A Masonic thriller
When I’d finished reading Gérard (Jerry) Besson’s new book, From the Gates of Aksum, I didn’t know where to put it: on the bookshelf containing works on T&T history, or the one with Caribbean novels. And my dilemma illustrates the character of the book, which combines fiction with huge chunks of historical information.
From the Gates of Aksum is in fact a historical novel, set mainly in Trinidad in the 1790s and early 1800s. This is a period in the island’s history which has fascinated historians and other writers for some time, partly because of the colourful characters who (for good and ill) lived there for a time, like governors Picton and Woodford, or the Venezuelan heroes Francisco de Miranda and Santiago Mariño.
V S Naipaul, in particular, has written brilliantly about this period, first in his classic non-fiction book The Loss of El Dorado, then in later fictional writings about de Miranda’s time in Trinidad awaiting help to commence the revolution in Venezuela against Spain. Indeed, Naipaul’s work is clearly an influence on Besson. So is EL Joseph’s sprawling epic novel Warner Arundell, first published in 1838, which covers some of the same territory as Besson’s.
Notwithstanding these literary influences or precursors, this book is wholly original in its themes and ideas. It’s a classic historical novel, with a mix of historical personages (de Miranda, Mariño, Picton, Woodford, assorted Corsican and French settlers) and fictional ones.
The core of the novel is the idea that European Freemasonry played a central role in the early history of Trinidad, with its ideals and agendas strongly influencing the dominant elites of the island and next-door Venezuela. In particular, that the oldest and most influential Lodge—Les Frères Unis or United Brothers, whose meeting house still stands at Mount Moriah in lower Laventille—was a key player both in the history of early British Trinidad and in the Venezuelan movement towards independence from Spain.
All through the book, copious information about Masonic ritual and legend is conveyed, mainly via dialogue between key characters, both historical and fictional. Though some readers might find there is a bit too much of all this, the information is interesting in itself, and the idea that Masonry was central to the history of 19th-century Trinidad is strikingly original.
The Masonic theme is combined with a Da Vinci Code type of mystery thriller: Besson imagines an ancient secret society in Europe, passing on its mysteries through the generations, guarding a precious object of world importance. Sinister groups want to destroy the society and grab the object, including the Vatican (always a good villain) and Napoleon, in power in France in the early 1800s.
The fate of the society and the object rests with a French nobleman who lives in Trinidad, François de Gurvand, who is the main fictional character in the novel, along with his son Adhémar. He gives up his life in defence of the object, which eventually reaches Trinidad and then Venezuela—but I ought not to give away more of the plot…
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that it’s told by several narrators: Littais L’Eau, a French Mason who is the overall narrator, the two de Gurvands, de Miranda, Vincent Patrice (a French Mason who wants to ensure that the Venezuelan independence movement is dominated by the United Brothers Lodge), Mariño, Bolívar, and others. This literary device allows us to follow the plot and the characters from several different viewpoints.
There’s a great deal of information about Masonic lore, and about the (fictional) ancient secret society, conveyed throughout the book. Some of this is fascinating historical romance, such as the chapter about medieval Ethiopia (hence “the gates of Aksum” in the title), where the mysterious object was kept for many centuries.
But the book also conveys huge chunks of straightforward information about Trinidad’s history in the period between the 1790s and 1815, and about the early Venezuelan independence movement, sometimes via dialogue, sometimes not. So it offers a painless entry to the island’s history during this period, albeit in novelistic form.
Of course it is a limited, or rather selective, view of that history. The novel focuses on a small group of planters and merchants, nearly all Masons, who dominated the island under the Spanish and then early British governors. Most of the book’s characters are French, Corsican or Venezuelan, and nearly all are white, though the mixed-race planter St Luce Phillip also makes an appearance as a member of the United Brothers Lodge. And despite the “Enlightenment” traditions of European Masonry, they are all slaveholders and some are slave traders.
What Besson’s novel offers is, first, a good read—the reader can always skip some of the denser chunks of Masonic or historical information if she finds them a bit too much. Second, it offers a wholly original view of Trinidad at the beginning of British rule, as a place where Masonry and Masons play a hidden but crucial role in its development, and help to link the island’s destiny with that of the independence movement in Venezuela. Definitely a book to get hold of.