Alejo Carpentier

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Early in his career, Alejo Carpentier (kahr-pehn-TYAYR) published two volumes of poetry: Dos poemas afro-cubanos (1930) and, in French, Poèmes des Antilles (1931). He did not publish poetry after the early 1930’s, though some of his poems, particularly one or two in French, were quite good. Two of his poems from the Afro-Cuban period have been widely anthologized. Carpentier’s nonfiction works include La música en Cuba (1946; Music in Cuba, 2001), Tientos y diferencias (1964), and La novela latinoamericana en vísperas del nuevo siglo, y otros ensayos (1981). Music in Cuba is a beautiful book, combining Carpentier’s mastery as a narrator with a supple descriptive style. His essays in Tientos y diferencias were very influential among critics of the Latin American novel. Carpentier was known both as a writer and as a musicologist. He wrote the scenario for several Afro-Cuban ballets, most notably El milagro de Anaquillé (1928), and innumerable journalistic pieces on music and literature. From 1950 to 1959, he wrote a column on these topics for El nacional in Caracas, Venezuela. Carpentier’s short fiction deals with very large topics and spans of time rather than characters caught in daily existence—about great issues such as causality in history. Guerra del tiempo (1958; War of Time, 1970) is one of the best-known collections of short stories in Latin America as well as around the world.


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It can be safely said that Alejo Carpentier is the father of today’s Latin American fiction. All major Latin American novelists since the mid-twentieth century owe a great debt to him, and many, from Gabriel García Márquez to Carlos Fuentes, have acknowledged that debt. Carpentier had to pay out of his own pocket for the publication of his two early masterpieces, The Kingdom of This World and The Lost Steps, whereas today’s Latin American writers, particularly García Márquez, Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, can command enormous fees for their work. This they owe to Carpentier, who in 1958 was hailed as a master deserving of the Nobel Prize by a critic for The New York Times when most English-language readers had not heard of a single Latin American author.

Carpentier’s major achievement is to have made Latin American history the object of experimental fiction. Before The Kingdom of This World, major works of fiction had been produced in Latin America, as well as very important books of history, but no major prose writer had ventured to use Latin American history as the object of daring experimentation. Jorge Luis Borges had produced great short-story collections, such as Historia universal de la infamia (1935; A Universal History of Infamy, 1972) and above all Ficciones, 1935-1944 (1944; English translation, 1962), and Miguel Ángel Asturias had published, to great acclaim, his Leyendas de Guatemala (1930; legends of Guatemala), based on Mayan myths from his native Guatemala. There had also been great novelists of the pampa, such as Ricardo Güiraldes; of the Mexican Revolution, such as Mariano Azuela; and of the Venezuelan plain, such as Rómulo Gallegos. Carpentier managed to bring together the interests of the regionalist writers (Asturias, Güiraldes, Azuela) with Borges’s penchant for fictional games. The admixture is what has come to be known as Magical Realism, or the description of “marvelous American reality.”

Unlike writers such as Asturias, who in their fiction turned to Mayan or other indigenous Latin American myths, Carpentier focused his attention on the folklore of his native Caribbean, which meant that of Africa. Caribbean history has been shaped by slavery, which provided the workforce for the sugar industry. Several major African religions took root in the Caribbean, influencing art, music, and literature in the...

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region. This was recognized by a group of artists who in the 1920’s founded what came to be known as the Afro-Antillean movement; Carpentier was one of the movement’s founders and promoters. He was originally interested in ritualistic practices and, above all, in Afro-Cuban music. These interests, however, led him to read all he could find about the history of Africans in the New World and eventually led him to their greatest political achievement, the Haitian Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Carpentier discovered that the Haitian Revolution, which toppled the French colonial regime and instituted a black monarchy and later a republic, was the origin of modern Caribbean history. He tells the story of this revolution in his influentialThe Kingdom of This World, one of the great novels of the century in any language.

Carpentier saw that Haitian history, particularly as manifested in the events of the Revolution, was ripe with incredible happenings, if viewed from a purely European perspective. The fusion of African and French customs on the island made for a very discordant and rich mixture that could not be described with thenarrative techniques of the conventional novel. Time seemed to have a different rhythm. Events repeated themselves or were anticipated by apparently chance happenings. Cause and effect seemed to obey a different set of rules. It is the description of such bizarre events and sequels of events that has come to be known as Magical Realism. The term goes back to early twentieth century art, but its conception by Carpentier was influenced mainly by the Surrealists, with whom Carpentier had developed a close relationship in Paris in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

The Kingdom of This World and the stories later collected in War of Time all deal with the problem of time—that is to say, with its representation in fiction. In the novel, time appears as a series of repetitions. History is a tissue of events connected not by causal links but by numerological and metaphoric connections. In one of the most widely anthologized stories from War of Time, “Viaje a la Semilla” (“Journey Back to the Source”), time runs backward, from the protagonist’s death to his return to the womb. In another, “Semejante a la Noche” (“Like the Night”), the same incident is repeated in six different historical moments that are separated by centuries.

