Explosion in a Cathedral

by Alejo Carpentier

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Cuban novelist Alejandro Carpentier's Explosion in a Cathedral (Spanish: El Siglo de las Luces), published in 1862, follows three family members: Sofía and Carlos (brother and sister) and Esteban (their cousin). At the beginning of the novel, the three cohabit in their family mansion (left to them by their deceased father). Victor Hugues, a French revolutionary who has merchant business in Cuba, steps in as a surrogate father and brings them over to his revolutionary cause.


Carlos is the oldest and has revolutionary sympathies but feels compelled to take over his father's retail business. He remains in Havana while his sister and cousin travel around the Caribbean and Europe following Victor Hugues. At the end of the novel, Carlos travels to Madrid, where his sister and cousin died.


Sofía is a well-meaning idealist who falls in love with Victor and consummates their (brief) romantic relationship on a boat from Cuba to Haiti. Though she succumbs to Victor's advances, she is sufficiently aware of the violence caused by revolutionary activity to have misgivings about the cause. She eventually marries a Cuban named Jorge, who dies, leaving her to raise a child alone. She travels to Cayenne to be with Victor after her husband's death, but she abandons him to reunite with Esteban before their death.


Esteban, sickly as a child but vigorous as an adult, is enthralled by Victor's rhetoric. He travels around the Caribbean and then to Paris, but, aghast at the violence taking place there, he resolves to remain on the sidelines of Victor's increasingly brutal regime. Eventually, Esteban returns to Cuba but is subsequently exiled for his revolutionary ties. He dies alongside his sister in Madrid.

Victor Hugues:

Victor Hugues is the primary antagonist of the story. He is a historical figure cast in high relief in Carpentier's fiction. Born in Franch, Victor comes to Cuba allegedly on mercantile business but with fervent revolutionary ideals that lead to his exile from the island (where the Spanish presence is wary of rebellion). Hugues changes from an eccentric, polarizing figure in Cuba (where he meets Carlos, Sofía, and Esteban) to a cruel tyrant when he returns to Paris during the French Revolution. Eventually, Hugues dies in Cayenne (in French Guiana), where he is championing the bourgeois interests and furthering the oppression of the local black population.

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