The events of the story occur in a single day, but it is a day that takes more than two thousand years to be completed. The main character, who is also the narrator, is going through an ancient ritual for young men: leaving his homeland for war and conquest. In this traditional situation, the narrator undergoes several obligatory encounters. He says farewell to each of his parents, his fiancé, and friends; gets drunk on his final evening at home, then boards the boat in the cold light of day to leave his country.
Alejo Carpentier divides the story into five numbered sections, each of which advances the action while transposing it to a different place and time. The movement of the story is circular, however, beginning with the preparations for the Trojan War in section 1, moving to phases of the Spanish exploration and conquest of the New World in sections 2 and 3, and to a sort of hybrid of World War I and World War II in sections 4 and in section 5 returning to the initial scene.
A note blown on a conch announces the arrival of King Agamemnon’s fifty black ships, come to take the Achaean troops to Troy. Instantly, as if that note were the beginning of a vast symphony, the scene comes noisily to life. Those who had been waiting for many days begin to carry the wheat toward the ships, the ships scrape the sand with their keels, the Mycenaean sailors try to keep the Achaeans away from the ships with poles, and children run about, hindering the soldiers’ movements and stealing nuts from under the oarsmen’s benches.
The narrator finds the scene disillusioning. He expected a solemn ceremony celebrating the meeting of two groups of warriors, not this pandemonium in which the leading citizens could not make their speeches of welcome. He withdraws from the beach and sits astride a tree branch because it reminds him of a woman’s body. The sexual theme, here a consolation for his vague sense of disappointment, will later become a source of frustration for him. The suggestion of disappointment is readily dispelled, however, by attributing it both to fatigue from waiting all night and to a hangover. His pride and sense of superiority return when he reflects that he and the other soldiers...
(The entire section is 907 words.)