The Lost Steps
The Lost Steps, a novel written in the first person by a character much like Alejo Carpentier, is the story of modern man and his desire to leave civilization to find himself in the origins of history. The narrator-protagonist, a musicologist working for an advertising agency, agrees to travel up a large river in South America in search of primitive instruments that will verify his theory concerning the origins of music. He undertakes this task at the request of his old professor at the university. It is time for his vacation, so he accepts the job, in part to take advantage of the opportunity to travel at the expense of the university. He goes with Mouche, his mistress, while Ruth, his wife, who is an actor, remains behind in the large city in which they live (presumably New York, although no specific indications are given). Because the narrator-protagonist is originally from Latin America, his return means also a new encounter with the language of his childhood.
He and Mouche spend time first at a Latin American capital (very much like Caracas and Havana), where he begins to remember his childhood and longs for the past. While they are at the capital, a revolution breaks out, forcing them to take refuge in the hotel where they are staying while bands of revolutionaries fight soldiers. The protagonist-narrator, who is recording all of these events in a diary, remembers World War II, in which he participated as a photographer. The evils of civilization appear more onerous, and he wishes to press on with his trip to the jungle. They finally make the necessary arrangements, traveling first by bus to a smaller city, and later by boat. Along the way, they encounter a native woman, Rosario, who winds up becoming the narrator-protagonist’s mistress. Mouche, he discovers, is having a lesbian affair with a Canadian painter they have met. She returns to civilization, where presumably she belongs, while the narrator-protagonist continues on his journey. He has joined various other characters, most notably an adventurer who has founded a city. When they reach this city, which turns out to be a mere gathering of huts, the narrator-protagonist finds the instruments for which he has been looking. He also begins to compose music again, something he has not been able to do since he began to sell his time to the advertising agency. He needs paper in order to compose, however, and the founder of the city can furnish him with only a few notebooks that he treasures as volumes in which to record the laws of his new society.
In the meantime, Ruth has mounted a campaign to rescue her husband, thinking that he is lost in the jungle. A plane reaches Santa Mónica de los Venados, the city where he is living with Rosario, with whom he has fallen deeply in love, and he decides to return to procure the things that he needs—such as paper—but with the intention of coming back to stay. He is given a hero’s welcome back in the city, and he sells his story to some newspapers. Eventually, without a job and wife (Ruth, having found out about Mouche and Rosario, has left him), he is forced to eke out a living writing jingles. He finally manages to return to the Latin American capital and makes his way back to the small river town whence he started on his trip to Santa Mónica. After much waiting, he finds someone to take him back up river, but they are unable to find the mark on a tree that indicated the secret channel through which Santa Mónica could be reached. The waters of the river have risen, obliterating the mark. The narrator-protagonist hears from a traveler that Rosario has married somebody else. Disillusioned with the idea of being able to return to the origins of history, to shed civilization, the narrator-protagonist realizes that he can look only toward the future, for he is condemned to time, to...
(The entire section is 1576 words.)