Alejo Carpentier Carpentier, Alejo (Vol. 8) - Essay

Carpentier, Alejo (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carpentier, Alejo 1904–

Carpentier is a Cuban novelist, short story writer, poet, musicologist, and scriptwriter. A versatile writer whose novels reveal the wide range of his interests, he has been both a pioneer and a continuing advocate of the "new novel" in Latin America. Even though Carpentier has been accused by critics of indulging in stylistic complexities and occasional pretentiousness, he is still considered to be an important writer. After having lived in Paris for many years, Carpentier returned to his native Cuba where he has resided since the revolution. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Getting into the minds of the chieftains of totalitarian power, understanding megalomania from inside the megalomaniac, is a task fiction rarely sets itself. The Hitlers and Goebbelses themselves tend, of course, to abandon any early aesthetic plots for other scenarios, leaving their victims, the Kafkas, to write the novels. And it clearly takes a peculiarly set imagination to press convincingly beyond the victim's view or the mere externalia—the stuff that launches a thousand biographies and histories per decade—actually to inquire what it's like right inside the padded-cell of the dictator's head…. Alejo Carpentier, in an extraordinarily arresting, richly brewed and complexly ordered new novel [Reasons of State] (his first for 12 years), puts up the exuberantly baroque Head of State of a minor Latin American country….

All this might, of course, amount to just another leery look at messy South American politickings in the familiar way of novels from Conrad to Greene. But, noticeably, it's European characteristics and dilemmas that are being scrutinised in Head of State's country: it is a Spanish clime (whose proud rosters of virgins fill pages), its leaders love French and Italian arts and fight on Roman or German models. In Paris, 'over there' means South America, but in the Americas 'over there' means France. And the novel bonds South America and France inextricably together, so eventually it's European reaction that the novel is calling in question. This awareness, however, comes only gradually home to the reader, and summary mustn't imply that these analytically dry bones are all. On the contrary, the writing makes a continually intoxicating bravura, giddying with imaginative inventiveness (who else since Dickens, for instance, would have soldiers vengefully machine-gunning the wax shop-window mannequins during a shopkeepers' strike?), strong on social history, slyly jibing about Catholicism and conservative politics, continuously—page after page after page—enticing. (p. 722)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 28, 1976.

Some writers run against cliché and correct or destroy it; Carpentier surprises because he builds on the stereotype. His book is a fiction about the fiction Europeans and Yankees have created out of Hispanic America. But it is no easy parody of coca-colinization; it is an elaborate entertainment about cultural impositions that are themselves parodic….

Of his several novels, The Lost Steps (1956, published in English in 1967) is considered his masterpiece. Reasons of State, a rather old-fashioned "modernist" novel, suffers from a certain staginess and overcontrivance…. Carpentier's unnamed Head of State—his main character—is a poster figure, motivated mainly by a pragmatic sense of the rough game he plays, and virtually all the other characters are faceless subordinates. Nevertheless, the book is good enough to make me want to read the works that have earned Carpentier his considerable reputation abroad. (p. 15)

With the enumeration of [Parisian] pleasures we are introduced to the first of many long catalogs of smells, tastes, sounds, colors, brand names, literary tags, music, and details of fin de siècle painting and sculpture. Not since Balzac, who is himself mentioned more than once, has a novel been so oppressively furnished….

Carpentier risks the fallacy of imitative form with these tallies of real and imaginary trivia. As Diderot observed, the actor playing a drunken comedian must not himself be drunk. Fortunately, the lists do not get out of control; they are seen, in all their profusion, as the colonizers of Latin America, the agents of distortion and deformity. (p. 16)

Ruth Mathewson, "A Brute of a Life," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), July 5, 1976, pp. 15-16.

While American novel-writing suffers from loss of markets and intellectual decay, the "boom" in South American fiction continues to astound readers the world over with the freshness, energy, and sweep of its products. Out of a dozen or so major authors (Borges and García Márquez are the best-known here), Alejo Carpentier remains the one least recognized in these parts…. Some readers may be put off by Carpentier's displays of learning, an encyclopedism that ranges over anthropology, history, geography, botany, zoology, music, folk and classical, the arts, visual and culinary, and countless forgotten novels and verse—in all an erudition easily rivaling that of Borges….

Carpentier's fiction regularly depicts individuals swept—often against their wishes—into the larger social struggle; they thereby become participants in history and embody the conflicts of their times. Reasons of State, Carpentier's latest work, shows a similar pattern—the protagonist, an unnamed military Dictator, makes history in the 1910s, only to be undone by a new history in the 1920s. Snuggled in his Paris mansion, indulging a slavish love of belle époque France, the Head of State chronically absents himself from his native Nueva Córdoba (a kind of composite of all Latin American nations), leading a life of sex, booze, and "culture," and hobnobbing with puffy aristocrats; an effete monarchist Academician, third-rate opera hacks, Gabriele D'Annunzio, and even (why not?) characters from Proust. Periodically called home to quash (with United Fruit aid) barracks rebellions and an elusive Professor's anarchist crusade, the Dictator always sets sail again for France, where his would-be friends mock his origins—and indeed ditch him when his political massacres, becoming hot news, make him a liability in their salons….

Reasons of State is not a psychological study in tyranny à la O'Neill or Pushkin. Carpentier rather places the Dictator (who is actually something of a cultural-historical caricature) within a broader global process, shows how the petty brutalities of South American politics ultimately interlock with European and, later, U.S. interests, demonstrates how these mustachioed military despots serve as the regional link in a vast world system, one whose specific local manifestations are economic dependency, false prosperity from overseas wars, a servile regard for things foreign (what Mexicans call malinchismo), and of course U.S. military invasions (approximately seventy-five of them in Latin America since 1800). This is no drama of the individual soul, but an imaginative evocation of the material and cultural forces of history.

Unlike Carpentier's previous books, which were a bit on the solemn side, Reasons of State exhibits a new lightness of touch, a wry and rollicking humor—notably in the character sketches. (p. 15)

Reasons of State is something of an uneven book, and therefore not Carpentier at his very best…. Unlike the Dictator's adventures in Paris, the impersonal account of postwar disruptions in Nueva Cordoba reads too much like abstract reportage; whereas France and Francophilia vividly become flesh in a handful of characters, no one figure sufficiently incarnates the economic crisis or the invading Yanks…. (pp. 15-16)

Though lesser Carpentier still comes off a great deal better than most of our novel-writing today, Reasons of State will probably carry little impact here. It treats areas of experience—flowery oratory, slavish Europhilia, foreign military occupation, and one-man rule—profoundly alien to our own political world, which is more one of pious homilies, lofty cultural insularity, invading foreign lands rather than being invaded, and a smoothly-functioning machinery of 100-man rule. Precisely because of these national differences, however, Carpentier's novel (like those of Fuentes or García Márquez) can furnish already-interested Americans more insight into the social dislocations of the Southern continent then many a Yankee Poli Sci professor could. (p. 16)

Gene H. Bell, "Cuba's Alejo Carpentier," in New Boston Review (copyright © 1976 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Fall, 1976, pp. 15-16.