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July 06 , 2010

Soul in a Bottle

A Journey in Haiti


Soul in a Bottle, Madison Smartt Bell’s memoir of his visits and his commitment to Haiti, is both a rollicking adventure story and a profound spiritual enterprise. It offers not just a short testament to its author’s questing mind but also a smart and lucid tour d’horizon of recent Haitian political ups-and-downs, all of it inflected by Bell’s commanding knowledge of early Haitian history.When you read Soul in a Bottle, you can feel the real Haiti surround you, vivid, palpitating, breathing, and smoldering with ancient energy and contemporary ambitions. 
—Amy Wilentz, author of The Rainy Season
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Twenty years in the making, Madison Smartt Bell’s trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution (All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone that the Builder Refused) has been compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace.From 1995 through 2007, Bell traveled frequently to Haiti to research this work, though before long the writing of the novels became a secondary motive for those journeys.Bell immersed himself in Haitian history, culture, and religion, improving his French and learning Kreyol to smooth his passage into the Haitian world.He befriended and worked with numerous Haitian political leaders, scholars, writers, artists, musicians and priests.As this journey increasingly took on the aspect of a spiritual pilgrimage, Bell undertook the early stages of initiation in Vodou.Known on the streets of Cap Haïtien as “Madisò Chapo” (thanks to a rehabilitated straw hat he had picked up on the road to Jacmel), Bell was, for a time, accepted as a sort of honorary Haitian.

Soul in a Bottle, drawn from Bell’s journals of the period and from assignments he completed for The New Yorker and Harper’s among others, is a record of that extraordinary journey.Bell’s fascination with Haiti and his passion for the Haitian people brings his great writing skill to a laser-bright focus.For the past couple of decades, travelers to Haiti have used his novels of the Haitian Revolution as guides to the history and the culture of the country.In that sense, Soul in a Bottle is still more valuable reading, for those who are going to Haiti in flesh and bone and for those who want to take an imaginary journey there.

Alors que certains étrangers prétendent après quelques jours ici être des « experts » sur Haïti, il est rafraîchissant et enrichissant de lire ces pages où Madison Smartt Bell quia pris le temps de s’initier aux éléments basiques de la culture haïtienne, parle d’Haïti avec tant d’humilité et de respect.
(translation: At a time when some foreigners pose as experts on Haiti after a just a few days here, it is refreshing and enriching to read these pages where Madison Smartt Bell, who has taken the time to initiate himself in the basic elements of Haitian culture, speaks of Haiti with such humility and respect.)
—Evelyne Trouillot, author of Rosalie L’Infame

In Soul in a Bottle Madison Smartt Bell takes us through a mirror to view Haiti from another side… By itself it is the story of a seeker after wisdom encountering Haiti, Haitians, and their ancient religion, Vodou, rather than as one on a preconceived mission to “do good” by helping Haitians to be more like us. He discovers and reveals to his readers a deeper realization of our human condition as rooted in the earth and bound to all that is visible and invisible in the cosmos. Thus he shows Haiti to be a place and a people of spiritual sophistication with much to teach us all.
—LeGrace Benson, author of Arts and Religions of Haiti
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