Dreams Of Freedom In Allende's 'Island'

Island Beneath the Sea
Island Beneath the Sea
By Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
Hardcover, 464 pages
Harper
List price: $26.99

Read An Excerpt

Ever since her 1982 novel The House of the Spirits became a surprise international blockbuster, Isabel Allende has been that rarest of people: a foreign-language author whose books sell well in the United States. She's not the only one, of course — most recently, novelists like the late Stieg Larsson have found success in America — but for the most part, U.S. best-seller lists aren't exactly crowded with translated literature.

Allende's appeal hasn't just been her fascinating biography — she grew up in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Lebanon, and was the cousin of deposed Chilean President Salvador Allende — but also her lyrical, enchanting narrative style, at times a kind of Day-Glo version of magical realism. Her prose isn't for everyone; she doesn't shy away from the florid and the dramatic. But readers who have been entranced by her considerable storyteller's charm will find a lot to admire in Island Beneath the Sea, her latest novel.

Like The House of Spirits and her underrated Ines of My Soul, Island Beneath the Sea is a sprawling, multifaceted historical epic. The novel follows a young woman born into slavery, Tete, and her master, Toulouse Valmorain, through two countries, over several years. Valmorain, a young Frenchman who has moved to Haiti to manage his father's sugar plantation, first buys Tete in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), where she was born to an African woman and one of her white enslavers. Valmorain uses Tete for sex; she eventually gives birth to his daughter, and the two develop a complicated, somewhat troubled relationship. After the beginning of the slave revolts that would lead to the Haitian Revolution, Valmorain and Tete move to New Orleans; he plans to get a new plantation, and she pines for the freedom her master has promised her.

Isabel Allende i i

Isabel Allende was born in Peru and now lives in California. She is the author of 15 novels, including The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, and three memoirs. Lori Barra hide caption

itoggle caption Lori Barra
Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende was born in Peru and now lives in California. She is the author of 15 novels, including The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, and three memoirs.

Lori Barra

Island Beneath the Sea isn't Allende's greatest work, but she handles a difficult issue with, for the most part, considerable restraint and grace. Allende isn't, and never has been, a terribly subtle writer — her plots are typically markedly dramatic, and her characters often wear their motivations and emotions on their sleeves. But she's a little more reined in than usual here, despite a few ornate phrasings that might have lost something in translation ("Meanwhile, the French Revolution had hit the colony like the slash of a dragon's tail ... ").

While Allende has always been comfortable chronicling grand passion and deep love, she's at her best here when she's angry — her descriptions of the treatment of Valmorain's slaves, particularly the sexual assault of Tete, are shocking. At its best, Island Beneath the Sea is elegant, moving and infused with a real sense of loss: "Many years have gone by and blood keeps running, soaking the soul of Haiti," Tete writes, "but I am not there to weep."

Excerpt: 'Island Beneath The Sea'

Island Beneath the Sea
Island Beneath the Sea
By Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
Hardcover, 464 pages
Harper
List price: $26.99

Chapter 1
The Spanish Illness

Toulouse Valmorain arrived in Saint-Domingue in 1770, the same year the dauphin of France married the Austrian archduchess, Marie Antoinette. Before traveling to the colony, when still he had no suspicion that his destiny was going to play a trick on him, or that he would end up in cane fields in the Antilles, he had been invited to Versailles to one of the parties in honor of the new dauphine, a young blonde of fourteen, who yawned openly in the rigid protocol of the French court. All of that was in the past. Saint-Domingue was another world. The young Valmorain had a rather vague idea of the place where his father struggled to earn a livelihood for his family with the ambition of converting it into a fortune. Valmorain had read somewhere that the original inhabitants of the island, the Arawaks, had called it Haiti before the conquistadors changed the name to La Espanola and killed off the natives. In fewer than fifty years, not a single Arawak remained, nor sign of them; they all perished as victims of slavery, European illnesses, and suicide. They were a red-skinned race, with thick black hair and inalterable dignity, so timid that a single Spaniard could conquer ten of them with his bare hands. They lived in polygamous communities, cultivating the land with care in order not to exhaust it: sweet potatoes, maize, gourds, peanuts, peppers, potatoes, and cassava. The earth, like the sky and water, had no owner until the foreigners, using the forced labor of the Arawaks, took control of it in order to cultivate never-before-seen plants. It was in that time that the custom of killing people with dogs was begun. When they had annihilated the indigenous peoples, the new masters imported slaves, blacks kidnapped in Africa and whites from Europe: convicts, orphans, prostitutes, and rebels. At the end of the 1600s, Spain ceded to France the western part of the island, which they called Saint-Domingue, and which would become the richest colony in the world. At the time Toulouse Valmorain arrived there, a third of the wealth of France, in sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton, indigo, and cocoa, came from the island. There were no longer white slaves, but the number of blacks had risen to hundreds of thousands. The most intractable crop was sugarcane, the sweet gold of the colony; cutting the cane, crushing it, and reducing it to syrup was labor not for humans, as the planters maintained, but for beasts.

