Alejo Carpentier 1904-1980
(Full surname Carpentier y Valmont) Cuban novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. See also Alejo Carpentier Criticism (Volume 8), and Volumes 11, 110.
A respected musicologist during his lifetime, Carpentier was the premier Cuban novelist of his generation and an influential presence in Latin-American letters. A versatile writer and scholar, he infused his writings with references to music, history, politics, science, art, and the mythology of primitive indigenous civilizations. Carpentier both pioneered and advocated the development of the Latin-American "new novel," or "anti-novel," an avant-garde form devoid of traditional narrative techniques and characterized by vaguely identified characters, casually arranged chronology, and ambiguous meaning; he also practiced what today is referred to as "magic realism," a hallmark of Latin-American narration whereby ordinary experience is explained in extraordinary terms. Some critics have found Carpentier's work overly complex and pedantic, yet others have claimed that its dense structure is a vital part of his art. While Carpentier is perhaps best known for the novel Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps), he also wrote short stories recognizable for their emphasis on illusion and distortion of time. For these reasons, Carpentier's tales often are compared to those of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Born in Havana to parents of French and Russian descent, Carpentier attended the University of Havana and worked as a freelance journalist until 1924, when he became editor of the magazine Cartels. Briefly imprisoned in 1927 for signing a manifesto opposing the regime of the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales, Carpentier fled to France in 1928. In Paris, Carpentier discovered the surrealist works of André Breton and Louis Aragon and contributed articles to the journal Révolution surréaliste. Between 1928 and 1939 Carpentier worked at Foniric Studios, where he produced and directed arts programs and audio recordings. Meanwhile, he published the novel he had begun in prison, ¡Ecue-Yamba-Ó, an account of Afro-Cuban political struggles and folklore, as well as the short story "Histoire de lunes" ("Tale of Moons"), which appeared in the journal Cahiers du Sud. After returning to Havana in 1939, Carpentier worked for a local radio station, where he wrote and produced radio shows, and taught music history at the National Conservatory until 1943, when he left Cuba for the second time. During the 1940s and 1950s he lived in self-imposed exile, traveling to Haiti, Europe, the United States, and South America. In 1949 Carpentier published El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World), a historical novel based on the career of the early nineteenth-century Haitian leader Henri Christophe. It was followed in 1953 by the novel The Lost Steps, which many consider his masterpiece. While exiled, Carpentier also wrote the bulk of his short fiction, including the story "Los fugitivos" ("The Fugitives"), published in the journal El nacional, the novella El acoso (Manhunt), and the story collection La guerra del tiempo (The War of Time). Carpentier returned to Cuba after Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959. From 1960 to 1967, he held a supervisory position at the Cuban Publishing House, issuing another highly acclaimed historical novel, El siglo de las luces (Explosion in a Cathedral), as well as Tientos y diferencias, a collection of essays on cultural and literary themes. In 1966 Carpentier was named the cultural attaché to France, serving at the Cuban embassy in Paris until his death in 1980.
Acknowledged for an understated and enigmatic tone rarely seen in his novels, Carpentier's short fiction focuses on themes concerning voyage and discovery, exile and return. Manhunt, which is structured after Beethoven's "Eroica," consists of the interior monologues of two men, an unnamed ticket-taker and a man who turns out to be the target of the "manhunt" of the title. The latter figure is an idealistic revolutionary activist who unwittingly became the paid assassin of a crime syndicate. After informing on them during questioning by the authorities, he slips inside the orchestra hall to hide. Manhunt concludes with a report of the hunted man's execution. In "El camino de Santiago" ("Highroad of St. James") a seriously ill, sixteenth-century peasant boy makes a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a shrine of St. James in Spain, where he regains his health. When his religiosity fades, he turns greedy and seeks his fortune in the New World, only to meet with poverty and unhappiness. "Viaje a la semilla" ("Journey Back to the Source") begins with the demolition of a Spanish nobleman's mansion, but flows into the past as the nobleman reviews his life. "Semejante a la noche" ("Like the Night") relates the feelings and thoughts of an unnamed soldier about to depart for an anonymous war. The English-language edition of The War of Time includes "Right of Sanctuary," which humorously recounts how a deposed South American government official, who sought asylum in a foreign embassy, eventually becomes that foreign nation's ambassador to his own former government, replacing the man who had granted him asylum. Also included is "The Chosen," in which five different Noahs sail five different Arks as a fleet upon the Flood, only to disperse once the waters ebb. Richly anachronistic, Concierto barroco, which is set in both the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, follows the journey of a Mexican aristocrat and his African slave to Venice for its pre-Lenten carnival, where they pass time with the baroque composers Vivaldi, Scarlatti, and Handel. Along the way, this group picnics in a cemetery, where modern composers Wagner and Stravinsky are entombed. The slave then takes a train to Paris to hear Louis Armstrong play a jazzy rendition of a baroque concerto. This novella underscores Carpentier's proposition that music ignores the constraints of time, place, and tradition.
