Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Lost Steps narrates a journey, through space and back through time, to the most remote origins of Latin American history. The novel, which is written in the first person, can be read as a diary kept by the unnamed narrator-protagonist as he flees mechanized civilization in search of a more primordial existence. The dated entries which provide the basic structure for the novel are augmented by the narrator’s fragmented recollections of the past and his meditations on art, culture, and history.
As the novel begins, the narrator is surveying the set of a long-running play about the antebellum South; in this play, his wife, Ruth, has a leading role. The play is a resounding commercial success despite its banality, and as he surveys the soiled costumes and the dwarf magnolias the narrator is overcome by boredom and loneliness. Once a promising young composer and musicologist, he now prostitutes his talents in an advertising agency. Neither the automatic nature of his weekly sexual relations with Ruth nor the frenetic, pseudo-intellectual gaiety of Mouche and her friends can satisfy him. Every aspect of his life seems mechanical and uninspired. Faced with the beginning of a three-week vacation, he feels empty and disoriented.
A chance encounter with his old friend and employer, the Curator, whom he has not seen for several years, presents the narrator with a unique opportunity. The Curator reminds him of his earlier work on primitive instruments and of his theories on the origins of music and asks him to travel to South America during his vacation to acquire a number of indigenous clay instruments for the museum. The narrator initially rejects the offer, but finally Mouche convinces him to go, announcing that she will accompany him.
The second chapter opens with their arrival in an unspecified South American city. The central role that geography will play in the novel becomes more explicit. The narrator hears once again the language of his childhood and is haunted by memories of his early years. In these new surroundings...
(The entire section is 843 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Lost Steps is a novel about an anonymous musician who has origins, as does Carpentier, in two different cultural traditions. The musician has a European father and a Latin American mother. This duality creates an identity conflict that he tries to resolve by going back to his mother’s land. The novel is written in a form like that of a confessional diary. This emphasizes the existential crisis and loneliness of the anonymous protagonist.
From indications in the novel’s diary entries, critics have concluded that the novel is set in 1950. In the conclusion, Carpentier explains that the action occurs in Venezuela, around the river Orinoco, and that several characters and episodes are real.
The protagonist of The Lost Steps lives in a Western metropolis with his wife Ruth, who is an actress, and his lover, Mouche. Although neither of them makes him feel happy, he decides to take Mouche with him on a research trip in the jungle. The scientific reason for his journey is to locate a very primitive musical instrument. They leave civilization and very soon all the artificiality of his lover is revealed. Her makeup is dissolving in the heat of the tropics and he is disgusted by her inability to adapt to the new circumstances. He, on the other hand, is delighted and feels reborn because he is able to communicate with people in his mother tongue. This is the beginning of the protagonist’s search for origins.
(The entire section is 510 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Echevarría, Roberto González. Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. Explores what seems like a radical disjunction between Carpentier’s fiction and nonfiction. Echevarría finds unity, however, in certain recurring themes, which he illuminates by discussing Carpentier’s debt to writers such as José Ortega y Gasset and Oswald Spengler. The novelist’s penchant for dialectical structures and for allegory is also explored. Includes a bibliography and index.
Harss, Luis, and Barbara Dohmann. Into the Mainstream. New York: Harper and Row, 1966. Includes a chapter often cited as a succinct introduction to Carpentier’s work up to the early 1960’s.
Janney, Frank. Alejo Carpentier and His Early Works. London: Tamesis, 1981. An introductory survey that is still useful.
Kilmer-Tchalekian, Mary. “Ambiguity in El siglo de las luces.” Latin American Literary Review 4 (1976): 47-57. An especially valuable discussion of Carpentier’s narrative technique and handling of point of view.
King, Lloyd. Alejo Carpentier, Caribbean Writer. St. Augustine, Fla.: University of the West Indies Press, 1977. Often cited for its perceptive introduction to Carpentier’s work.
Shaw, Donald L. Alejo Carpentier. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Chapters on Carpentier’s apprenticeship, his discovery of the “marvelous real,” his handling of time and circularity, his fiction about the Antilles, his explorations of politics, and his last works. Includes chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography.
Souza, Raymond D. Major Cuban Novelists: Innovation and Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976. Should be read in conjunction with Harss and Dohmann.