hands of the French forever. The New France learnt to trade not only in black, but also in white slaves.”
This was the hideous vengeance inevitably following the perfidy of Napoleon and the counter-revolution fostered by him.
The book is in three parts: White France, covering the time from the winter of 1789 till the deposition of Louis XVI in August 1792; Red France, up to the execution of Danton and Desmoulins and Robespierre’s decree abolishing slavery in the Antilles; and Black France, up to the death of Toussaint L’Ouverture in a Swiss jail in 1803. As a comprehensive text book of the French Revolution, the book is as compactly and vigorously presented as is possible with so great a mass of material, but members of the novelists’ union can still complain that vital material is no excuse for amorphous presentation.
Any revolutionist is bound to take a correct line on the Negro problem as long as he confines himself to Haiti, since the disputed points are automatically excluded by the situation. For instance there can be no dispute that an oppressed country like Haiti, should struggle for the right of self-determination. Vinogradov also correctly brings in the then pending Louisiana Purchase as one of the factors militating against French retention of Haiti, but he somewhat glosses over the indisputable historic fact of antagonisms between the Negro and mulatto population. He would not have needed to do that – as the author of Babouk brought out, “a mulatto is a Negro with money”, and the antagonism was produced and fostered by the whites for their own ends – nevertheless Vinogradov softens the situation somewhat. On the other hand, he never misses an opportunity to show that all the antagonisms have their root in class and property relations.
Every phase of the revolution is presented, and it is both shocking and heartening to see how history repeats itself. We see every kind of wobbly liberal being pushed to one side or the other, the clarity of Marat and Robespierre, the wavering and capitulation of Danton and Desmoulins – again, in black France, the integrity and singleness of Toussaint, and after his abduction the gradual demoralization of his less clear followers – the degeneration of Dessalines into a butcher – (in 1804 he slaughtered many of the whites on the island, but not all as the author wrongly says) – and of Henri Christophe into a grandiose tyrant and slave-driver. These men in the service of Toussaint – which is to say in the service of the revolution – were heroes and useful citizens. Without their leader, cheated, bribed and made cynical by the wretched manoeuvres of Napoleon, they lost their line and became a menace to black and white alike, proving once more – as if the slave states in Africa were not sufficient proof – that the corruption is inherent in property and not in the color of the property-owner. Although there is something a trifle sporadic about the appearances and disappearances of the characters, owing to the above-mentioned lack of a clarifying thread or patterns, the character studies for their own sake, both as portraits and dynamic developments, are excellent. But first, before dwelling on the excellences, one more qualification. The narrative starts with a consistently objective approach, including the appearance of Toussaint in the first chapter; then for a few chapters in the last part of the book we are suddenly admitted into Toussaint’s subjectivity. Granted he is the hero and the writer is carried away by him, but this change of procedure is a technical lapse as inadmissible as a singular noun with a plural verb. So far there seems no good reason for changing the simple grammar of novel-writing.
The portraits of Marat, of Toussaint himself, and of the chemist Lavoisier, are especially outstanding. There is an interesting detour into the problems of a chemist sympathetic to the revolution. Lavoisier has sixteen marvellously equipped laboratories, in which he makes unprecedented contributions to chemical knowledge – but a good part of his income is from farming taxes. So eventually he gives up the taxes, although he has no doubt of the validity of his work. Some of the “rats” and aristocratic ladies are worthy of the best Soviet movies. And last but not least, a brilliant portrait of the mulatto Oge, educated in Paris and cut to pieces on the wheel in Saint Domingue for joining the forces of Negro liberation.
The book is not an elementary one. It presupposes an awareness of and sympathy with the revolutionary approach – but how much easier the Soviet authors have it. They are writing for a trained and eager audience, and a certain calm assurance in their writings, a certain lack of the more fevered propaganda, testifies to this fact. They have incentive to go ahead with developing new techniques, but do they have time to read such long books in Russia? It would be just about right as a deck companion between New York and Saint Domingue.
Last updated on 26 February 2016