Alejo Carpentier 1904–1980
Cuban novelist, short story writer, poet, musicologist, librettist, composer, essayist, and journalist.
The following entry presents an overview of Carpentier's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 11, and 38.
Alejo Carpentier is a critically acclaimed novelist and musicologist in his native Cuba, but his work is just beginning to gain recognition in North America and the rest of the world. His "magical realism" writing has influenced a number of better-known Latin-American writers including Gabriel García Márquez. A writer of varied interests and learning, Carpentier infuses his novels and short stories with references to music, history, politics, science, art, mythology, and other subjects. His novels are characteristically complex and detailed, particularly when describing the lush settings and exotic cultures of Latin America.
Alejo Carpentier was born on December 26, 1904, in Cuba. His father, Georges Carpentier, was French, and his mother was Russian. The family was quite affluent and traveled extensively in Europe during Carpentier's childhood. For a time, the family settled in Paris where Carpentier studied at the Lycee Jeanson de Sailly and learned to speak French fluently. While a teenager, Carpentier moved with his family to the countryside outside of Havana. He was asthmatic and spent most of his time at home, writing and reading. In Cuba, Carpentier attended the Colegio Mimo and then Candler College, where he organized music concerts and wrote music reviews. He studied architecture at the Universidad de la Habana until his father abandoned the family; Carpentier then quit school to work and help support the family. Carpentier began writing articles for local magazines and newspapers and eventually became the chief editor for Carteles, an avant-garde weekly magazine. In the 1920s, he became involved in revolutionary political activities against the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales, and was sent to prison for seven months in 1927. It was while he was in prison that he began writing his first novel, ¡Ecué-Yamba-O!, which was published in 1933. After his release from prison, Carpentier was involved in a series of musical projects, including organizing concerts and composing music for ballets. In 1928 Carpentier again came under the suspicion of the Cuban government and fled to Paris where he spent the next eleven years working as a journalist and activist in the anti-fascist government. Carpentier returned to Cuba in 1939 and became the editor of the journal Tiempo Nuevo. He also worked for Cuban radio stations and as a musicologist for Cuba's National Conservatory of Music. He was divorced from his second wife in 1939 (his first marraige had left him a widower), and in 1941 he married a third time. He traveled to Haiti in 1943 and became fascinated with the country and its leader, Henri Christophe. The visit inspired the novel El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World; 1949). Carpentier moved to Venezuela in 1945 and opened an advertising agency with a friend. He remained in Venezuela until Fidel Castro, whom he supported, came into power in Cuba in 1959. He served as the Cuban cultural attaché to France and continued to write until his death on April 24, 1980.
Carpentier was influenced by surrealism, although he later split with the movement. His later work is referred to as "magical realism," derived from his term "lo real maravilloso" ("the marvelous real"). This technique influenced a generation of Latin-American writers. "Baroquism" is another term applied to Carpentier's style, referring to his abstruse vocabulary and the influence of music on his writing. Ecué-Yamba-O! shows the influence of surrealism on Carpentier's writing. The novel depicts the lives of black Cubans, including their magical folklore, rituals, and ceremonies. The novel also portrays the struggle of rural blacks to make their living from the land and includes a condemnation of the Machado government. The Kingdom of This World focuses on the magical country of Haiti and its legendary king, Henri Christophe. The novel shows how black slaves used their folklore to survive the inhumane treatment of their white masters. Carpentier used several of his recurring techniques in this novel, including history, time dislocations, free associations, and mythical allusions. Los pasos perdidos (1953; The Lost Steps) is considered by many to be Carpentier's masterpiece. The protagonist is a musicologist who travels to the jungles of Orinoco searching for ancient musical instruments. While there, he discovers a native group and becomes enchanted with their primitive lifestyle: He believes that he has found the origins of music. Carpentier's blending of the harmonious elements of the natural world and indigenous peoples with the technological focus of the modern world parallels the blending of the European and native worlds seen in most Latin-American cultures. Music played an important role in many of Carpentier's works and often provided the structure of his novels, including La consagración de la primavera (1979), reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and El acoso (1956; Manhunt, Noonday), which was modeled on Ludwig van Beethoven's Eroica Symphony No. 3. Concierto barroco (1974) again follows Carpentier's interest in historical America and the role of music in culture. Carpentier based the novel on Antonio Vivaldi's opera Motezuma, but also drew on a variety of historical and literary sources. El arpa y la sombre (1979) employs Carpentier's main techniques: a blending of history and fiction; manipulation of time sequences; and symbolic language. The story centers on Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World and portrays the impact of the mythological and natural lushness of Latin America on the European sensibility. Throughout his career, Carpentier also wrote several books on musical theory and history, including La música en Cuba (1946), and essays on literature collected in several books including Literatura y conciencia política en América Latina (1969).
