Carpentier, Alejo (Vol. 11)
Carpentier, Alejo 1904–
Carpentier is a Cuban novelist, poet, short story writer, editor, journalist, librettist, and composer. His wide scope of interests, which range from politics and botany to the mythology and music of primitive Indian civilizations, is evident in his highly complex novels. His variety, coupled with his concern for time, has brought critical comparison with Jorge Luis Borges. Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps) is one of his best known works. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
Helmy F. Giacoman
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). (p. 103)
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 all complete departures from previous musical tradition. In "El Acoso," also, we have an intensification of a highly technical structure, plot, and presentation of characters. Carpentier's deep knowledge of music seems to have led him to adapt many of Beethoven's musical techniques. He succeeds, as did Beethoven, in creating a work whose emotional impact is enhanced, rather than overwhelmed, by intricate technical complexity. If we were to choose a common characteristic in the structural and thematic elements of both works, we would have to say that both represent great examples of the mystery that is the dialectic of art: the wedding of simplicity and complexity.
Carpentier has succeeded in reproducing the symphony on at least three different structural levels that are ingeniously related through characters and style. On the...
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From the point of view of strictly revolutionary literary ethics ["Explosion in a Cathedral"] was a curiously evasive achievement, dramatizing as it did the contradictory allegiances between private sensibility and public ideology. The two principal characters found themselves driven either toward a lucid, contemplative humanism or a draconian revolutionary spirit formed under the inevitable shadow and example of Saint-Just. Though it was set in the Antilles of the 18th century, most readers took the setting for what it is—pure Zanuck cum Goldwyn. "Explosion in a Cathedral" was the book of a writer who found himself to be an ambiguous if not anguished witness to the first years of a revolution in the here and now….
["Reasons of State"] is variously set in the Paris of the teens and the twenties, and at the same time in a mythical country of a distinctly Central American stripe called Nueva Córdoba…. The declining tyrant (who remains nameless throughout) seems to be modeled on a few of those horrific dictators of the past—the "educated tyrant," as Carpentier calls them….
In the long and not especially interesting history of literature and revolution, one thing can be said—politics and comedy rarely mix. Carpentier's earlier novels and stories were often pretty heavy going, what with their tiresome philosophizing and heavily laid-on historical panoplies. "Reasons of State" is something different—a jocular...
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Carpentier digs into the past; it almost seems as if he cannot get away from it, even in his novel The Lost Steps, which is contemporary in time but is really a search for origins—the origin first of music and then of the whole concept of civilization. Taken together, the elements of the search form a mosaic of the factors that went into the making of Latin America….
Heretofore, the analysis of Latin America, with a few exceptions, has been either superficial or an exercise in patriotics. Carpentier has looked deeper, always keeping a historical perspective. He is particularly attuned to the French influence, which other authors have too often neglected—except as a cliché. Haiti and the French pirates of the Caribbean have been the subjects of two previous Carpentier novels, Explosion in a Cathedral and The Kingdom of the World. In this new novel, too, although it deals with a Latin American dictator, the French element is important, since the tyrant is an ardent Francophile and the novel begins and ends in Paris….
Carpentier's dictator in Reasons of State is a polished man. He is … an admirer of things French and the culture of Paris….
As is so often the case with the well-written story of an ogre, the reader will, upon entering the mind and feelings of the dictator, come to sympathize with him and wish him well as he confronts his enemies. It is the actual...
