Alejo Carpentier

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Alejo Carpentier World Literature Analysis

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The two central themes in Carpentier’s writing are history and Latin American identity. One of the most erudite writers of the twentieth century, Carpentier began his search for Latin American history and identity in European libraries. When, in the early 1920’s, the European avant-garde started looking for non-Western cultural expressions, many Latin American writers turned toward African and pre-Hispanic roots. Carpentier strongly believed that the concept of the marvelous was solely embedded in Latin American reality and that it presupposed a faith—not a religious faith, but a cultural belief. This theory tied in with Carpentier’s endeavors to define the exclusiveness of Latin American identity and went directly against Surrealism’s idea of universalism.

Carpentier, together with many other Latin American intellectuals, was very much under the philosophical influence of Oswald Spengler. According to this German thinker, culture, like nature, goes through four periods in its maturation. Western culture, he claimed, had reached its old age and was declining. On the other hand, the New World, especially in its faith—in sharp contrast with Western reflexivity and consciousness of cultural values—still had not reached its apogee.

The problem for Carpentier was precisely that faith. Being educated in a very traditional European style, he himself was more inclined toward reflexivity. He could not but be an observer, an anthropologist or an ethnographer in Latin America. As soon as he started writing about the “magic” of the New World, he became an outsider who was merely struggling with language in an attempt to translate this magic into a Western order.

Carpentier’s writing also reflects his desire to find the beginnings of culture and civilization. His interest in music led him to research different tonal systems, and his fascination with language made him look for what he called the original language, a language in which the sign and the content were not separate or fragmented. The search for originality led him to search for origins. The failure of this enterprise is described in his best-known novel, The Lost Steps.

Besides being a fiction writer, Carpentier was a theorist of literature. His theory of Magical Realism became part of a well-known style that identifies much Latin American literature. According to Carpentier, the marvelous and the magic are an integral part of reality. All the cultural expressions that European civilization has long tried to suffocate still exist in Latin America: African drums, indigenous rhythms, and non-Western cosmogonies can be detected together with Spanish romances from the sixteenth century. These elements create a natural feeling of the marvelous in Latin America. European Surrealists, on the other hand, had to re-create it artificially in their writing. Carpentier concluded that Latin American culture is by its nature baroque and that it has subverted its European influences since the first moments of colonization.

Carpentier’s style, both in his fiction and in his nonfiction, is extremely elaborate and refined. He is like an architect of language, a builder whose every brick fits perfectly into the narrative. His metaphors are filled with historical, literary, and cultural references. In order to comprehend his writing fully, Carpentier’s reader must know European and Caribbean cultural traditions. Some of Carpentier’s novels are experimental. ¡Ecué-Yamba-O!, for example, contains, besides the narrative, photographs of rituals and of different musical instruments. The Lost Steps follows the biblical book of Genesis in its description of the seven days.

Despite Carpentier’s acceptance of Castro’s regime, Marxist ideology focused on class struggle rarely permeates Carpentier’s writing. Although it does appear in some of his speeches in the 1970’s, his writing is progressive in another sense: It is about the racial diversity of...

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the American continent, and it brings to light the African, indigenous, and Spanish cultural traditions.

“Journey Back to the Source”

First published: “Viaje a la semilla,” 1958 (collected in War of Time, 1970)

Type of work: Short story

The story of Marcial’s life is narrated backward, beginning with his death and ending with his return to the womb.

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 he leaves the world of writing behind him.

The reader becomes aware of how much family and society have influenced Marcial’s identity. Another step in this process of divestiture is the loss of language, which, according to Carpentier, is an artificial, alienating construct. Marcial is overwhelmed by joy as he enters the language of babble. In the end, he is back in his mother’s protective body.

The last segment of the story returns to ordinary time. The workers are amazed to find the terrain of the house completely cleaned up. One of them remembers the somewhat mysterious circumstances of Marcial’s drowning, and the reader is left to wonder if Marcial had anything to do with his wife’s death.

“Journey Back to the Source” is permeated with nostalgia for the past. Glorious colonial architecture is described in detail, and there is a sense that the story is an homage to an aristocratic Cuban class that has vanished. The story also depicts Marcial’s loneliness, unhappiness, and constant feeling of not belonging.

The Kingdom of This World

First published: El reino de este mundo, 1949 (English translation, 1957)

Type of work: Novel

This work is a fictionalized account of the uprising of slaves in Haiti and their struggle for independence.

Carpentier published The Kingdom of This World six years after he accompanied the French actor Louis Jouvet on a trip to Haiti. Carpentier was very impressed by the ruins and stories of the Haitian slave uprisings in the 1700’s and in 1820, the year of the fall of Henri (Henry) Christophe’s government.