It is this sort of experimentation that makes possible novels such as García Márquez’s widely acclaimed Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970) and Fuentes’s Terra nostra (1975; English translation, 1976). In short, Carpentier’s experiments with fiction and Latin American history led to what has been termed the “boom” of the Latin American novel. More than all the prizes that he won (notably the Cervantes Prize in Spain), Carpentier’s most enduring achievement is to have made possible experimentation in Latin American fiction dealing with Latin American history. This brought about an entirely new view of Latin America by its own artists.

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In contact with avant-garde groups in Havana and Paris, Alejo Carpentier wrote poetry as well as opera libretti and texts for other theatrical enterprises in his early years. Involved in publishing, broadcasting, and cinema for virtually all his life, he has contributed hundreds of articles of criticism on literature and the fine arts, especially music, some of which have been republished in book form. He is best known for his novels, which have been widely translated and studied.


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Considered a pioneer and a continuing advocate of the New Novel in Latin America, Alejo Carpentier contributed a steady stream of fiction from the early 1930’s until his death in 1980. His wide scope of interests, which range from politics and botany to the mythology and music of primitive Native American civilizations, is evident in his highly complex novels.

In his famous and influential essay, “De lo real maravilloso americano” (1962; “On the Marvelous Reality of America”), which grew out of the prologue to El reino de este mundo (1949; The Kingdom of This World, 1957), Carpentier provides an alternative to the realistic “nativismo” style then popular in Latin American fiction and describes his theory of the quality of Latin American literature, which depicts a reality infused with magic and myth. In 1977, he was awarded the Cervantes Prize for literature by the Royal Academy of Spain.

Discussion Topics

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What cultural and political obstacles hampered Alejo Carpentier in his attempt to capture the essence of Latin America in his writings?

How did Carpentier’s interest in architecture influence the structure of his literary work?

What information about Carpentier’s work might stimulate greater interest in it in the United States?

Determine whether “Magical Realism” is or is not a self-contradictory literary term.

What are the most important metaphors in The Lost Steps?


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Adams, M. Ian. Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpentier. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975. Examines alienation as a literary theme in the works of María Luisa Bombal, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Carpentier, each of whom modifies traditional literary forms to present different aspects of the theme. Section devoted to Carpentier is subtitled “Alienation, Culture, Myth, and ’Marvelous Reality.’” Includes select bibliography.

Brotherston, Gordon. The Emergence of the Latin American Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Intended as an introduction to the Latin American novel, particularly from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, this is a scholarly work that is also accessible to the general reader. The chapter on Carpentier discusses the historical, cultural, and mythic dimensions of the author’s work. Contains a general bibliography of secondary works on Latin American literature as well as a list of works by and on the major authors mentioned in the text.

Cox, Timothy J. Postmodern Tales of Slavery in the Americas: From Alejo Carpentier to Charles Johnson. New York: Garland, 2001. Analyzes seven works of twentieth century fiction about slavery from a postmodern perspective, describing their uses of irony, narrative structure, and other features. Includes an examination of Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World.

Figueredo, Danilo H. “Beyond the Boom: García Márquez and the Other Latin American Novelists.” Wilson Library Bulletin 69 (February, 1995): 36-40. Notes that although Gabriel García Márquez is the most famous Latin American novelist, many of his predecessors and contemporaries, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, and Carpentier, refined belles lettres and invented a literature that did not wish to duplicate reality; notes that Borges, Rulfo, and Carpentier sought universality and employed experimental literary techniques.

González Echevarría, Roberto. Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home. Rev. ed. Austin: University Press of Texas, 1990. Good introduction to Carpentier’s works presents a sustained consideration of their overall significance, both within the field of Latin American literature and in the broader context of contemporary literature. Addresses the basic questions posed by Carpentier’s fiction as well as the larger theoretical questions about literary modernity and history. Includes bibliography of primary works and select bibliography of secondary works.

Shaw, Donald L. Alejo Carpentier. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Critical overview contains chapters on Carpentier’s apprenticeship, his discovery of the “marvelous real,” his handling of time and circularity, his fiction about the Antilles, his explorations of politics, and his last works. Includes chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography.

Souza, Raymond D. Major Cuban Novelists: Innovation and Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976. Critical study traces the development of the Cuban novel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Carpentier’s work is discussed in the chapter “Alejo Carpentier’s Timeless History.”

Unruh, Vicky. “The Performing Spectator in Alejo Carpentier’s Fictional World.” Hispanic Review 66 (Winter, 1998): 57-77. Argues that Carpentier uses the concept of performance to explore subjectivity and identity, and that he was interested in performance because of his interest in switching identities. Asserts that his theater activity is a key to understanding his fictional world, in which spectatorship is an important way of experiencing the world.

Wakefield, Steve. Carpentier’s Baroque Fiction: Returning Medusa’s Gaze. Rochester, N.Y.: Tamesis, 2004. Traces the origins of Carpentier’s literary style to his interest in Spanish baroque architecture and the Spanish Golden Age. Explains how Carpentier’s historical fiction sought to create the ambience of this period through descriptions of architecture and the visual arts and parodies of Spanish Golden Age writers.

Webb, Barbara J. Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Comparative study of Caribbean literature includes a discussion of marvelous reality and mythological and historical elements in the works of the three writers. Provides analysis of The Kingdom of This World, The Lost Steps, Explosion in a Cathedral, and Concert Baroque.


Critical Essays