Friday, August 23, 2013

From the Gates of Askum by Gérard A. Besson

"Refreshingly, the book lacks any sign of 
political correctness."
(Raymond Ramcharitar, 
Trinidad Guardian 29 Sep 2013)

From the Gates of Aksum weaves Freemasonry and European religious and political intrigue into the tapestry of Caribbean and South American political history. 

The book begins in late 18th century Port-d’Espagne, Trinidad, and is told by several narrators. The story spans centuries, from a time when a company of adventurers recovers a mysterious object of an antediluvian science from the secluded kingdom of Aksum in the Ethiopian highlands, on to the first anguished years of the 19th century.

In the riotous wake of the American, French and Haitian Revolutions, the collapse of the Spanish empire in the New World and the rise of the British empire, François de Gurvand, a French colonist, must transport the object from his ancestral home in France to a specific geographical position — the island of Trinidad. A Vatican secret society, the Holy Hermandad, the Emperor Napoleon, various factions of Freemasonry, and another ancient secret society all vie for possession of the object.

From the Gates of Aksum speaks of the role that the early Trinidadians played in that epoch-changing period when the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment altered the course of the history of the world. While the plot and most of the characters are fictitious, the reader familiar with West Indian, South American and European history will find old acquaintances who come to life in this book — such as Francisco de Miranda, Simón Bolívar, and a heroic band of Trinidadians remembered as the Immortal Forty-Five.

ISBN 978-976-8054-97-5 (softcover only)
470 pages, size 7 x 10"

Available on (and all the other Amazons) and

Available in Trinidad at:
Paper Based (Normandie Hotel)
Pop In (Ellerslie Plaza)
RIK Bookshops
Ishmael Khan Bookshops
Tales 'n' Treasures (St. James)
UWI Bookshop (St Augustine Campus)
Book Specialists (Richmond Street, Port of Spain)

Other books in print by Gérard A. Besson:

The Book of Trinidad (with Bridget Brereton)
Folklore & Legends of Trinidad and Tobago
The Cult of the Will
The Voice in the Govi

The author's oeuvre on display at the booklaunch of "From the Gates of Aksum"

Simon Lee preparing for his remarks at the booklaunch.

Review by Simon Lee in the Trinidad Guardian of 19 September 2013:
(click here to see it on the Guardian website)

From the Gates of Aksum, the latest work by local historian and publisher Jerry Besson, combines the passions and interests of a lifetime in a creole epic of tropical rococo grace and gargantuan reach.

Aksum reaches back beyond antiquity to the “antediluvian” period; it meanders through the myths of Judaeo-Christianity, bouncing Moses and King Solomon en route, passes through the Temple in Jerusalem, heads deep into Africa and Prester John’s kingdom to backtrack to Ethiopia, Europe of the Crusades, 11th-century Brittany and then across the Atlantic to Haiti, St Lucia, Trinidad and Venezuela of the late 18th and early 19th century.

The book’s catholic temporal span is matched by a true coscomel of genres (historic fantasy, thriller, quest) and themes: mathematical metaphysics and humanity’s fascination with the infinite; the creolisation of Enlightenment concepts; the role of both the church and Freemasonry in shaping early creole societies; the liberation of the New World from the Old, and the eternal search for the truth and wisdom which will redeem humanity.

As if this wasn’t enough (and reading this 445-pager is reminiscent of the 15-course breakfasts downed by early planters) there’s all the usual and unusual stuff about the human condition and its vagaries we’d expect from a novel half its length.

As a rough guide to where reading Aksum will take you, think Indiana Jones meets Alejo Carpentier, CLR James of Black Jacobins vintage, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and Gabriel Garcia Marquez at his baroque best.

By now you may be overwhelmed, but Besson, while delighting in teasing his readers at times, is not an unrelenting author and everything in his magnus opus is crystallised both symbolically and narratively in the central icon of the mythical polyhedron, around which the plot is constructed and ultimately unravelled.

