Explosion in a Cathedral

by Alejo Carpentier

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Alejo Carpentier's Explosion in a Cathedral (or The Century of Lights) is a historical novel set in the late eighteenth century, a period marked by widespread revolution and political turmoil.

The novel tells the story of Carlos, Sofia, and their cousin Esteban, three Cuban Creole children left orphaned after Carlos and Sofia's father dies. Left unsupervised, the children live as they please. They even use crates to turn their home into a complex maze—a child's wonderland shielding them from the political chaos occurring in Havana.

However, their fun ends when the executor of Carlos and Sofia's father's will arrives. Haitian businessman Victor Hugues takes authority over the children and brings an end to their games. Victor is an educated man and a revolutionary, and he teaches the children about the ideologies that are suppressed by the Cuban government.

The arrival of Victor into their lives marks the beginning of the children's journey into adulthood—a journey marked by revolution, enlightenment, and loss. When Victor is threatened with arrest, Sofia suggests that he and his friend Ogé, also a fugitive, hide in the family's home in the countryside. Sofia and Esteban stay with the two men for a time and learn more about politics, liberalism, and civil rights.

Victor and Ogé are forced to flee Cuba, and Esteban and Sofia follow, eager to aid in their revolutionary cause. Their adventures take them around the world, to Haiti, France, and Spain, where they all take part in several revolutions. Victor dies fighting in Cayenne, while Esteban and Sofia die in Madrid fighting against Napoleon's invasion.

Carlos had stayed behind in Cuba to manage what was left of his father's estate. When he learns of Esteban's and Sofia's deaths, he carries on their memory by promoting their revolutionary ideas in Cuba. A wealthy man, Carlos uses his influence to ignite a revolution in Cuba and becomes a leader in the war of independence.

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