Alejo Carpentier 1904-1980
(Full surname Carpentier y Valmont) Cuban novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. See also Alejo Carpentier Criticism (Volume 8), and Volumes 11, 110.
A respected musicologist during his lifetime, Carpentier was the premier Cuban novelist of his generation and an influential presence in Latin-American letters. A versatile writer and scholar, he infused his writings with references to music, history, politics, science, art, and the mythology of primitive indigenous civilizations. Carpentier both pioneered and advocated the development of the Latin-American "new novel," or "anti-novel," an avant-garde form devoid of traditional narrative techniques and characterized by vaguely identified characters, casually arranged chronology, and ambiguous meaning; he also practiced what today is referred to as "magic realism," a hallmark of Latin-American narration whereby ordinary experience is explained in extraordinary terms. Some critics have found Carpentier's work overly complex and pedantic, yet others have claimed that its dense structure is a vital part of his art. While Carpentier is perhaps best known for the novel Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps), he also wrote short stories recognizable for their emphasis on illusion and distortion of time. For these reasons, Carpentier's tales often are compared to those of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Born in Havana to parents of French and Russian descent, Carpentier attended the University of Havana and worked as a freelance journalist until 1924, when he became editor of the magazine Cartels. Briefly imprisoned in 1927 for signing a manifesto opposing the regime of the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales, Carpentier fled to France in 1928. In Paris, Carpentier discovered the surrealist works of André Breton and Louis Aragon and contributed articles to the journal Révolution surréaliste. Between 1928 and 1939 Carpentier worked at Foniric Studios, where he produced and directed arts programs and audio recordings. Meanwhile, he published the novel he had begun in prison, ¡Ecue-Yamba-Ó, an account of Afro-Cuban political struggles and folklore, as well as the short story "Histoire de lunes" ("Tale of Moons"), which appeared in the journal Cahiers du Sud. After returning to Havana in 1939, Carpentier worked for a local radio station, where he wrote and produced radio shows, and taught music history at the National Conservatory until 1943, when he left Cuba for the second time. During the 1940s and 1950s he lived in self-imposed exile, traveling to Haiti, Europe, the United States, and South America. In 1949 Carpentier published El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World), a historical novel based on the career of the early nineteenth-century Haitian leader Henri Christophe. It was followed in 1953 by the novel The Lost Steps, which many consider his masterpiece. While exiled, Carpentier also wrote the bulk of his short fiction, including the story "Los fugitivos" ("The Fugitives"), published in the journal El nacional, the novella El acoso (Manhunt), and the story collection La guerra del tiempo (The War of Time). Carpentier returned to Cuba after Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959. From 1960 to 1967, he held a supervisory position at the Cuban Publishing House, issuing another highly acclaimed historical novel, El siglo de las luces (Explosion in a Cathedral), as well as Tientos y diferencias, a collection of essays on cultural and literary themes. In 1966 Carpentier was named the cultural attaché to France, serving at the Cuban embassy in Paris until his death in 1980.
Acknowledged for an understated and enigmatic tone rarely seen in his novels, Carpentier's short fiction focuses on themes concerning voyage and discovery, exile and return. Manhunt, which is structured after Beethoven's "Eroica," consists of the interior monologues of two men, an unnamed ticket-taker and a man who turns out to be the target of the "manhunt" of the title. The latter figure is an idealistic revolutionary activist who unwittingly became the paid assassin of a crime syndicate. After informing on them during questioning by the authorities, he slips inside the orchestra hall to hide. Manhunt concludes with a report of the hunted man's execution. In "El camino de Santiago" ("Highroad of St. James") a seriously ill, sixteenth-century peasant boy makes a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a shrine of St. James in Spain, where he regains his health. When his religiosity fades, he turns greedy and seeks his fortune in the New World, only to meet with poverty and unhappiness. "Viaje a la semilla" ("Journey Back to the Source") begins with the demolition of a Spanish nobleman's mansion, but flows into the past as the nobleman reviews his life. "Semejante a la noche" ("Like the Night") relates the feelings and thoughts of an unnamed soldier about to depart for an anonymous war. The English-language edition of The War of Time includes "Right of Sanctuary," which humorously recounts how a deposed South American government official, who sought asylum in a foreign embassy, eventually becomes that foreign nation's ambassador to his own former government, replacing the man who had granted him asylum. Also included is "The Chosen," in which five different Noahs sail five different Arks as a fleet upon the Flood, only to disperse once the waters ebb. Richly anachronistic, Concierto barroco, which is set in both the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, follows the journey of a Mexican aristocrat and his African slave to Venice for its pre-Lenten carnival, where they pass time with the baroque composers Vivaldi, Scarlatti, and Handel. Along the way, this group picnics in a cemetery, where modern composers Wagner and Stravinsky are entombed. The slave then takes a train to Paris to hear Louis Armstrong play a jazzy rendition of a baroque concerto. This novella underscores Carpentier's proposition that music ignores the constraints of time, place, and tradition.
Although recognized throughout Latin America as a major writer and influential literary figure, Carpentier has failed to attract similar notice from the North American reading public. Like that of his longer fiction, the thematic diversity of his short fiction has both fascinated and repulsed critics. For most scholars of Latin American literature, Carpentier's stories epitomize his concept of lo real maravilloso ("the marvelous real"), particularly with reference to the unusual or unexpected ways his texts treat the passage of time and the role of art in society. "Music and time are interwoven in the structure of his works," observed Sonia Feigenbaum, adding, "He uses both themes in a somewhat unconventional manner in order to unravel his concept of Latin American identity and his constant obsession with the search for it." A great deal of critical effort has been directed toward demonstrating how Carpentier "translates" the musical form of Beethoven's "Eroica" into the narrative of Manhunt. Lindsay Townsend suggested that the symphony "is the means by which Carpentier points out once more the chasm between the images of art and the reality of twentieth-century life . . . a constant reminder of the inefficacity of an art cut off from its roots." Steven Boldy, on the other hand, asserted that "the model of music (Carpentier's second profession) and that of architecture (the profession of his father) are rarely used simply as models but rather stand as a metatextual image for the phenomenon of using models or other texts to order, and make sense of, experience or data." Because Carpentier usually combined the aesthetic concerns of many cultural traditions and eras, his themes often illuminate broad social issues regarding cultural identity. Roberto González Echevarría explained that "the plot in Carpentier's stories always moves from exile and fragmentation toward return and restoration, and the overall movement of each text is away from literature toward immediacy . . . [and] a constant return to the source of modern Latin American self-awareness."