Alejo Carpentier 1904–1980
Cuban novelist, short story writer, poet, musicologist, librettist, composer, essayist, and journalist.
The following entry presents an overview of Carpentier's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 11, and 38.
Alejo Carpentier is a critically acclaimed novelist and musicologist in his native Cuba, but his work is just beginning to gain recognition in North America and the rest of the world. His "magical realism" writing has influenced a number of better-known Latin-American writers including Gabriel García Márquez. A writer of varied interests and learning, Carpentier infuses his novels and short stories with references to music, history, politics, science, art, mythology, and other subjects. His novels are characteristically complex and detailed, particularly when describing the lush settings and exotic cultures of Latin America.
Alejo Carpentier was born on December 26, 1904, in Cuba. His father, Georges Carpentier, was French, and his mother was Russian. The family was quite affluent and traveled extensively in Europe during Carpentier's childhood. For a time, the family settled in Paris where Carpentier studied at the Lycee Jeanson de Sailly and learned to speak French fluently. While a teenager, Carpentier moved with his family to the countryside outside of Havana. He was asthmatic and spent most of his time at home, writing and reading. In Cuba, Carpentier attended the Colegio Mimo and then Candler College, where he organized music concerts and wrote music reviews. He studied architecture at the Universidad de la Habana until his father abandoned the family; Carpentier then quit school to work and help support the family. Carpentier began writing articles for local magazines and newspapers and eventually became the chief editor for Carteles, an avant-garde weekly magazine. In the 1920s, he became involved in revolutionary political activities against the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales, and was sent to prison for seven months in 1927. It was while he was in prison that he began writing his first novel, ¡Ecué-Yamba-O!, which was published in 1933. After his release from prison, Carpentier was involved in a series of musical projects, including organizing concerts and composing music for ballets. In 1928 Carpentier again came under the suspicion of the Cuban government and fled to Paris where he spent the next eleven years working as a journalist and activist in the anti-fascist government. Carpentier returned to Cuba in 1939 and became the editor of the journal Tiempo Nuevo. He also worked for Cuban radio stations and as a musicologist for Cuba's National Conservatory of Music. He was divorced from his second wife in 1939 (his first marraige had left him a widower), and in 1941 he married a third time. He traveled to Haiti in 1943 and became fascinated with the country and its leader, Henri Christophe. The visit inspired the novel El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World; 1949). Carpentier moved to Venezuela in 1945 and opened an advertising agency with a friend. He remained in Venezuela until Fidel Castro, whom he supported, came into power in Cuba in 1959. He served as the Cuban cultural attaché to France and continued to write until his death on April 24, 1980.
Carpentier was influenced by surrealism, although he later split with the movement. His later work is referred to as "magical realism," derived from his term "lo real maravilloso" ("the marvelous real"). This technique influenced a generation of Latin-American writers. "Baroquism" is another term applied to Carpentier's style, referring to his abstruse vocabulary and the influence of music on his writing. Ecué-Yamba-O! shows the influence of surrealism on Carpentier's writing. The novel depicts the lives of black Cubans, including their magical folklore, rituals, and ceremonies. The novel also portrays the struggle of rural blacks to make their living from the land and includes a condemnation of the Machado government. The Kingdom of This World focuses on the magical country of Haiti and its legendary king, Henri Christophe. The novel shows how black slaves used their folklore to survive the inhumane treatment of their white masters. Carpentier used several of his recurring techniques in this novel, including history, time dislocations, free associations, and mythical allusions. Los pasos perdidos (1953; The Lost Steps) is considered by many to be Carpentier's masterpiece. The protagonist is a musicologist who travels to the jungles of Orinoco searching for ancient musical instruments. While there, he discovers a native group and becomes enchanted with their primitive lifestyle: He believes that he has found the origins of music. Carpentier's blending of the harmonious elements of the natural world and indigenous peoples with the technological focus of the modern world parallels the blending of the European and native worlds seen in most Latin-American cultures. Music played an important role in many of Carpentier's works and often provided the structure of his novels, including La consagración de la primavera (1979), reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and El acoso (1956; Manhunt, Noonday), which was modeled on Ludwig van Beethoven's Eroica Symphony No. 3. Concierto barroco (1974) again follows Carpentier's interest in historical America and the role of music in culture. Carpentier based the novel on Antonio Vivaldi's opera Motezuma, but also drew on a variety of historical and literary sources. El arpa y la sombre (1979) employs Carpentier's main techniques: a blending of history and fiction; manipulation of time sequences; and symbolic language. The story centers on Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World and portrays the impact of the mythological and natural lushness of Latin America on the European sensibility. Throughout his career, Carpentier also wrote several books on musical theory and history, including La música en Cuba (1946), and essays on literature collected in several books including Literatura y conciencia política en América Latina (1969).
Many reviewers mention Carpentier's unique portrayal of time. Frances Wyers Weber said, "In El acoso, perfectly real and even ordinary events appear in such a way as to suggest that both for the author and his hapless protagonist, time and causality are purely phenomenal, without meaning in view of a fixed dramatic scheme." Critics also point out the way in which Carpentier builds fictional worlds on a foundation of historical fact. David H. Bost discussed Carpentier's Concierto barroco and his blending of history and fiction, asserting, "Carpentier's text, as expected, negates the formation of a singular historical truth. Instead he is more interested in exploring the dimensions of artistic truthfulness." Some critics complain that Carpentier's display of scholarship is excessive, but others consider this density a vital part of his craft. Florinda F. Goldberg stated, "To put it bluntly, in order to enjoy all the beauty of [Kingdom of This World], the reader has to know as much of history, religion, ethnology, music, art, and literature, as the author does. In this sense, undoubtedly, Carpentier is a writer for elites."