The polyhedron, “a crystal-like object…formed from tcham…a golden glass found in the centre of meteors,” embodies “the keys to the comprehension of an infinity of infinities,” displacing both the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, from the discourses of redemption and future.

Its purpose is “to provide a cosmic intelligence which in a far-off future aided by the scientific achievements of that time provide the mechanisms for shaping a common humanity and the ultimate goal of man’s destiny…to be in harmony with the Name of God.”

We know from his earlier foray into fiction (The Voice in the Govi) that Besson is capable of creating unforgettable characters, and Aksum comes with its own cast of mystics, mendicants, poisoners, chevaliers, crusaders, conspirators, kabbalists, Freemasons, republicans, revolutionaries and many more.

But not since the novels of Alejo Carpentier (notably In the Kingdom of This World and Explosion in a Cathedral) has a Caribbean novelist resurrected so many historical figures and given them a second life.

Alongside the fictional heroic father and son de Gurvands, creoles of Breton extraction, the papal spy Fr Magneval, ambitious Creole Freemason Vincent Patrice, and the ethereal European Prince Idelfonso, we’re introduced to Francisco de Miranda and Simón Bolívar (heroes of South American liberation), Victor Hugues, Black Jacobin scourge of the Caribbean, Julien Fedon, leader of the first Grenadian Revolution and leading players in Trinidad’s colonial history: Spanish Governor Chacón and the British Thomas Picton and Sir Ralph Abercromby.

With the grandiose design of transporting the polyhedron from its hidden refuge in a Breton chateau to a place in the New World on the same ten degrees north latitude as its original hiding place in Aksum, we see that Besson has established Trinidad as the site of a new legend: “This island wore the halo of legend, where prodigious events might take place, if, it indeed became the axis mundi, the next navel of the world, for another 2,300 years.”

However, there’s an ambiguity about Besson’s historical Trinidad, which foreshadows the problems we’re facing today. Prince Idelfonso may idealise La Trinité: “Surely one of the ‘Fortunate Isles,’ as told by Ptolemy. Utopia, the ideal and imaginary nation. Literally like no other place. Pardes, paradise, the ancient narrative re-told by Thomas More of Paradise Lost, and of John Milton, long lost, now regained. A Place in waiting, surely, on the wheel of history.”

But juxtaposed with this romanticism is the reality of early 19th-century anarchic and lawless Trinidad, which sounds entirely familiar: “Everybody a law unto themselves. Everybody with their own laws; Spanish law, French law, Republican law, Catholic law, English law; for every season a law. There has never been a colony with so many lawyers.”

Idelfonso’s admonition close to the conclusion, rings just as true of Trinidad in 2013: “This fair land, La Trinite, must not be Paradise Lost. John Milton must not have the last word. Lucifer’s hordes must be forever chained…La Trinite must not become Pandaemonium, the High Capital of Satan, the capital of Hell!”

Locally we may now have to revise our estimation of Gérard “Jerry” Besson. His passion for history and folklore, which has been at the axis of Paria Publishing, has metamorphosed into something rich and strange, an historical imaginary of a formative era in the development of the modern Caribbean.

Occasionally his rococo floridity becomes excessive (“Black into grey, slimy streaks of muddy sand burbled up the hot breath of the mangrove’s rot, held hostage gigantic Amazonian driftwood, exposed marooned flotsam, entertained diverse crustaceans, comatose algae, evaporating Portuguese men-of-war, tufts of sullen metallic green seaweed, and was pockmarked, beneath the hammer of noon, with innumerable holes of various sizes from which millions of crabs sought egress in a frenzy for survival beneath the watchful shadows of swift, low-flying egrets.”). Yet the exuberance and hyperbole of the language match the derring-do of the cloak-and-dagger action.

From the Gates of Aksum can viably claim a place in the emerging Caribbean canon as a Creole epic. Its canvas is vast; its cast of characters drawn from many histories; its episodes and events of both heroic and despicable proportions. Ironically Aksum gives the lie to a Nobel laureate of these parts and long-established elder of the Caribbean canon, who once caustically commented that nothing had ever happened in the Caribbean.