Although recognized throughout Latin America as a major writer and influential literary figure, Carpentier has failed to attract similar notice from the North American reading public. Like that of his longer fiction, the thematic diversity of his short fiction has both fascinated and repulsed critics. For most scholars of Latin American literature, Carpentier's stories epitomize his concept of lo real maravilloso ("the marvelous real"), particularly with reference to the unusual or unexpected ways his texts treat the passage of time and the role of art in society. "Music and time are interwoven in the structure of his works," observed Sonia Feigenbaum, adding, "He uses both themes in a somewhat unconventional manner in order to unravel his concept of Latin American identity and his constant obsession with the search for it." A great deal of critical effort has been directed toward demonstrating how Carpentier "translates" the musical form of Beethoven's "Eroica" into the narrative of Manhunt. Lindsay Townsend suggested that the symphony "is the means by which Carpentier points out once more the chasm between the images of art and the reality of twentieth-century life . . . a constant reminder of the inefficacity of an art cut off from its roots." Steven Boldy, on the other hand, asserted that "the model of music (Carpentier's second profession) and that of architecture (the profession of his father) are rarely used simply as models but rather stand as a metatextual image for the phenomenon of using models or other texts to order, and make sense of, experience or data." Because Carpentier usually combined the aesthetic concerns of many cultural traditions and eras, his themes often illuminate broad social issues regarding cultural identity. Roberto González Echevarría explained that "the plot in Carpentier's stories always moves from exile and fragmentation toward return and restoration, and the overall movement of each text is away from literature toward immediacy . . . [and] a constant return to the source of modern Latin American self-awareness."
El acoso [Manhunt; also published as The Chase] (novella) 1956
*La guerra del tiempo: Tres relatos y una novela [The War of Time] (novella and short stories) 1958
Concierto barroco [Concierto Barroco] (novella) 1974
Other Major Works
Poèmes des Antilles: Neuf chants sur des textes d'Alejo Carpentier (poetry) 1931
¡Écue-Yamba-Ó Novela afrocubana (novel) 1933
La muúica en Cuba (history) 1946
El reino de este mundo [The Kingdom of This World] (novel) 1949
Los pasos perdidos [The Lost Steps] (novel) 1953
El siglo de las luces [Explosion in a Cathedral] (novel) 1962
Tientos y diferencias (essays) 1964
Literatura y conciencia política en América Latina (essays) 1969
La ciudad de las columnas (history) 1970
El recurso del método [Reasons of State] (novel) 1974
El arpa y la sombra [The Harp and the Shadow] (novel) 1979
La consagración de la primavera (novel) 1979
Obras completas. 9 vols. 1983-1986
*This work contains El acoso,...
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SOURCE: "El acoso: Alejo Carpentier's War on Time," in PMLA, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 4, September, 1963, pp. 440-48.
[In the following essay, Weber analyzes the narrative structure of Manhunt, identifying various thematic motifs related to character and chronological development.]
The protagonist of Alejo Carpentier's short novel El acoso is an informer fleeing from men who would avenge the deaths he has caused. The pursuit and punishment of an informer, not a new plot, is usually developed with rapid pacing and suspense. But Carpentier modifies this traditional story of the chase by breaking it into a mosaic of fragmentary incidents and remembrances arranged without chronological sequence. Adopting certain techniques of the stream-of-consciousness writers, he reduces external action to a minimum and uses interior monologues and confused shreds of memory to show the inner life of his characters. Yet his work is not primarily a psychological study: the combination of two apparently disparate approaches to the novel (one a story line based on a closelyknit, causal-temporal progression and the other a narrative structure determined in part by the flux and shift of consciousness) creates a static and almost allegorical depiction of Betrayal in its various modes and incarnations.1 This duality of presentation is also evident in the subject matter: definite historical...
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SOURCE: "The 'Everyman' Theme in Carpentier's El Camino del Santiago," in Symposium, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Fall, 1964, pp. 229-40.
