I strike the ground with the soles of my feet and life rises up my legs, spreads up my skeleton, takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory. The world trembles. Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea; it shakes the earth, it cuts through me like a lightning bolt and rises toward the sky…”Dance, dance Zarite, the slave who dances is free…while he is dancing”…I have always danced.
Switching between a slave narrative and an omniscient narrator, Island Beneath the Sea spans 40 years and two countries and also tracks the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti*) that would result in the island’s independence from the British, French, and Spanish and the mass immigration to New Orleans. It follows Toulouse Valmorain, who comes to Saint-Domingue in 1770 from Paris, the pampered son of a sugarcane plantation owner. However, upon his arrival for a quick visit, he finds his father dying and sees the condition of the land, and “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.” He works hard to improve the conditions, although he does not see himself as a plantation owner, much less the owner of slaves. Valmorain, instead, sees himself as “a man of letters” and has difficulty punishing slaves or allowing his overseer Prosper Cambray to mete out discipline.
Throughout his early years in Saint-Domingue, he encounters Violette Boisier, a cocotte or courtesan, with whom he keeps company. Violette, even though of mixed blood, is a sign of civility and elegance, so different from the harsh life on the island. She is a smart, independent woman who, with her slave Loula, amasses a small fortune through enterprising businesses. When Toulouse Valmorain decides to marry a Spanish woman, Eugenia de Solar, it is Violette’s advice he seeks as to house and home. Violette outfits the home and chooses a personal maid for Eugenia, the young Zarite, also known as Tete.
Tete is nine when she is bought from the home of a minister’s widow and leaves her only family, Honore, an old man who cares for her like a grandfather and maman. It is through him that she learns of the loas, or spirits of voodoo. She is taught to serve and cares for Eugenia Valmorain, the weak wife of the master who, as he says, “spends the night tormented by nightmares and the day tormented by reality.” Eugenia was raised in a convent and is not at all prepared for the heat, insects, and cruelty on Saint-Domingue. As Eugenia’s health deteriorates, Valmorain begins raping Tete, and in doing so, ties Tete to himself in more ways than he would like.
Island Beneath the Sea, beautifully translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, is certainly no love story in the traditional sense, for in this day and age, love is withheld or allowed based on wealth, class, skin color, and religion. But this was a time when blood was measured by percentage, and Allende tells us:
Among the free mulattoes, the affranchis, there were more than sixty classifications set by percentage of white blood, and that determined their social level. 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.
In such a place, humanity is always relative; thus, the slave revolt is courageous but bloody while Valmorain’s own discovery of slaves as people is both typical but appalling. Violence is traded for violence; hatred for hatred. During one period, all the slaveholders are being killed by the rebels, and this included domestic slaves because they were treated better than field slaves. In essence, the rebels began imposing their own systems of prejudice upon the slaves. In the historical context, Island Beneath the Sea is truly fascinating while Allende’s cast of characters, including Sancho, Valmorain’s pleasure-seeking brother-in-law; Dr. Parmentier, a noble man with a secret; and Tante Rose, a slave, healer, and mambo, struck me as more real than any I’ve read in quite some time.
From Saint-Domingue to the streets and slave markets of New Orleans, the novel is impressive and much more worthy of what I’ve come to expect from Isabel Allende**. Although not a romance as some others have claimed, the characters are in love with freedom, but the question remains: what can be gained from freedom and what will it cost?
*The novel is very timely, but Allende began researching and writing the novel four years before the 2010 earthquake.
**Her novel, Daughter of Fortune was somewhat disappointing. You can read my review here.