Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In the prologue to the original edition of The Kingdom of This World, Carpentier discusses what he calls “Marvelous Realism,” anticipating the vogue for the closely related term Magic Realism, which has been widely used to describe the style that brought the Latin American novel to international prominence in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Only a style that embraces the marvelous, the magical, he suggests, is capable of doing justice to the reality of America, the New World. In the novel itself, although not in the prologue, Carpentier emphasizes the African component in the heterogenous culture of the Americas, linking Marvelous Realism to African traditions.

In The Kingdom of This World, Carpentier continued the exploration of black history begun in such early works as Ecue-Yamba-O! Historia Afro-Cubana (1933) and “El milagro de Anaquille” (1927), a scenario for a ballet. Of Carpentier’s works with a black theme, The Kingdom of This World is clearly his best. Within the context of Cuban literature, his concern with blacks and the theme of slavery is not isolated. The Kingdom of This World is part of a continuum which can be traced from the antislavery narratives of the 1830’s to the literature of the Cuban Revolution. By writing about the lives of an important but marginal segment of Western society, Carpentier brings the history of blacks to the foreground of literature.

Although many critics regard El siglo de las luces (1962; Explosion in a Cathedral, 1963) as Carpentier’s greatest literary accomplishment, Carpentier himself continued to believe in the historical significance of The Kingdom of This World, citing the importance of Mackandal, Bouckman, and the Haitian Revolution for an understanding of Caribbean history and culture. Yet there is no need to choose one novel over the other; indeed, they are best read together: Explosion in a Cathedral is set during the Haitian transition from colony to republic—that is, from 1789 to 1809—and many of the themes developed in that novel are already present in The Kingdom of This World.