[In the following essay, Foster examines Carpentier's thematic adaptation of the medieval Everyman allegory in "Highroad of St. James," demonstrating its moral significance in the context of contemporary literary methods.]
Given Alejo Carpentier's known preference1 for the destruction of the unities of logical time and space, one is not surprised that a writer who is stylistically of the most advanced vanguard should find thematically useful the medieval religious concept of the Everyman theme.2 Allegorical in intent, the Everyman is a representation of the common destiny of all mankind on the occasion of his pilgrimage through this life. It shall be the attempt of this study to examine Carpentier's "El Camino de Santiago"3 as a reinterpretation and a revitalization of that theme within the confines of the most contemporary of literatures.
In "El Camino de Santiago," Carpentier relates a typical emigration to the New World of a man who, upon his return to Spain, dissatisfied, convinces another to undertake the same journey, thus making a narrative circle of the incidents. This circular interpretation as well as the causes of the "indiano's" failure and dissatisfaction are the substance of the Everyman theme....
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SOURCE: "Juan and Sisyphus in Carpentier's 'El camino de Santiago'," in Hispania, Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, March, 1965, pp. 70-5.
[In the following excerpt, Verzasconi discusses the thematic and symbolic development of the Sisyphus myth in "Highroad of St. James," drawing parallels between Carpentier's adaptation and Albert Camus' efforts in Myth de Sisyphe.]
"¿Qué capitán es este, qué soldado de la guerra del tiempo?" With this quotation from Lope de Vega, Alejo Carpentier prefaces Guerra del tiempo, a collection of three short stories and a novel.1 "Ese Capitán, ese Soldado," write the editors in the prologue to the volume, "es el Hombre, siempre semejante a sí mismo, inmensamente fiel a sus 'constantes,' aunque el Tiempo transcurra."
A concern for the essence of Man must necessarily be a fundamental part of any author whose work is worthy of critical evaluation. In at least two of the works of Alejo Carpentier, that Captain-Soldier, who represents the core of all that is Man, finds its expression through a re-interpretation of an ancient myth—the myth of Sisyphus. In the novel Los pasos perdidos, the Sisyphus theme is central and explicit, though no one, to my knowledge, has fully studied its significance.2 In "El camino de Santiago," the first story in the volume cited above, the theme remains central, but it can only be established...
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SOURCE: "Pilgrims, Plunderers," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 62, No. 278, October 22, 1970, p. 9.
[In the following assessment of The War of Time, Good-sell finds Carpentier's tales inferior to his novels, but considers them significant for the light they shed on Carpentier's craft.]
Coming through Cuba's curtain of suspicion, the writings of Alejo Carpentier are like a warm sun as it penetrates the mist and clears the atmosphere. For Carpentier, a Havanaborn Cuban of French and Russian parentage, is one of the most versatile authors on the Latin American scene today. He is thoroughly Cuban, but his themes are wide-ranging, frequently universal, and generally quite imaginative. War of Time is a smallish collection of stories—three first published in Spanish in 1963 and two first published in French in 1967. They open up still more insights into the thought of this distinguished Cuban novelist and storyteller.
The collection's most important story, "The Highroad of Saint James," appears first in the volume and chronicles the fortunes of a 16th-century drummer boy named Juan who, in serious illness vows to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the shrine of St. James, where he recovers. But his religious fervor quickly wanes and he returns to his worldly life, heading to the New World in search of gold and glory only to encounter poverty and...
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SOURCE: "The Use of Music in Literature: 'El Acoso' by Alejo Carpentier and Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) by Beethoven," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1971 pp. 103-111.
[In the following essay, Giacoman details how Manhunt reflects in its characters and structure the themes and design of Beethoven's Eroica.]
Throughout the history of the Arts there has been intense interest in the relationship between music and literature. It is the writer's thesis that El Acoso, in addition to its many virtues as a novella, is a rare successful attempt meaningfully and consistently to represent in a literary work the complex structure, tone, and rhythm of a specific musical work (Beethoven's Eroica). Because of the specialized focus of this study on the structural similarities between Beethoven's Third Symphony and Carpentier's El Acoso, I shall ignore the many other aspects of the story, attempting to focus on one question; What are the common structural elements in these two works?
Both works of art represent radical creative departures for Beethoven and Carpentier. The Eroica is a symphony that revolutionized symphonic structure—the continuous and organic mode of connecting the second subject with the first, the introduction of episodes into the development, the extraordinary importance of the Coda, are...
