Alejo Carpentier Carpentier, Alejo (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carpentier, Alejo 1904–

Carpentier is a Cuban novelist, poet, short story writer, editor, journalist, librettist, and composer. His wide scope of interests, which range from politics and botany to the mythology and music of primitive Indian civilizations, is evident in his highly complex novels. His variety, coupled with his concern for time, has brought critical comparison with Jorge Luis Borges. Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps) is one of his best known works. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Helmy F. Giacoman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

El Acoso, in addition to its many virtues as a novella, is a rare successful attempt meaningfully and consistently to represent in a literary work the complex structure, tone, and rhythm of a specific musical work (Beethoven's Eroica). (p. 103)

Both works of art represent radical creative departures for Beethoven and Carpentier. The Eroica is a symphony that revolutionized symphonic structure—the continuous and organic mode of connecting the second subject with the first, the introduction of episodes into the development, the extraordinary importance of the Coda, are all complete departures from previous musical tradition. In "El Acoso," also, we have an intensification of a highly technical structure, plot, and presentation of characters. Carpentier's deep knowledge of music seems to have led him to adapt many of Beethoven's musical techniques. He succeeds, as did Beethoven, in creating a work whose emotional impact is enhanced, rather than overwhelmed, by intricate technical complexity. If we were to choose a common characteristic in the structural and thematic elements of both works, we would have to say that both represent great examples of the mystery that is the dialectic of art: the wedding of simplicity and complexity.

Carpentier has succeeded in reproducing the symphony on at least three different structural levels that are ingeniously related through characters and style. On the first level, an orchestra is presenting the Eroica itself in a concert hall; this playing of the Eroica is the dramatic focus of the story. The two main characters, El Acosado and El Taquillero, listen to it and comment, and the music is described as it is performed. On the second level, the various themes of the symphony are psychological stimuli for the personal associations of El Acosado, who, as he listens to the concert, experiences flashbacks of episodes that occurred to him as he hid in the tower. (pp. 103-04)

Thus El Acosado feels nausea in the concert hall, not purely from fear, but because once when he was on the roof, he drank warm water that made him vomit and at that moment the Taquillero was playing that portion of the symphony. Carpentier has used a Pavlovian notion to help achieve a unique association, by way of music, space, and time.

On the third level we have the structure of the short novel itself, which is organized to correspond to the symphonic movements. Both action and characters seem to follow the motifs and themes of the music. We can see that even the rhythmic patterns of words follow important musical rhythms at appropriate points in the story. (p. 104)

Both works are portraits of heroism, the Eroica of Napoleon and "El Acoso" of El Acosado. The first movement of the Eroica is certainly a section of grandeur and the beginning is the high point…. [The] animating soul of the whole movement is ushered in by two great staccato chords of E flat from the full orchestra. (pp. 104-05)

Carpentier begins his story by equating the appearance of El Acosado with the heroic theme. Just as the symphony is dedicated to the heroism of Napoleon, the story centers around El Acosado as a modern hero on a smaller scale. Both have joined revolutionary movements that seek to change the structure of society, bring justice for all, and create a better world in which to live. In the same way that Napoleon's very efforts to achieve these ends brought his downfall, El Acosado suffers the same fate as his victims and is finally humbled by defeat. Technically, the author of the story uses two words to correspond to the initial E flat staccato chords, which begin the heroic theme: "One," and "Anywhere". To the triple variation of these chords corresponds the physical presentation of El Acosado and his two pursuers. The strings follow the first heroic motive with the second theme, that of El Taquillero. (p. 106)

As the orchestra plays the heroic theme, El Acosado parallels the same effect by his utterance of the Credo. Just as the orchestra leads us to seek new keys and new subjects, the story also introduces to us several characters. The most important of these is El Taquillero, who appears...

(The entire section is 1743 words.)

Alexander Coleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From the point of view of strictly revolutionary literary ethics ["Explosion in a Cathedral"] was a curiously evasive achievement, dramatizing as it did the contradictory allegiances between private sensibility and public ideology. The two principal characters found themselves driven either toward a lucid, contemplative humanism or a draconian revolutionary spirit formed under the inevitable shadow and example of Saint-Just. Though it was set in the Antilles of the 18th century, most readers took the setting for what it is—pure Zanuck cum Goldwyn. "Explosion in a Cathedral" was the book of a writer who found himself to be an ambiguous if not anguished witness to the first years of a revolution in the here and now….