Valmorain had just turned twenty when he was summoned to the colony by an urgent letter from his father's business agent. When the youth disembarked, he was dressed in the latest fashion — lace cuffs, powdered wig, and shoes with high heels — and sure that the books he had read on the subject of exploration made him more than capable of advising his father for a few weeks. He was traveling with a valet nearly as elegant as he, and several trunks holding his wardrobe and his books. He thought of himself as a man of letters, and planned upon his return to France to dedicate himself to science. He admired the philosophers and encyclopedists who had in recent decades made such an impact in Europe, and he agreed with some of their liberal ideas. Rousseau's Social Contract had been his bedside book at eighteen. He had barely got off the ship, after a crossing that nearly ended in tragedy when they ran into a hurricane in the Caribbean, when he received his first disagreeable surprise: his progenitor was not waiting for him at the port. He was met by the agent, a courteous Jew dressed in black from head to foot, who informed him of the precautions necessary for moving about the island; he had brought him horses, a pair of mules for luggage, a guide, and militiamen to accompany him to the Habitation Saint-Lazare. The young man had never set foot outside France, and had paid very little attention to the stories — banal, furthermore — his father used to tell during his infrequent visits to the family in Paris. He could not imagine that he would sometime visit the plantation; the tacit agreement was that his father would consolidate his fortune on the island while he looked after his mother and sisters and supervised the business in France. The letter he had received alluded to health problems, and he supposed that it concerned a passing fever, but when he reached Saint-Lazare, after a day's march at a killing pace through a gluttonous and hostile nature, he realized that his father was dying. He was not suffering from malaria, as Valmorain had thought, but syphilis, le mal espagnol, which was devastating whites, blacks, and mulattoes alike. His father's illness was in the last stages; he was covered with pustules, nearly incapacitated, his teeth were loose and his mind in a fog. The Dantesque treatments of bloodletting, mercury, and cauterizing his penis with red-hot wire had not given him relief, but he continued them as an act of contrition. Just past his fiftieth birthday, he had become an ancient giving nonsensical orders, urinating without control, and passing his time in a hammock with his pets, a pair of young black girls who had barely reached puberty.

While slaves unpacked his luggage under the directions of the valet, a fop who had barely endured the crossing on the ship and was frightened by the primitive conditions of the place, Toulouse Valmorain went out to look over the vast property. He knew nothing about the cultivation of cane, but the tour was sufficient for him to understand that the slaves were starving and the plantation had been saved from ruin only because the world was consuming sugar with increasing voraciousness. In the account books he found the explanation for his father's bad financial condition, which was not maintaining his family at a proper level in Paris. Production was a disaster, and the slaves were dying like insects; Valmorain had no doubt that the overseers were robbing his family, taking advantage of the master's deterioration. He cursed his luck and set about rolling up his sleeves and getting to work, something no young man from his milieu ever considered; work was for a different class of people. He began by obtaining a generous loan, thanks to the support and connections of his father's business agent's bankers. Then he ordered the commandeurs to the cane fields, to work elbow to elbow with the same people they had martyrized, and replaced them with others less depraved. He reduced punishments and hired a veterinarian, who spent two months at Saint-Lazare trying to return the Negroes to some degree of health. The veterinarian could not save Valmorain's valet, who was dispatched by a fulminating diarrhea in fewer than thirty-eight hours. Valmorain realized that his father's slaves lasted an average of eighteen months before they dropped dead of fatigue or escaped, a much shorter period than on other plantations. The women lived longer than the men, but they produced less in the asphyxiating labor of the cane fields, and they also had the bad habit of getting pregnant. As very few children survived, the planters had concluded that fertility among the Negroes was not a good source of income. The young Valmorain carried out the necessary changes in a methodical way, quickly and with no plans, intending to leave very soon, but when his father died a few months later, the son had to confront the inescapable fact that he was trapped. He did not intend to leave his bones in the mosquito-infested colony, but if he went too soon he would lose the plantation, and with it the income and social position his family held in France.