Author Gérard A. Besson at the booklaunch

Remarks made by Emile S. Charles 
at the booklaunch on 21st September 2013, Royal Philanthropic Lodge, Port of Spain

With this book, Jerry provides Masons and non-Masons with a tale that runs across continents during the period when the then superpowers were setting about their colonial adventures by capturing land, subduing natives and fighting among themselves for those assets. He shows the Caribbean islands as being the subject of that type of activity and, using fiction as a cover, gives us a reasonable appreciation of the way Port of Spain started its development in Trinidad’s early years as a colony.

Port of Spain was the centre of activity in the island because of its port, so that when Freemasonry arrived, it took root there. Jerry has to be congratulated or showing us how the arrival of Freemasonry and the events at its Festive Board facilitated a host of social, commercial and political arrangements not only in Trinidad but especially in its South American neighbour. He leaves us with an appreciation of the extent to which the early development of Freemasonry and Trinidad was interwoven.   

The nature, form and scope of this work, with the use of several narrators to colour the central story with their circumstances, was interesting. The book provides the Mason with some insight with respect to the early years of his craft and gives the non-Mason a sense of Masonic activity inside and outside of the Lodge room, though when reading about the workings of the craft, the non-Mason needs to remember that this is a work of fiction. 

Here is a book which can be unreservedly recommended for those with even just a passing interest in the early development of the country and/or Freemasonry. It forces the reader to look again at the country’s pre-English history and to note some of the social forces that shaped then and now. It presents the many communities – Spanish, French, Corsican, Irish, African and indigenous people, with all of these communities finding a place in the Freemasonry of that day either through the first French Lodge Les Frères Unis or the then Irish Lodge Union. The African represented by the free coloureds.

The book also ties in the political development in the Americas showing the connections between the Americans and Spanish revolutionaries on one side and the local British rulers and the Venezuelan authorities on the other. It also shows how the Officers at the first Lodge of that time  - Les Frères Unis used their sensitivity to the political currents to change their allegiance from a French to an American Grand Lodge and then to the Scottish Grand Lodge, moving as the colonizer here changed. Indeed that Lodge is now celebrating its 200th anniversary as a Scottish Lodge.

At that time, Freemasonry was not as partitioned from the religious and political currents of the day as it is at this time, and we see that from the number of revolutionaries of that period who were driving political developments in both of the Americas, George Washington, Edmund Randolph, Benjamin Franklin in the North and Francisco de Miranda, Simón Bolívar and Santiago Marino in the South, just to name a few of the Masons will help the reader appreciate how Freemasonry would have lubricated the connections between these Brethren. Whereas the influence of Freemasonry on the developments in the South is still being clearly identified, there is a body of work which identifies Masonic influence on parts of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States of America.

Science fiction with a mystical twist is introduced when the adventures to discover a great sacred treasure at the end of the eleventh century are recounted, with this adventure pushing the story back several centuries and across to the Middle East. This great sacred treasure, described as a crystal stone and referred to as "The Polyhedron", was supposed to be a “compendium of knowledge” with the mission of initiating a new world order for all mankind and it was supposed to be located in an unknown land 100 N of the equator. This allowed the story to make another important connection with Trinidad.

The story says here that Trinidad was supposed to be a special place in a new world order, and so one could not help but recall Lloyd Best’s constant dismissal of the concept of a first and third world, while asking us to see this place as our first world. Indeed if only from then Trinidad as the final location of the Polyhedron could have been established as fact, it would have underlined the special nature of this place and maybe subsequent generations would have spent less time looking for external validation and more time trying to lift this place up by its bootstraps.

The description of the events which allowed the Polyhedron to be transported from the old world to its temporary location in the new carries the reader from science fiction into mythology and may pose some challenges for those with only passing interest in things mystic.

