Explosion in a Cathedral

by Alejo Carpentier

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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