Do all revolutions inevitably lead to the establishment of even more repressive regimes than the one it sought to replace? This is one of the questions that Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier leads his readers to ponder on in his novel, The Kingdom of This World, about the Haitian slave revolution against the French colonizers.
Seen through the eyes of the black plantation slave worker Ti Noel, Carpentier’s novel showed how the oppressive and exploitative colonial order was succeeded by a string of equally unwelcome dispensations that merely replaced the white overlords with black ones.
In a colorful narrative that crammed the passing of decades in a few lifelike yet compact chapters, Ti Noel witnesses the events leading to Macandal’s early uprisings and the Haitian revolutionary war for independence led by Duty Bouckman.
Applying “lo real maravilloso” in the novel, Carpentier frequently blurring the border between social realities, history, folk beliefs and myth. As the novel progresses, Ti Noel finds himself carried along by the wave of black anger against brutal French masters only to be later on subjugated by the revolutionary turned despotic, Henri Cristophe, and later on by mulatto overseers.
For present-day postmodern pessimists recycling Cold War-era rightwing dogmas in the guise of “progressive” gobbledygook, the novel’s narrative presents once more the futility of revolution and the escape into ideology critique, cultural studies, “small is beautiful” interventions, terrorism, or “death as escape” as the only alternatives to the ruling system.
The Great Proletarian October Revolution of 1917 which emancipated millions of workers and peasants from the bondage of Czarism only led to the horrors of “Stalinist” dictatorship. Meanwhile, the victorious people’s war against foreign imperialism and domestic feudalism in China only led to the “genocidal” Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. We thus arrive at the end of the world: “the desert of the real” of world monopoly capitalism with a liberal democratic façade.
Carpentier’s seemingly fatalistic tone in a passage in the novel’s last few pages seems to add credence to this impression:
Man’s greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is. In laying duties upon himself. In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur to be won, inasmuch as there all is an established hierarchy, the unknown is revealed, existence if infinite, there is no possibility of sacrifice, all is rest and joy. For this reason, bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World.
But what such a reductive reading effectively misses out, however, is the messianic vision that permeates the novel’s entirety. Man’s live for Carpentier entails not merely a passive acceptance of suffering in this world but a constant struggle for change and the improvement of his lot.
The Haitian revolution was the first black slave revolt that won independence for a new nation. But it also eventually regressed into a new autocracy by native elites and frustrated the people’s aspirations for national liberation and the elimination of feudalism.
Inspired mainly by the model of the French Revolution, its anti-colonial content did not have the direction of destroying all vestiges of colonial and feudal rule and continue towards a transition into society with a more equitable distribution of wealth.
The social-economic conditions, prevailing intellectual currents, and political developments, at the time did not yet favor the rise of such a consciousness among the leadership of the Haitian’s early slave revolts, thus the regression into despotism.
But unfortunate as it is, this quirk of history does not discount the need for collective projects of thoroughgoing social transformations as our friendly university-based armchair postmodernists posit. On the contrary, it only shows the difficult task ahead if the mass struggles for genuine democracy and social justice for the people is to be won.
By the novel’s conclusion, Ti Noel, like Macandal before him, becomes one with the natural world. This flight into magic does not signify an escape into the margins of reality. Ti Noel on the contrary watches over his people and await the fulfillment of the black slaves’ unattained aspirations.
Ti Noel’s “declaration of war against the new masters,” his ordering of the physical elements “to march against the insolent works of the mulattoes in power” became the prelude to an apocalyptic renewal:
At that moment a great green wind, blowing from the ocean, swept the Plaine du Nord, spreading through the Dondon valley with a loud road. And while the slaughtered bulls bellowed on the summit of Le Bonnet de l’Eveque, the armchair, the screen, the volumes of the Encyclopedie, the music box, the doll, and the moonfish rose in the air, as the last ruins of the plantation came tumbling down. The trees bowed low, tops southward, roots wrenched from the earth. And all night long the sea, turned to rain, left trails of salt on the flanks of the mountain.
“Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again . . . until their victory; that is the logic of the people, and they too will never go against this logic,” said Chairman Mao. This is the same logic that underlies Carpentier’s novel. The protagonist’s assumption of a spectral form foreshadows the redemption of all past revolutions by the people’s coming triumph. ■