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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360

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Alejandro Carpentier's Explosion in a Cathedral (Spanish: El Siglo de las Luces) is a commentary on the Cuban Revolution as well as, more generally, a nuanced portrait of the concept of revolution as it is played out among island nations. First published in 1962, the novel follows closely on the heels of the Cuban Revolution, wherein Fulgencio Battista's military dictatorship (which allied itself with US commercial interests) was overthrown. Young lawyer Fidel Castro organized a group to rebel against Battista's rule, which, though surpassed at first, eventually took power in 1959.

Carpentier's novel is, in a way, a defense of Cuba’s contemporary political power. Victor Hugues sought profit via power and was primarily a businessman with similar principles and practices as former Cuban president Fulgencio Battista. A strong supporter of Fidel Castro, Alejandro Carpentier himself was jailed for his political views. Explosion in a Cathedral can certainly be read as a defense of the very recent Cuban Revolution.

Foreign powers, embodied chiefly by the fictionalized figure of Victor Hugues, sought to export revolutionary ideas and activity from Europe to the various islands of the Antilles for their own gain. The novel depicts the relative vulnerability of the islands and their residents, which is represented symbolically by the orphaned children who are seduced by Hugues.

Victor is staunchly opposed to the capitalist monopolies of the United States and Spain and tries to locate merchants for the smuggling of contraband. Though championing egalitarianism, Victor proves his capacity for killing when his enemies are put to death by the guillotine back in France.

The novel suggests that revolution is cyclical. While Victor Hugues is a more complex character than an analog for Battista or Castro, the author highlights this figure to demonstrate how rhetoric can be well-intentioned but misguided. Revolutionaries can be degenerated by a lust for power, and they are not immune to brutal and inflexible policies.

Regardless, Carpentier demonstrates with sympathy and historical accuracy the varied circumstances of Carlos, Sofía, and Esteban. They are representatives of the island natives who dare to rise up and alternately join or challenge those who would lay claim to their nation as an exploitable people.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

Home of Carlos, Esteban, and Sofia

Home of Carlos, Esteban, and Sofia. Havana residence of the three orphaned young-adult members of a prominent, although never named, merchant family. Both the dwelling and the offspring have been neglected by the late father, and in her new role as female head of the household, Sofia decides to refurnish the home completely. The result is a material avalanche of furniture, crockery, books, and musical instruments that turns their living quarters into a labyrinth of stacked packing cases and narrow passageways. Carlos, Esteban, and Sofia move among these as if gingerly exploring a strange new world, while delighting in their random encounters with this profusion of worldly goods.

The bizarre manner in which these mostly European objects are treated, and in particular the many descriptions of how Havana’s heat and humidity lead to the rapid deterioration of the new furnishings, exemplifies the novel’s related theme of the breakdown of meaningful communication between Europe and its New World colonies. Although Carlos, Esteban, and Maria are initially delighted with the imported luxuries that their colonial wealth enables them to buy, they soon tire of this essentially meaningless pastime, and welcome the help of the Haitian merchant Victor Hugues in restoring their family’s place in the world. Subsequent plot developments will provide many additional examples of colonial frustration with an inappropriate imperial heritage, and the novel’s graphic portrayal of Old World materials literally destroyed by New World conditions makes this point with telling immediacy.


*Havana. Capital of colonial Cuba and bustling commercial center where the novel begins. Business activity, and particularly the exchange of raw materials for manufactured objects, is a major component of the novel’s colonial settings. The novel’s characteristic delight in material profusion is here demonstrated by an exhaustive inventory of the family firm’s warehouse that seems to revel in its mounds of salted fish, spices, grains, and many other articles of commerce.


*Paris. Capital of France and center of the French Revolution. Here Esteban and his political mentor Victor, a Haitian businessman turned revolutionary activist, participate in a tumultuous world that sees one day’s dictator become the next day’s victim of the guillotine. The novel stresses the apparent randomness of these events, while visualizing them on a cinematic screen across which surging crowds and impassioned public meetings struggle for dominance.


*Guadeloupe. French-ruled Caribbean island to which Victor is sent as governor, taking Esteban as his chief clerk. Protracted warfare between the incoming revolutionary officials and the old colonial regime, during which Guadeloupe’s capital city is largely destroyed, leads Victor to introduce the guillotine and other aspects of the Parisian terror as a means of defeating his opponents. Although Victor eventually succeeds in establishing his control, the death and destruction that have resulted suggest that European revolutionary methods may not be the best solution to colonial problems.


*Cayenne (ki-EN). Capital of French Guiana on the northeastern coast of the South American mainland. Esteban stops there on his return journey to Havana and is shocked by an authoritarian government that has established its own reign of terror on the Parisian model. Victor is subsequently appointed the colony’s new governor and is forced to implement reactionary French laws that reinstitute slavery and negate the positive accomplishments of the Revolution. When many of the local subjects revolt and flee into the jungle regions inland, their defeat of the military expeditions sent against them again indicates that European practices are not necessarily effective outside their place of origin.


*Madrid. Spanish capital where Esteban and Sofia spend their final days. Initially depicted as a haven from the instability of Caribbean and French societies, the murder of Sofia and Esteban in a riot makes the ironic point that there are no safe havens in a world where change is both inevitable and unpredictable.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 175

Gikandi, Simon. Writing in Limbo. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. This insightful work discusses the work of Carpentier in the context of twentieth century modernism and Caribbean literature.

Gilkes, Michael. The West Indian Novel. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Carpentier’s work is discussed in the larger context of the historical and cultural environment of West Indian literature. Contains a chronology and bibliography.

Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto. Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. Asserts that the core of Carpentier’s fiction lies in the dilemma of what constitutes American history and how to narrate it. Includes a bibliography.

King, Bruce, ed. West Indian Literature. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979. Excellent overview of the major figures of West Indian literature. Compares and contrasts Carpentier’s work with that of other prominent novelists. Contains a bibliography.

Webb, Barbara J. Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. This excellent work examines the use of myth and history in the works of Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant. Contains an extensive bibliography.


Critical Essays