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SOURCE: "The Redeeming Quest: Patterns of Unification in Carpentier, Fuentes, and Cortázar," in Revista de estudios hispánicos, Vol. XI, No. 1, January, 1977, pp. 91-117.
[In the following excerpt, Jiménez-Fajardo details the significance of the inverted temporal progression of "Journey Back to the Source," linking the linguistic implications of the protagonist's search for a unified identity to similar developments in other Latin American texts.]
With strange cadences of his walking stick, an old Negro in Alejo Carpentier's "Viaje a la semilla"1 reverses the course of time toward the origins, the seed. The demolition of the Marqués' palace is halted, then reversed; the Marqués himself reenters life, youth and infancy; as he returns to his mother's womb and nothingness, the palace disintegrates, all of its materials restored to their natural state.
This short story first appeared in an edition of one hundred plaquettes, and was later included in the volume Guerra del tiempo, published in 1958. Upon examining the narrative, it becomes apparent that some basic ideas were first explored in it which were to acquire great and prolonged emphasis in the later novels of various Latin American authors; we found this to be especially true of Cortázar's Rayuela and Fuentes' La muerte de Artemio Cruz.
Carpentier's work was...
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SOURCE: "The Image of Art in Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos and El acoso," in Romance Notes, Vol. XX, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 304-09.
[In the following essay, Townsend discusses the thematic similarities between Manhunt and the novel The Lost Steps, concentrating on the role of music in the texts.]
The themes of the role of art in society and the responsibilities of the artist are of tremendous importance in Alejo Carpentier's novel of 1953, Los pasos perdidos. These concerns are developed through the persona of a composer who seeks the roots of his art among the primitive peoples of the Latin American jungle. His encounter with a group of Indians mourning the death of a comrade destroys his previous theories as to the origin of music. The primitives' rhythmic howls are seen as "intento primordial de lucha contra las potencias de aniquilamiento que se atraviesan en los cálculos del hombre."1 He is left with the realization that "acabo de asistir al Nacimiento de la Música" (L.p.p. p. 148).
Thus the art of music, born of tragedy and fear, is seen as the human response of rage, grief and terror before the harsh facts of death. Returning to twentieth-century life, the narrator finds that modern man is now completely dominated by fear; fear of everything, not just of death: ". . . detrás de esas caras, cualquier apetencia profunda,...
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SOURCE: "Indetermination in Alejo Carpentier's El derecho de asilo," in Kentucky Romance Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, 1981, pp. 383-90.
[In the following essay, Mason studies the thematic links between time, place, and fragmented narration in "Right of Sanctuary," showing the significance of the story's indeterminacy.]
Although the theme of time in Alejo Carpentier's novels and short stories has been the subject of a number of critical works,1 little attention has so far been paid to the treatment of time in the short story "El derecho de asilo," which first appeared in 1967, in the French version of Guerra del tiempo. In this paper, I will examine the view of time presented in this story. It will be shown that a thematic connection exists between the treatment of time presented here and other structural elements of the story, in particular, the imprecise geographical location, and the fragmentation of the role of the narrator. The combined effect of these various mechanisms is to create in "El derecho de asilo" an essentially indeterminate, non-individualized world.
To summarize briefly the action of the story: after a military coup led by General Mabillán, the Secretary to the Presidency of a tropical Latin-American republic takes refuge in the embassy of the País Fronterizo, with which his own country has been engaged in a long-standing border...
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SOURCE: "A Return to Africa with a Carpentier Tale," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 97, No. 2, March, 1982, pp. 401-10.
[In the following essay, Piedra explores the anti-colonialist discourse in "Tale of Moons," drawing inferences that explain the perseverance of African cultural elements in contemporary Caribbean narratives.]
Caribbean portrayals of African traditions often translate on paper as colonialist acts. Even writers reclaiming Africa as their cultural backbone express their claims in Western types of discourse. The fact is that, in deed or on paper, explorers are intruders. The development of native traditions in Africa is interrupted by the act of discovery and repressed by the act of recording. No modern attempt can undo the original takeover.
Caribbean texts exploring Africa shoulder responsibilities similar to those of chronicles of discovery—to relate two cultures within a frame of authority which inscribes the material discovered and, at the same time, justifies the act of takeover. Writing itself becomes an imperialist tool. The frame it provides forces European tradition upon the new territories. Not only is the exploitation of Africans considered a digression in the colonization of America, but the concept of African culture becomes an addendum to the colonialist text.
