Study Guide

Alejo Carpentier

Alejo Carpentier Essay - Carpentier, Alejo

Carpentier, Alejo

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

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, "El camino de Santiago," "Viaje a la semilla," and "Semejante a la noche." The 1970 English language edition contains "Highroad of St. James," "Journey Back to the Source," "Like the Night," "Right of Sanctuary," and "The Chosen."

Criticism

David William Foster (essay date 1964)

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...

(The entire section is 5367 words.)

Ray Verzasconi (essay date 1965)

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,...

(The entire section is 3374 words.)

James Nelson Goodsell (review date 1970)

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...

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Helmy F. Giacoman (essay date 1971)

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...

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Salvador Jiménez-Fajardo (essay date 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 3960 words.)

Lindsay Townsend (essay date 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 1955 words.)

Patricia E. Mason (essay date 1981)

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...

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José Piedra (essay date 1982)

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...

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Roberto González Echevarría (essay date 1985)

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 Americathat of exileand 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...

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Jonathan Keates (review date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Sonia Feigenbaum (essay date 1992)

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...

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