If one of the characteristics of good fiction is to lead the reader into wondering, this book does not fail for the final loss of the great treasure leaves the reader wondering about the futility of all that went towards its discovery and transportation to the new world. The famous quotation which opens Dickens' celebrated Tale of two Cities, and which starts with the claim that "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and ends by admitting, if I am allowed to paraphrase, that in short, the period was so far like the present period, would leave the local reader to wonder if there is a mystical tie between the Laventille and what is now the East Dry River being the seat of violence then as it is now, notwithstanding the centuries of supposed development which apparently have only allowed a change in weapons. 

Masonic readers will be disappointed if they expect to receive from the text an explanation of   Masonic philosophy. That was obviously not the intention of the author, but they will be quick to recognise that a lot of relevant information on the early development of the craft is present. Though the book is not aimed specifically at a Masonic readership, it will certainly broaden the thinking devotee's perception of his Craft.

The merits of the book far outweigh any occasional jargon used and it is hoped that other readers will derive as much enjoyment from it as I have done.

Professor Bridget Brereton addressing the audience at the booklaunch

Review by Bridget Brereton in the Trinidad Express of 26 September 2013
(click here to see it on the Express website)

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.

Review by Raymond Ramcharitar in the Trinidad Guardian of 29 September 2013

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the creators of European novels and popular entertainments were fascinated by cabals, conspiracies and mysticism. Masonic lodges, the occult and charismatic individual characters abounded. In the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Disraeli, Walter Scott and others, were many references to secret societies and lodges and the influence they wielded. George du Manrier's Trilby introduced Svengali, who upstaged and outlived his creator, as did Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, and Oliver Haddo, the title character in Somerset Maugham's The Magician (based on occultist Aleister Crowley).

This fascination was unsurprising, since Freemasonry was perhaps the most important social institution in Victorian England and Europe. And in this, the Caribbean was no different. Freemasonry existed in the region from the 18th century and was a powerful force in the 19th century. Several lodges existed in Victorian Trinidad, and the Freemasons marched in Port-of-Spain in full regalia to celebrate Victoria's Golden jubilee in 1887. You could hardly find a Trinidadian man of any influence and achievement from the late 19th century to the mid-20th who was not a Freemason. Masons included JJ Thomas, Michel Maxwell Philip, people with names like Rust, Alcazar, Montserrin, and also Mohammed, Wong and Teelucksingh. Masonic lodges were and remain one of the earliest sites of meaningful interethnic fraternity.

Lodges were also the sites of rebellion, quiet and loud. Virtually everyone involved in the Reform Movements of the late 19th century and instigating the Water Riots of 1903 was Freemason, as were Alfred Richard of the Trinidad Workingmen's Association, CP David and George Fitzpatrick (first local nominees of the Legislative Council), FEM Hosein in, LC Hannays, Adrian Cola Rienzi, all the way up to HOB Wooding and Patrick Solomon. 

Despite this, Freemasonry does not register at all in the creative or even historical consciousness of the region. Neither does this theatre of fantasy—Christian mysticism, occultism, and quasi-religious cults—play out in the creative life of the region, unless you count the self-immolating self-parody of "obeah." What preoccupies artists and creative people are Carnival, slavery and tiresome ethnic neuroses clumsily disguised as art.

But this all changes with the launch of Gerry Besson's novel, From the Gates of Aksum

Aksum is a historical novel, which brings into public consciousness another Caribbean and another Trinidad. The present conceptions of history and art in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean, as already mentioned, are enslaved by a single historical narrative: that of slavery, and consequently, one small locus of acceptable themes: resistance, rage, reparation, what have you. This is a severe restriction on the artistic imagination and the national imagination, from where comes the ability to create new industries, social programmes, and, indeed, a livable Trinidad and Tobago.

Aksum begins in l787, in pre-revolutionary Haiti, and its epilogue is dated 1844. In between those dates, there is much movement, through time and through space. The time shifts back hundreds of years and the space moves through Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and even through the fantastical geography of the land of Prester John and Biblical myth. 

The tale begins at the birth of modem Trinidad in 1787 and is told by several narrators, beginning and ending with Littias L’Eau, a minor character. The plot weaves Freemasonry, European religious and political intrigues and Judeo-Christian mythology into the tapestry of the region's history. 