A colonialist explorer approaches the target culture according to the frame of...
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SOURCE: "Literature and Exile: Carpentier's 'Right of Sanctuary'," in The Voice of the Masters: Writing and Authority in Modern Latin American Literature, University of Texas Press, 1985, pp. 125-36.
[In the following essay, Echevarría examines the many facets of exile present in Carpentier's story, asserting "The critical element of the story sets forth a founding literary myth in Latin America—that of exile—and shows how this myth engenders literature through a process of contradiction and self-denial. "]
and without making a sad tango out of being awash in the tide of remembrance, in the suitcase full of thousands upon thousands of chicks belonging to the sage of Alexandria, in the magician's briefcase that opens for the public, ladies and gentlemen, because the show begins every time you reach one of the stories, and will continue, I say, beyond the very limits of memory.
—Gabriel García Márquez
Not too many years ago a pessimistic and short-sighted critic proclaimed that Latin America was a novel without novelists. His gloomy assessment has been discredited by the work of a splendid group of contemporary novelists and the discovery of a rich narrative tradition going back to colonial times. Today the most frequent lament is that Latin America's is a literature with...
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SOURCE: "At the Keyboard," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4591, March 29, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following review, Keates assesses the thematic and stylistic features of Concierto barroco, calling the work "a notable exemplar" of Latin American narrative.]
The Latin American novel is nothing if not self-conscious. As if seated at a dressing-table mirror, it tries on any number of hats, jewels, scarves and masks, shifting this way and that for the sake of yet another flattering attitude. There are moments when we long for it to forsake its overblown mannerist brilliance, its little asides and look-at-me allusions for something drab and homely. Now and then it contrives a feint in the direction of gloomy sincerity, but the lure of imaginative trapeze acts and stylistic decor is nearly always triumphant.
Even if Alejo Carpentier were not already famous as one of the most elegantly poetic exponents of this fictional strain, Concierto barroco, which was first published in 1977, would still rank as a notable exemplar of the genre at its most whimsical. Its very opening is typical: a series of patterned syntactical inversions is used to evoke a vision of the gorgeous household plate of an eighteenth-century Mexican aristocrat as it is being packed away against his departure for Europe.
The nobleman, attended by his negro slave Filomeno, fetches up in...
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SOURCE: "Music as a Structural Component in Alejo Carpentier's Concierto Barroco and The Lost Steps," in Romance Languages Annual, Vol. 4, 1992, pp. 438-41.
[In the following essay, Feigenbaum examines the function of music in Concierto barroco and in the novel The Lost Steps.]
In an essay published in El Nacional, April 8, 1948, Alejo Carpentier used the term "marvelous American reality" in referring to the Latin American novel. In 1925, however, the European critic Franz Roh had introduced the comparable term "magical realism." "Magical realism" has been especially applied to narrative fiction. It highlights the effect caused by juxtapositions of two or more elements that are not conventionally associated, thus producing a dialectic of sorts, fusing thesis and antithesis into a synthesis. "Marvelous American reality" goes one step further by attempting to incorporate the search to define an American identity.
Alejo Carpentier juxtaposes several themes in his narrative in order to illustrate Latin American identity or consciousness. Music and time are interwoven in the structure of his works. He uses both themes in a somewhat unconventional manner in order to unravel his concept of Latin American identity and his constant obsession with the search for it. Just as Borges uses historical events but then rewrites history to suit esthetic purposes, Carpentier...
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Echevarría, Roberto González. Alejo Carpentier, The Pilgrim at Home. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990, 334 p.
Seminal study of Carpentier's life and works, characterizing his literary career as rooted in Latin American modernism that subverts colonial models of the region's history.
Adelstein, Miriam. "El acoso: A View of the Dynamic Components of the Protagonist's Psyche." Crítica Hispánica 12, Nos. 1-2 (1990): 141-47.
Interprets the protagonist's quest for self-fulfillment in Manhunt according to the Jungian psychoanalytic concept of "individuation."
Boldy, Steven. "Making Sense in Carpentier's El acoso." Modern Language Review 85, No. 3 (July 1990): 612-22.
Applies literary theorist M. Bakhtin's principle of hypertexuality to the narrative design of Manhunt, demonstrating how the text addresses Caribbean cultural identity in terms of European cultural models.
Sturrock, John. "Ironies of Ignorance." Times Literary Supplement (March 30-April 5, 1990): 339.
Details the narrative ironies of The Chase.
Webb, Barbara J. "The...
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