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 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...
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