The island of Trinidad is a site foretold in the lore of Les Chambrés, a European secret society whose origin story runs parallel to the history of Christian civilisation. Its existence is centred on a mystical object, which once placed in a particular location (in Trinidad), could precipitate a utopian age. 

Les Chambrés' agent in the New World is François de Gurvand, whose purpose is to settle in Trinidad to embed the object there. His task is complicated by the imperial powers' losing and retaking territories in the 18th century. He waits in the island of St Lucia for an opportunity to establish himself in Trinidad, which comes in 1783, with the Cedula of Population. François' life, and the fate of the object, is complicated by constant battles on small and large scales. He settles in Trinidad, but is embroiled in the familiar political, masonic, religious and social conflicts, which present formidable challenges for him and his son, Adhemar, to fulfil their purpose. 

Once circumstances seem propitious, François and Adhemar return to France to retrieve the object, to find their centuries-old ancestral home and library have been destroyed by this time, the Catholic Church, Napoleon and various other antagonists know of and desire it. There ensues a gripping chase and battle scene through the French countryside, where Vatican assassins and Napoleon's mercenaries do quite spectacular battle with Les Chambrés.

This and other intrigues weave in and out of the quotidian history Venezuela and Trinidad and the lives of several characters, large small. We meet Thomas Picton the early governor who gave the island its character; Latin American adventurer Francisco de Miranda; the Masonic guerilla unit, Immortal 45; Governor Ralph Woodford and several personalities from era, like Vincent Patrice, master of Les Frères Unis, the Brothers Dert and personages with familiar names, like Agostini, de Vertueil and Cipriani.

Not merely the people, but the landscape is brought to life. Aksum takes the reader through the geography of early Trinidad, a place with a surprising resemblance to 21st century Trinidad. This is a description of Port-of-Spain: 

"Death is carried on the warm moist air. Yesterday there was the odour of human flesh being roasted. A Reign of Terror is here as well. From below continue the shouts of the carter men and venders ... From the back of the grass market, where that very morning, quite early came the ring of the blacksmith's anvil mingled with the wailing cries of female slaves being flogged, there now arises a fine baritone voice singing the aria from the opera The Power of Love and Hatred by Fancesco Prata."

This was slave-Trinidad, and refreshingly, the book lacks any sign of political correctness. Slave owners sound and act like men unencumbered by guilt, because they have none. The enslaved are made more than enraged Calibans but they are on the margins, not at all central to the action. Most of the action takes place in Masonic Lodges, living rooms where theology and history are fashion into rapiers, and in the fields Europe, Venezuela and the Middle East where chain-mail and revolutionary armies clash with great force and terror.

As a novel, Aksum's genre is a hybrid of the swashbuckling 19th century adventure novel and the 20th century mystical thriller, like Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. The book is written with strong sense of action, that is to say, things happen, quickly and vigorously: people fight, they and are sucked in and crushed by fate. The characters are interesting and the landscapes are convincingly created, and the interwoven plots move in pleasing unity. But most interesting is the quasi-theology or mythology Besson creates. He creates an academy, which exists in parallel with classical culture, but outside it, where mages, masters of hidden science and memory, are trained. 

This ought to be enough but Aksum is also valuable in another way. Its Trini antecedents are EL Joseph's Warner Arundell, and Naipaul's Loss of El Dorado. This is good company for any book and writer.

Especially when the book provides the invaluable service of encouraging its Trinidadian and Caribbean readers to lift their eyes out of the barracoon dirt, real and imagined, and look outward into history, into the future, and into the large, wondrous theatre of human experience. If Aksums message to Trinidad can be summed in one phrase, it would be that history and fate are unsympathetic to human indecision, and wait for no one.

(The writer of this article provided editorial advice to the writer of the novel.)

Gerard Besson reading at the Paper Based "Tea and Poetry" event on 19th October.

Paria authors Gerard Besson and Jackie Hinkson with Joan Dayal, owner of Paper Based.

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