Carpentier, Alejo (Vol. 110)
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...
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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 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 closely-knit, 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. This duality of presentation is also evident in the subject matter:...
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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 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."
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. In "El camino de Santiago," the first story in the volume cited above, the theme remains central, but it can only be established through a series of inferences. Nowhere does Carpentier specifically mention Sisyphus.
The Sisyphean label...
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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 or less simultaneously. He assures me that he is still in the habit of getting up at five or five-thirty in the morning to take advantage of the early hours for his writing. He doesn't believe in the Muse or inspiration, but in the progress of daily work. Obviously, he says, there are good and bad days, when you re-read the next morning and exclaim with disgust, "This is just terrible!" But no matter how bad it is, you always find something you can use. Concierto barroco, El recurso del método, and another novel as yet untitled are his three new books.
Carpentier considers Concierto barroco a novella, a sort of Summa Theologica of his style since it also contains all the mechanisms of "Baroquism." Some...
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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 novel,' a pejorative term he seems to apply to any book involving situations—especially when subjective or emotional—that are not of direct public relevance." In their place he offered the more relevant "epic substance" which he contends derives from the same "major themes": "I like big themes … they are the ones that confer the greatest richness to the characters and plot of the novel." To date several valuable attempts have been made to shed light both on the theory of Carpentier's understanding of these "grandes temas," and on their application in the Cuban writer's work. While most critics have made reference to Carpentier's obvious fascination with the Antillean and circum-Caribbean regions, and to his eloquent appraisal of that...
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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 central themes of the work have been discussed many times, one of the main, allegorical themes of the novel has yet to receive, to the best of our knowledge, complete study even though it is an important, integral part of the novel and expresses a seminal aspect of the author's basic artistic vision. We refer to the baroque (or neo baroque) concept of the "theatrum mundi," the idea that life is a stage and that we are all its actors.
In an explanatory note at the end of Los pasos perdidos, Alejo Carpentier makes significant comment on the important characters of the jungle episodes of his novel. He states that he sees them as characters in a great drama: "El Adelantado, Montsalvatje, Marcos, Fray Pedro, son los...
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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 recurso del método portrays a dictatorship as a characteristically Latin American institution. Carpentier returns to the genesis of America in El arpa y la sombra, a novel about Columbus's first voyage to the New World and his contentious historical reception in the nineteenth century. Concierto barroco explores through the world of opera the fall of Aztec Mexico, one of the events that clearly gave Spain political and cultural hegemony in the New World during the sixteenth century. Viewed collectively, these examples of Carpentier's fiction form a thematic trilogy that symbolizes the historical evolution of Latin America: its discovery, conquest and colonization. These novels identify the critical historical strands that are...
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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 process and speed of historical change and about the capacity of individuals to accept it. In consequence, La Consagración de la Primavera, for all its length and complexity, presents a tidy, unambiguous picture of reality, which contains certain reliably predictable features including the inevitability of progress through collective effort.
It was not always so. The fundamental tension identified by Muecke in what he terms simple ironies, where "one term is seen more or less immediately, as effectively contradicting, invalidating, exposing, or at the very least modifying the other" is more pronounced in Carpentier's fiction prior to El siglo de las luces (1962, but most probably written between 1956 and 1958)...
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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 hopes. He suffers and hopes and toils for people he will never know and who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for others who will not be happy either, for man always seeks a happiness far beyond that which is meted out to him." In socio-political history, this basic pattern can be found in the dialectic alternation of order and disorder: any established social system constitutes an order that contains disruptive elements (internal disorder) which provoke its fall through external disorder. The latter, in turn, contains the chance for a better social arrangement, but also tendencies—such as the desire for power—which will make the new order faulty, and so on and on.
While this isotopy is signified in...
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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 New York) and from his servitude to clock-time and calendar-time. He finds not only the instruments he seeks but also, deep in the jungle, an unexpected "heart of lightness," a world he sees (as do most critics and doubtless Alejo Carpentier himself) as a paradise, a world he eventually loses and to which he will be unable to return.
The narrator's journey is marked, at a few but significant moments, by his feeling that certain overarching laws determine his actions. These moments, as well as the historical reversal itself, suggest that the novel has an allegorical structure. As we shall see, what starts the trip backwards in time looks to him like a fateful occurrence, that is, an event outside of human time. The...
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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 nearly absolute power, as near as might be supposed possible in one man. Unsurprisingly political and military activities comprise the assertion of power and authority in this novel and also provide the series of events which propels the narrative forward. Nonetheless, these activities do not define and shape the novel's primary theme of identity; rather, they provide the background against which this topic is shown. Despite the implications of his title, Carpentier has not written a novel whose main enterprise is to examine the effects of power upon the autocrat who is its protagonist; nor has he examined at any length the consequences for the state, polity or population affected by the concentration of power in this one man. Nor yet does the...
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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 immediate reaction is highly wrought description—the construction of a complex semantic web to make sense of the unknown. This description of the "Tierras del Caballo" emphasizes physicality: the vivid sounds, smells and colours associated with horses and blacksmiths are invoked and also an imagined male rider's display of horse and self for a young woman. These romantic associations lead into a description of the "man" who inhabits this geographical-cumtemporal environment: "En las Tierras del Caballo parecía que el hombre fuera más hombre." And the passage continues through a celebratory characterization of this archetypal "man." His attributes are centred on control of the materials that he works, of the horse that he rides, and of the women...
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Review of The Lost Steps. Atlantic 198, No. 5 (1956): 107-8.
Questions Carpentier's belief in the virtues of primitive society, but asserts that "what is original and exciting about The Lost Steps is the way in which the action, sophisticated introspection, and powerfully evoked atmosphere are skillfully integrated."
Daruwalla, Keki N. "The Shadow of Power: Dictatorship and Human Destiny in the Novels of Marquez and Carpentier." In Garcia Marquez and Latin America, edited by Alok Bhalla, pp. 68-80. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1987.
Compares Carpentier's depiction of dictatorship in Reasons of State to Gabriel García Márquez's approach to the same topic in Autumn of the Patriarch.
Díaz, Nancy Gray. "The Metamorphosis of Maldoror and Mackandal: Reconsidering Carpentier's Reading of Lautréamont." Modern Language Studies 21, No. 3 (Summer 1991): 48-56.
Analyzes Carpentier's critique of the work of Isidore Ducasse, the Count of Lautréamont, in light of Carpentier's own novel, El reino de este mundo.
Emery, Amy Fass. "The 'Anthropological Flaneur' in Paris: Documents, Bifur, and Collage Culture in ¡Ecué-Yamba-O!"...
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