Valmorain did not try to make connections with other colonists. The grands blancs, owners of other plantations, considered him a presumptuous youth who would not last long on the island, and for that reason they were amazed to see him sunburned and in muddy boots. The antipathy was mutual. For Valmorain the Frenchmen transplanted to the Antilles were boors, the opposite of the society he had frequented, in which ideas, science, and the arts were exalted and no one spoke of money or of slaves. From the Age of Reason in Paris, he had passed to a primitive and violent world in which the living and the dead walked hand in hand. Neither did he make friends with the petits blancs, whose only capital was the color of their skin, a few poor devils poisoned by envy and slander, as he considered them. Many had come from the four corners of the globe and had no way to prove the purity of their blood, or their past; in the best of cases they were merchants, artisans, friars of little virtue, sailors, military men, and minor civil servants, but there were always troublemakers, pimps, criminals, and buccaneers who used every inlet of the Caribbean for their corrupt operations. He had nothing in common with those people. Among the free mulattoes, the affranchis, there were more than sixty classifications set by percentage of white blood, and that determined their social level. Valmorain never learned to distinguish the tones or proper denomination for each possible combination of the two races. The affranchis lacked political power, but they managed a lot of money, and poor whites hated them for that. Some earned a living in illicit trafficking, from smuggling to prostitution, but others had been educated in France and had fortunes, lands, and slaves. In spite of subtleties of color, the mulattoes were united by their shared aspiration to pass for whites and their visceral scorn for Negroes. The slaves, whose number was ten times greater than that of the whites and affranchis combined, counted for nothing, neither in the census of the population nor in the colonists' consciousness.

Since he did not want to isolate himself completely, Toulouse Valmorain occasionally had interchange with some families of grands blancs in Le Cap, the city nearest his plantation. On those trips he bought what was needed for supplies and, if he could not avoid it, went by the Assemblee Coloniale to greet his peers, so that they would not forget his name, but he did not participate in the sessions. He also used the occasion to go to plays at the theater, attend parties given by the cocottes — the exuberant French, Spanish, and mixed-race courtesans who dominated nightlife — and to rub elbows with explorers and scientists who stopped by the island on their way toward other more interesting places. Saint-Domingue did not attract visitors, but at times some came to study the nature or economy of the Antilles. Those Valmorain invited to Saint-Lazare with the intention of regaining, even if briefly, pleasure from the sophisticated conversation that had marked his youthful years in Paris. Three years after his father's death, he could show the property with pride; he had transformed that ruin of sick Negroes and dry cane fields into one of the most prosperous of the eight hundred plantations on the island, had multiplied by five the volume of unrefined sugar for export, and had installed a distillery in which he produced select barrels of a rum as good as the best in Cuba. His visitors spent one or two weeks in his large, rustic wood residence, soaking up country life and appreciating at close range the magic invention of sugar. They rode horseback through the dense growth that whistled threateningly in the wind, protected from the sun by large straw hats and gasping in the boiling humidity of the Caribbean while slaves thin as shadows cut the cane to ground level without killing the root, so there would be other harvests. From a distance, they resembled insects in fields where the cane was twice their height. The labor of cleaning the hard stalks, chopping them in toothed machines, crushing them in the rollers, and boiling the juice in deep copper cauldrons to obtain a dark syrup was fascinating to these city people, who had seen only the white crystals that sweetened coffee. The visitors brought Valmorain up-to-date on events in a Europe and America that were more and more remote for him, the new technological and scientific advances, and the philosophical ideas of the vanguard. They opened to him a crack through which he could glimpse the world, and as a gift left him books. Valmorain enjoyed his guests, but he enjoyed more their leaving; he did not like to have witnesses to his life, or to his property. The foreigners observed slavery with a mixture of morbid curiosity and repugnance that was offensive to him because he thought of himself as a just master; if they knew how other planters treated their Negroes, they would agree with him. He knew that more than one would return to civilization converted into an abolitionist and ready to campaign against consumption of sugar. Before he had been forced to live on the island, he too would have been shocked by slavery, had he known the details, but his father never referred to the subject. Now, with his hundreds of slaves, his ideas had changed.

Toulouse Valmorain spent the first years lifting Saint-Lazare from devastation and was unable to travel outside the colony even once. He lost contact with his mother and sisters, except for sporadic, rather formal letters that reported only the banalities of everyday life and health. After his failure with two French managers, he hired a mulatto as head overseer of the plantation, a man named Prosper Cambray, and then found more time to read, to hunt, and travel to Le Cap. There he had met Violette Boisier, 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. At least with her he would not end up like his father, his blood watered down by the Spanish illness.

From Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende. Copyright 2010 by Isabel Allende. English-language translation copyright 2010 by HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

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