Friday, April 6, 2018

The Black Count (Tom Reiss)

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
Tom Reiss
Nonfiction, Biography/History
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the classic adventure tale The Count of Monte Cristo, author Alexander Dumas relates a harrowing tale of a man wrongfully imprisoned. The model for his hero was none other than his own father, Alexandre Dumas. Born in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, son of an exiled French nobleman and a black slave, Alexandre would rise as one of the great heroes of the French Revolution... only to fall into poverty and obscurity under his one-time colleague and rival, the future emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

REVIEW: I admit to being one of the unlettered masses who hasn't read either The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers, mostly familiar with them through cultural osmosis - works that were, in no small part, the younger Dumas's memorials to his unjustly forgotten father, not to mention a thumb in the eye of those who willfully buried his legacy, at least as much for personal reasons (Bonaparte himself grew to hate the man who overshadowed him literally and figuratively on the battlefield) as political (his mixed-race ancestry made him unpopular in an increasingly racist Empire.) Reiss tracks down obscure memos, letters, and news clippings to piece together the story of the real General Alexandre Dumas, a man who in many ways embodied the euphoric rise and catastrophic fall of the French Revolution and its fledgling ideals of true racial equality. Though his noble bloodline afforded him advantages over many other mixed-raced children, only during the Revolution could he rise to the rank of full general... but, even at its height, the sociopolitical experiment seemed destined to fail through its own overzealousness in pushing its ideals across a Europe that was patently unready for them, under successive leadership models ill-equipped for the long-term prospect of practicing what it preached... models that utterly failed to foresee the growing backlash of those disenfranchised by the Revolution, not to mention a politically savvy opportunist like Napoleon co-opting the whole movement for personal profit and power. (One sees unsettling echoes in how modern democracies seem to be backsliding, the gains of decades or even centuries all too easily undone at the cry of a handful of demagogues exploiting loopholes to gain power... but, I digress.) It's a remarkable story, though it lost a half-star for losing some of its steam in the middle, wavering and wandering enough for my attention to slip. There's also an overall larger-than-life sense to how Alexandre Dumas is portrayed, as though the author were channeling the general's devoted son and painting a portrait of a lionized demigod rather than a man - a very remarkable man, but a mortal man nonetheless. Still, it's a story that deserves to be remembered, one that even modern historians seem oddly reluctant to honor (as witnessed by the "results" of modern-day efforts to see Dumas recognized in a France that still holds his son in high esteem, yet has not one single, solitary statue or official memorial to the father who so greatly influenced his work.)

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