This extremely fragmented novel is composed of four parts connected by the awakening of the slave Ti Noel. The novel is preceded by a famous prologue that describes Carpentier’s ideas about marvelous realism, which would become widely known as Magical Realism. Carpentier states that in writing The Kingdom of This World he has followed historical reality in every detail and that his work is a product of extremely rigorous documentation. The purpose of his argument is to show how Latin American history naturally contains magic. His characters in the novel—the wealthy slave owner Monsieur Lenormand de Mézy, the slave Ti Noel, the Jamaican, the slave storyteller Mackandal (who used poison in his rebellion against the French rule in Haiti), the punished confessor Cornejo Brelle, General Leclerc, and the black monarch Henry Christophe—are all historical figures. Carpentier’s hand, however, orders all the scenes in which these protagonists are participating and the book’s marvelous coincidences exist only in fiction. For example, in the novel, many historic events are announced on Sunday and take place on Monday. This, needless to say, has not been corroborated by more factual history.

The novel opens with narration about a slave, Ti Noel, born in Haiti, who learns about Africa from the stories of a much older slave, Mackandal. In a preventable accident, Mackandal loses his hand and becomes virtually useless to his owner. He soon runs away and is presumed to be behind a strange wave of poisonings that strikes the island. The goal of this “Lord of Venom,” who is believed to have supernatural powers, is to liberate the slaves from French colonizers. After four years of clandestine operations, he returns during Christmas and is captured and executed by the French. His people continue to believe, however, that he is capable of changing his form and that he has remained in the kingdom of this world.

The second part of the novel starts about twenty years later. The slave owner Mézy has lost two wives. He becomes involved with an actress, who persuades him to go to Paris. She does not have much success in French theaters, and he starts feeling nostalgic about the island, so they return to Haiti. The colonist starts drinking and the actress relives the memories of her theatrical performances. When the Jamaican starts spreading talk about the French Revolution and its notions of freedom, brotherhood, and equality, Mézy, together with other slave owners, tries to stop him. The rebellion is eventually suffocated, but all the slave owners’ property is destroyed and, more important for the slave owners, the slaves, who represent the working force, are being executed. Although Bouckman is killed, the French are faced with the secret voodoo cult that connects and empowers all the Africans. Mézy, with his slave, Ti Noel, goes into exile and settles in Santiago de Cuba. The second part ends with a description of the arrival of Leclerc, sent to recapture Haiti, and his sensual wife Paulina Buonaparte. The general soon dies and she leaves for Rome.

The third part is set several years later during the rule of Henry Christophe, previously briefly mentioned in the novel as a cook and then a soldier. Ti Noel returns from Cuba. Despite his old age, he is soon drafted and forced to work on building a French-style fortress for Henry Christophe. Although slavery has been officially abolished, Ti Noel’s work is the same. Only the color of his master’s skin has changed. Henry Christophe commits suicide after realizing that he has wrongly identified with European culture and forgotten his African heritage.

In the concluding section of the book Ti Noel witnesses the ascendancy of the cruel republican government, mulattos who will now rule over blacks. Since he has perfected his secret knowledge, he is capable of leaving the kingdom of this world but he decides to stay. The novel ends with a mythical green wind that erases all of his traces but leaves the reader with the possibility that Ti Noel has merely changed his form, and that as a vulture he will continue guarding his people.

The Lost Steps

First published: Los pasos perdidos, 1953 (English translation, 1956)

Type of work: Novel

A musician from a large Western city goes to a primitive region in search of his origins.

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.

After Mouche falls sick he leaves her in a hotel with a recommendation to return to the city. He, however, full of hopes and eager to abandon Western falseness and pretension, enters the jungle, which is described as virginal. He is grateful to his mother for teaching him the language that is now opening a whole new world to him.

In the jungle, the narrator-protagonist meets Rosario, an indigenous woman, whom he perceives as natural and uncontaminated by Western civilization. He falls in love with her and after settling in the valley that he describes as paradise, he believes that he has finally found true happiness. The protagonist’s regression to this secret world, in which Western culture has not made an imprint, has been compared to a return to the tranquillity of the mother’s womb. The similarities between Rosario and the protagonist’s mother add to this idea.

While enjoying the fullness of his identity, the protagonist also locates the musical instrument for which he has been searching. Soon, he senses the desire to write a composition that would represent the culmination of his career. He calls it Threnody and it is intended to be a musical transcription of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). Although Rosario, who believes that he is writing a letter, remarks that there is no post office in the jungle, he continues to write. He runs out of paper and decides that he has to return to civilization and get some. Returning to the world of history and writing, he forever loses his recently discovered world.

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