Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story traces the life of Don Marcial from his death back to his birth. It begins with the impending destruction of his house some time after his death. In twelve more sections, noted by roman numerals, the reader is escorted backward through the stages in Marcial’s life. Each section provides details that typify these stages.
Marcial has already died when an old manservant literally opens the door into the house and the time frame moves to Marcial’s funeral. Continuing to move backward in time, the story tells about his life as an old man, a middle-aged man, married man, young man, teenager, young adolescent, young child, toddler, crawling baby, an infant and, finally, a fetus.
At each stage, several essential characters are introduced who either are appropriate to that stage or serve to indicate the kind of man that Marcial is. For example, at his deathbed is Father Anastasio, his priest and confessor. As a young adult, Marcial makes bold love to Señora de Campoflorido. As a toddler, he plays with his father’s African groom, Melchor.
The totality of the information creates an image of a lusty man who has led a relatively uneventful life. Each rite of passage is celebrated, such as the party given when he becomes an adult. Because the story is told in reverse order, the party is disbanded as he achieves nonadult status or minority.
In the last section, Marcial enters his mother’s womb to become a fetus, and everything surrounding Don Marcial undoes itself into its original form. For example, wool blankets unravel and once more become sheep fleece. Even the grounds where the house once stood return to their original desert state or—as the title indicates—go back to the source.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
According to Carpentier, the story “Journey Back to the Source” was inspired by the baroque splendor of old Havana. Written eleven years after his first novel, this story contains several elements that later germinated into some of the most important topics of Carpentier’s oeuvre. The story is composed of three parts that resemble the musical tempos allegro, andante, and allegro, respectively. The first and the last parts are very short and have many parallels in form. The second part is the longest and relates to backward time travel.
The story begins with a vision of a decrepit urban house that is being demolished by workers. They are somewhat puzzled by the unusual appearance of an old man who answers all their inquiries with incomprehensible sounds. After an extraordinary gesture made by the old man, the house “heals” and the central part of the story begins. The protagonist, Marcial, first appears to be dead and then slowly comes back to life.
Marcial’s backward-progressing life is not narrated for comic effect. His life becomes a return to the origins, a search for the lost, maternal paradise. He is vaguely aware of the backwardness of the process and notices that the clocks in the house signal first five and then four. Marcial feels great pleasure when, after becoming underage, he realizes that his signature no longer carries the burden of responsibility. His ego slowly diminishes and dissolves as...
(The entire section is 411 words.)