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What a spacious, noble view of fiction [Carpentier] has, proposing not chemisms, the darkling plain, the long arm of coincidence, the involuntary memory, the absurd,…, but a vision of the horn of plenty forever exploding, forever settling in bits that belong together more than they don't because there is nothing else for them to do. In Carpentier the All and the One remain unknown, and suspect even, but the aggregate of the Many, gorgeous and higgledy-piggledy, does duty for them, never construable but always lapped up. (p. 5)
Carpentier is a master of both detail and mass, of both fixity and flux. With none of Beckett's reductive extremism, little of Joyce's word-smelting multiplicity, he sometimes seems the only senior novelist today possessed of the view from a long way off: as if, during a sojourn on some noetic planet circling Barnard's star, he had seen mankind plain, and all our thinking, our births and deaths, our myths and structures and dreams, all our bittersweet velleities, rammed up against the anonymous doings of nature…. He is one of the few writers of whom you can say: If we didn't exist, he would be able to imagine us (assuming he was the only human). In other words, he can not only describe; he can describe what no-one has seen; and, best, he seems to have the hypothetical gift of suggesting, as he describes, that his description—a text woven from words—is experience newly reified, made more available, more...
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[Some] readers may have … decided that indeed the reasons for Carpentier's failure to capture an audience here are those same reasons put forth by the earliest reviewers: that his fiction is too "erudite," that he is more a "cultural historian" than a novelist,… or that he is a "tiresome philosophizer."…
One may quarrel with some of these negative views, but on the question of the absence of a substantial audience for the novelist's work, one flails about like a ghostfighter, firing at shadows, starting at the slightest sound in the woods. What makes the U.S. reading audience so obligingly ignorant of Cuba's greatest novelist? Perhaps the answer does lie in the books themselves. Certainly The Lost Steps for all its superficial affinities with the variety of romantic fiction which North Americans love to indulge in … presents an odd and strangely formidable face to the U.S. reader. Despite its emphasis on the estrangement of the main character from the life of the modern city and the lushness of its sequences devoted to jungle landscape and its exotic inhabitants, it remains an inherently ironic novel whose bite and tension seem lost in its English translation. (p. 16)
One would think that a better fate might lie in store for The Kingdom of This World. Its focus on the 18th-century insurrection of the Haitian slaves against the French colonial forces in the Caribbean offers fertile reading...
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Latin America has long worn two conflicting masks. One expresses charm, gaiety, sentiment, a mood of comic opera and a long-running belle époque. The other suggests torture, massacres, tyrants, and endlessly trampled constitutions. Are the masks connected? Is the first a consolation for the second? Does the second rely on the frivolous complicity of the first?… [A tyrant in Carpentier's Reasons of State] thinks of Latin American history as an unreal suspension of time….
[The novel questions how tyrants are] able to make themselves so needed, and more important, how is a country to do without them, and to keep their future avatars from coming back? They are the malign royalty of a whole culture, clarifiers of countless fears and hopes and hatreds: hence their fascination even for those who detest them. Carpentier [shares] with other Latin American novelists, a strong sense of reality as fiction…. Reality is full of fictions in Europe and North America too, but I think we imagine the truth can be found, in most cases, if we really need it. In Latin America the truth is often not only unavailable, it is unimaginable, and unwanted…. [A] novel in Latin America, instead of being a fictional imitation of a historical world, or a self-conscious record of the movements of an individual mind, can become an attempt to understand a real world that is all too imaginary by means of imagined continuations of it: the good novels...
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Roberto GonzáLez EchevarríA
ROBERTO GONZÁLEZ ECHEVARRÍA
In Carpentier, as in most modern literature, allegory rests on the possibility of carrying the permutations [of allegory] further, to an idea of transcendence that is itself fictional and changeable. That movement away from each metaphor or conceit (the system of ideas to which allegory refers, and more specifically that movable center on which it rests) occurs at the very moment when the implications of a given philosophy threaten the fictionality of the text, by upsetting the balance of the dialectical play.
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 into immediacy, whether by a claim to be integrated within a larger context, Latin American reality or history, or by an invocation of the empirical author. But because of the dialectics just sketched, the voyage always winds up in literature and remains as the reason for yet another journey. (p. 22)
History is the main topic in Carpentier's fiction, and the history he deals with—the history of the Caribbean—is one of beginnings or foundations. (p. 25)
But if this origin-obsessed history is the theme of Carpentier's fiction, its deployment is more the product of Latin America's second beginning—that is to say, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—than of its remote...
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