Many reviewers mention Carpentier's unique portrayal of time. Frances Wyers Weber said, "In El acoso, perfectly real and even ordinary events appear in such a way as to suggest that both for the author and his hapless protagonist, time and causality are purely phenomenal, without meaning in view of a fixed dramatic scheme." Critics also point out the way in which Carpentier builds fictional worlds on a foundation of historical fact. David H. Bost discussed Carpentier's Concierto barroco and his blending of history and fiction, asserting, "Carpentier's text, as expected, negates the formation of a singular historical truth. Instead he is more interested in exploring the dimensions of artistic truthfulness." Some critics complain that Carpentier's display of scholarship is excessive, but others consider this density a vital part of his craft. Florinda F. Goldberg stated, "To put it bluntly, in order to enjoy all the beauty of [Kingdom of This World], the reader has to know as much of history, religion, ethnology, music, art, and literature, as the author does. In this sense, undoubtedly, Carpentier is a writer for elites."
Poemes des Antilles (poetry) 1931
¡Ecué-Yamba-O! (novel) 1933
Viaje a la semilla [Journey Back to the Source] (short story) 1944
La música en Cuba (music history) 1946
El reino de este mundo [The Kingdom of This World] (novel) 1949
Tristan e Isolda en Tierra Firme (novel) 1949
Los pasos perdidos [The Lost Steps] (novel) 1953; enlarged edition, 1976
El acoso [Manhunt, Noonday] (novel) 1956
Guerra del tiempo [The War of Time] (novel) 1958
El siglo de las luces [Explosion in a Cathedral] (novel) 1962
El derecho de asilo (novel) 1962
Tientos y diferencias (essays) 1964; enlarged editions, 1970 and 1973
Literatura y conciencia politica en América Latina (essays) 1969
La cuidad de las columnas (nonfiction) 1970
Los convidados de plata (novel) 1972
Concierto barroco (novel) 1974
El recurso del método [Reasons of State] (novel) 1974
Novelas y relatos (novel) 1974
Crónicas. 2 volumes. [edited by José Antonio Portuondo] (articles) 1975
Razón de ser: Conferencias (essays) 1976
Cuentos (novel) 1977
La consagración de la primavera (novel) 1979
El arpa y la sombra (novel) 1979
Ese músico que llevo dentro. 3 volumes. [edited by Zoila Gómez García] (nonfiction) 1980
El adjetivo y sus arrugas (novel) 1980
La novelo latinamericana en vísperas de un nuevo siglo y otros ensayos (essays) 1981
Obras completas. 9 volumes. (collection) 1983–1986
Historia y ficción en la narrativa hispanoamerica (nonfiction) 1984
Tientos, diferencias y otros ensayos 1987
SOURCE: "El Acoso: Alejo Carpentier's War on Time," in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 78, No. 1, September, 1963, pp. 440-48.
[In the following essay, Weber discusses one of Carpentier's recurrent themes, "the representation, domination, or denial of time," as seen in his El acoso.]
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...
(The entire section is 5663 words.)
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 essay, Verzasconi discusses how Carpentier uses the myth of Sisyphus in his portrayal of Juan in "El Camino de Santiago."]
"¿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. "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."
(The entire section is 3165 words.)
SOURCE: "Talking to Carpentier," in Review, No. 18, Fall, 1976, pp. 20-4.
[In the following interview, Carpentier discusses his latest three novels, Concierto barroco, El recurso del método, and a work in progress.]
The leaves on the chestnut trees are just beginning to turn yellow along the Avenue Foch and the Rue de la Faisanderie leading to the Cuban Embassy. A chilly wind announces the coming of autumn. I have not seen Alejo Carpentier for four years. My daughter Elena is with me, coloring book in hand, and is practicing her Spanish on the embassy's French receptionist.
Over the last decade, Carpentier has been working on three novels more...
(The entire section is 3067 words.)
SOURCE: "Concientización: Keystone to the Novels of Alejo Carpentier," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 106-13.
[In the following essay, Kirk analyzes the theme of concientización or consciousness-raising as found in Carpentier's work, focusing on El reino de este mundo, Los pasos perididos, and El siglo de las luces.]
