Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425
As the title implies, this novel is fundamentally about loss. The fabled lost civilization that the (nameless) narrator pursues is the tangible manifestation of the theme, but the loss of love and the loss of creative powers are two of the main abstract concepts represented. Misplaced idealism also pervades the book, expressed in characters' desire for the unattainable and disappointment when attaining it proves unfulfilling.
The narrator goes back to his country of birth and tries to reach back into its indigenous heritage. The contrast between old and new forms of society is marked, but even more important is the power of the present to distort the past: dominant classes experience a yearning—an imperialist nostalgia—for idealized old days, when the dominant classes and races occupied positions of easy and unexamined privilege.
Living a complicated life that he increasingly views as inauthentic, Narrator is married to Ruth and has a mistress, Mouche. Attributing his unhappiness to years spent abroad, viewing his adopted country as corrupt and materialistic, and being disgusted with his own role as an ad man, Narrator decides that returning to his home country and his passion for music will set him on the right path again. He further believes that in the ancient city, deep in the country’s jungle, people had once lived more authentically, closer to nature and more in touch with primal forces and authentic creativity. This longing to live in their proximity, with a new lover, and to compose his magnum opus becomes the driving force of his life. Yet living this idyllic life, ironically, depends on civilization’s products—he needs paper on which to write his music.
Narrator is revealed finally as not only unfulfilled—because of others’ actions—but also as the type of person who will never be satisfied. Leaving the jungle and returning once more, he finds that the fragile, illusory world of his own construction has collapsed. Author Alejo Carpentier develops these aspects of the narrator’s character as that dissatisfaction puts him, and the people he loves, in dangerous situations (as an example, Mouche contracts malaria). But Carpentier also reduces the narrator’s individuality. The fact that he is unnamed supports this analysis. He could be an archetype, or even a caricature, of the unfulfilled modern man. The reader suspects all along that things will not turn out well for narrator; either he has set for himself an impossible task, like a Quixotic hero, or he is at the mercy of the fates, like the Prometheus in his musical work.