History repeats itself despite much longed-for dreams of liberty at the hands of a new government, Haiti liberated from French colonial rule and delivered into the black regime of King Henri Christophe. The new regime, at first so promising, sinks rapidly into the same morass of inadequacy, bureaucracy and abuse of power that defined the travails of the French rule. The natives have suffered oppression, knowing little else, clinging to their African gods and native superstitions: “Oh father, my father, how long is the suffering?”
A verdant jungle of natural beauty, Haiti has the appearance of paradise and, for the blacks, the reality of hell, the indulgence and decadence of the plantation owners in counterpoint to the misery of the enslaved. Exploitation is endemic to Haiti’s social structure, the excesses of the rich enjoyed on the backs of the poor and defenseless - servants are commonly beaten and beheaded, helpless vehicles for the sexual desires of the masters who control their lives.
This turbulent period of Haiti’s history is viewed through the eyes of a slave, Ti Noel, who narrates the duplicity of a corrupt regime, the false promises and self-aggrandizement of the powerful who have no intention of bettering the lives of those who have suffered under the yoke of the French.
Relying on years of tribal wisdom and the ancestral stories of another powerful slave, Macandal, Ti Noel speaks of the yearnings of the natives, the years of injustice grown finally intolerable. Macandal whips his avid followers into revolt with impassioned speeches, voodoo ceremonies and tribal ceremonies, inciting the ancient animus that inspires the slave population to action.
One fateful night, the drums of bloody opportunity beat across the island, and machete-bearing slaves overrun the sleeping plantations, slaughtering all in their path - masters, livestock, women and children. Post-uprising, a search for Macandal proves fruitless. When he is eventually captured and incinerated before the watching eyes of his followers, the true believers see only Macandal’s spirit rise from the flames, believing he will return in another form to guide them.
Escaping with his owner to Santiago de Cuba, Ti Noel is lost in a card game, returning years later to Haiti as a free man. There he is confronted with a changed island, a black kingdom ruled by Christophe, the black royalty inflicting the same pain as the white masters. Again in captivity, Ti Noel watches his dreams of freedom unravel.
Despairing of this “endless cycle of chains,” Ti Noel is convinced that freedom is but an idea, a new despot forever hovering in the wings of history. Amid brilliant imagery and bloody prose, the pomp and grandeur of the new regime is constructed from the same contempt for human life as the French occupation, destined for the same end: insurrection fueled by madness and the slaughter of the oppressor.