Although Alejo Carpentier has referred on several occasions to the "major themes" encountered in his work, he has never explained precisely what he means by this term. For instance in an interview with Luis Harss, Carpentier expressed his disdain for what he termed "'the little psychological...
(The entire section is 4332 words.)
SOURCE: "The Great Theatre of the World: Alejo Carpentier and Los Pasos Perdidos," in Crítica Hispánica, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1986, pp. 61-71.
[In the following essay, Natella discusses the concept of "theatrum mundi," or "the idea that life is a stage and we are all its actors," as it applies to Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos.]
Alejo Carpentier's famous novel of one man's attempt to retrace his roots back through the jungles of South America, Los pasos perdidos, is a brilliant evocation of the rootlessness of modern man. It is a novel that has received critical acclaim, and has been the subject of careful scrutiny by numerous scholars. Although the...
(The entire section is 3878 words.)
SOURCE: "A Night at the Opera: Concierto barroco and Motezuma," in Revista de Estudios Hispanicos, Vol. 21, No. 2, May, 1987, pp. 23-38.
[In the following essay, Bost asserts, "It is in Concierto barroco that Carpentier most imaginatively combines two of his principal concerns in his exploration of historical America: the play of fact with fictional exposition, and the role of music as a cultural force."]
Alejo Carpentier's fiction often describes watershed events of Latin American history and culture. Novels such as ¡Ecué-Yamba-O! and El reino de este mundo present vibrant images of the African impact in the Caribbean. El...
(The entire section is 4978 words.)
SOURCE: "Some Examples of Irony in Carpentier's Earlier Fiction," in Chasqui, Vol. XVI, No. 2, November, 1987, pp. 3-9.
[In the following essay, Eiríksdóttir discusses Carpentier's use of irony in his earlier work.]
La Consagración de la Primavera, Carpentier's most committed novel, seems not to have gained acceptance as the masterpiece its author clearly intended it to be. It has been suggested that among the reasons for this is that it lacks irony. To that extent it seems to bear out Barthes' comment that Marxist writing "aims at presenting reality in a prejudged form." It is as though Carpentier had resolved, or repressed, his earlier doubts about the...
(The entire section is 3810 words.)
SOURCE: "Patterns of Repetition in The Kingdom of This World," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XIX, No. 38, July-December, 1991, pp. 23-34.
[In the following essay, Goldberg traces the instances of repetition in Carpentier's El reino de este mundo and discusses what the repetition says about his conception of history.]
Alejo Carpentier's conception of history as based on repetition was first expressed through structural patterns in El reino de este mundo [The Kingdom of This World], at the levels of story, text and narration, as well as through explicit narrator-author declarations.
"Man never knows for whom he suffers and...
(The entire section is 5513 words.)
SOURCE: "Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos: Heart of Lightness, Heart of Darkness," in Revista Hispanica Moderna, Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 84-95.
[In the following essay, Wyers discusses the influence of history, allegory, nature, and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos.]
Los pasos perdidos tells about a journey into the depths of the Orinoco jungle by a narrator-protagonist who wants to recover certain primitive musical instruments that he believes will explain the origins of music. But the quest is also an escape; he wants to free himself from the drudgery of modern life, from the alienation of the metropolis (presumably...
(The entire section is 6252 words.)
SOURCE: "Identity and Authenticity in Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State," in Imagination, Emblems and Expressions: Essays on Latin American, Caribbean, and Continental Culture and Identity, edited by Helen Ryan-Ranson, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 75-87.
[In the following essay, Stewart traces the dictator's struggle with identity in Carpentier's Reasons of State.]
Ostensibly Alejo Carpentier's 1974 novel, Reasons of State, concerns itself with the political and military problems and actions of a mythical Latin American dictator who chooses to live in Paris as much as possible. The Head of State, as we know him, embodies...
(The entire section is 5446 words.)
SOURCE: "Gender Monologue in Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 3, No. 2, March, 1996, pp. 346-67.
[In the following essay, Millington asserts that "there is no doubt that what is achieved in Los pasos perdidos by the narrator is a masculist discourse of exclusion and manipulation, offset by some irony or counterpointed fragmentally when other voices become briefly audible."]
In section XII in chapter 2 of Los pasos perdidos, the narrator reaches an area of the South American jungle which, in his calculation of his movement back through the stages of civilization, he calls "Tierras del Caballo." As always, his...
(The entire section is 9039 words.)