["Reasons of State"] is variously set in the Paris of the teens and the twenties, and at the same time in a mythical country of a distinctly Central American stripe called Nueva Córdoba…. The declining tyrant (who remains nameless throughout) seems to be modeled on a few of those horrific dictators of the past—the "educated tyrant," as Carpentier calls them….

In the long and not especially interesting history of literature and revolution, one thing can be said—politics and comedy rarely mix. Carpentier's earlier novels and stories were often pretty heavy going, what with their tiresome philosophizing and heavily laid-on historical panoplies. "Reasons of State" is something different—a jocular view of imaginative idealism, repressive power and burgeoning revolution, all done with breezy panache. Once again Carpentier has shown how canny and adept a practitioner he can be in mediating between the many realms which his own life has touched upon. (p. 51)

Alexander Coleman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1976.

Gregory Rabassa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carpentier digs into the past; it almost seems as if he cannot get away from it, even in his novel The Lost Steps, which is contemporary in time but is really a search for origins—the origin first of music and then of the whole concept of civilization. Taken together, the elements of the search form a mosaic of the factors that went into the making of Latin America….

Heretofore, the analysis of Latin America, with a few exceptions, has been either superficial or an exercise in patriotics. Carpentier has looked deeper, always keeping a historical perspective. He is particularly attuned to the French influence, which other authors have too often neglected—except as a cliché. Haiti and the French pirates of the Caribbean have been the subjects of two previous Carpentier novels, Explosion in a Cathedral and The Kingdom of the World. In this new novel, too, although it deals with a Latin American dictator, the French element is important, since the tyrant is an ardent Francophile and the novel begins and ends in Paris….

Carpentier's dictator in Reasons of State is a polished man. He is … an admirer of things French and the culture of Paris….

As is so often the case with the well-written story of an ogre, the reader will, upon entering the mind and feelings of the dictator, come to sympathize with him and wish him well as he confronts his enemies. It is the actual...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Paul West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What a spacious, noble view of fiction [Carpentier] has, proposing not chemisms, the darkling plain, the long arm of coincidence, the involuntary memory, the absurd,…, but a vision of the horn of plenty forever exploding, forever settling in bits that belong together more than they don't because there is nothing else for them to do. In Carpentier the All and the One remain unknown, and suspect even, but the aggregate of the Many, gorgeous and higgledy-piggledy, does duty for them, never construable but always lapped up. (p. 5)

Carpentier is a master of both detail and mass, of both fixity and flux. With none of Beckett's reductive extremism, little of Joyce's word-smelting multiplicity, he...

(The entire section is 858 words.)

Alan Cheuse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Some] readers may have … decided that indeed the reasons for Carpentier's failure to capture an audience here are those same reasons put forth by the earliest reviewers: that his fiction is too "erudite," that he is more a "cultural historian" than a novelist,… or that he is a "tiresome philosophizer."…

One may quarrel with some of these negative views, but on the question of the absence of a substantial audience for the novelist's work, one flails about like a ghostfighter, firing at shadows, starting at the slightest sound in the woods. What makes the U.S. reading audience so obligingly ignorant of Cuba's greatest novelist? Perhaps the answer does lie in the books themselves. Certainly...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Latin America has long worn two conflicting masks. One expresses charm, gaiety, sentiment, a mood of comic opera and a long-running belle époque. The other suggests torture, massacres, tyrants, and endlessly trampled constitutions. Are the masks connected? Is the first a consolation for the second? Does the second rely on the frivolous complicity of the first?… [A tyrant in Carpentier's Reasons of State] thinks of Latin American history as an unreal suspension of time….

[The novel questions how tyrants are] able to make themselves so needed, and more important, how is a country to do without them, and to keep their future avatars from coming back? They are the malign royalty of a...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Roberto GonzáLez EchevarríA

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


In Carpentier, as in most modern literature, allegory rests on the possibility of carrying the permutations [of allegory] further, to an idea of transcendence that is itself fictional and changeable. That movement away from each metaphor or conceit (the system of ideas to which allegory refers, and more specifically that movable center on which it rests) occurs at the very moment when the implications of a given philosophy threaten the fictionality of the text, by upsetting the balance of the dialectical play.

The plot in Carpentier's stories always moves from exile and fragmentation toward return and restoration, and the overall movement of each...

(The entire section is 6603 words.)