Alejo Carpentier (kahr-pehn-TYAYR) was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1904. His father was French and his mother was of Russian origin, and they had emigrated to Cuba two years before their son’s birth. Carpentier was bilingual in both French and Spanish, but people who knew him say that he pronounced Spanish with a very strong French accent and that he felt more comfortable communicating in French, which was the language spoken in his household. His parents were wealthy; they had a spacious house with an excellent library where their son studied. He went to private schools in Cuba but he also spent long periods in Paris, which helped him compare and contrast Latin American and European cultural values. Carpentier wanted to continue his father’s business and he started studying architecture, but after his father unexpectedly abandoned the family, Alejo quit the university and went into journalism. He turned out to be an excellent writer and a very talented editor. During those years he also showed great interest in Afro-Cuban culture, especially music, and soon wrote and produced several ballets, comic operas, numerous conference articles, stories, and poems.
The 1920’s in Cuba were turbulent. It was the youngest of all Latin American republics; only in 1898 had it gained independence from Spain. That same year, however, the United States occupied Cuba; this occupation lasted until 1902. Thereafter, the United States regularly intervened in Cuban affairs and in 1925 it strongly supported the rise of President Gerardo Machado, a dictator.
Carpentier became involved with the opposition, and in 1927, he was put in jail for more than a month for signing an antigovernment manifesto. After that experience he escaped from Cuba using a friend’s documents, flew to Paris, and stayed in the French capital for the next eleven years. Between 1928 and 1939 he...
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