The narrator-protagonist of The Lost Steps is to some extent an autobiographical figure. Like his character, Carpentier grew up in Latin America, studied musicology, and found himself trapped by necessity in a large, hostile city, working in an advertising agency. While living in Venezuela in the 1940’s, Carpentier made several trips into the jungle and was awed by the geographical and ethnological richness he encountered there. Carpentier’s protagonist is a man caught between two cultures, between two languages, between “here” and “back there.” His chaotic memories of his earlier life—his childhood, the war, his adulterous courtship of Ruth, his disillusionment with his artistic efforts—confirm and explain the rootlessness that seems to be his identifying characteristic. Although the expedition into the jungle begins as an escape, it soon becomes a pilgrimage to personal and cultural origins. The narrator sees the trip as a new beginning and believes that he is traveling not only through space but also back in time.
Yet he cannot escape the inherent tension between “here” and “back there” that is the heart of the novel. He is unable to express his wonder at the exuberant beauty of the jungle without resorting to allusions to Western culture. Thus a natural rock formation recalls “the world of Bosch, the imaginary Babels of painters of the fantastic, the most hallucinated illustrators of the temptations of the saints,” and finally, “an incredible mile-high Gothic cathedral.” Before he can arrive at Santa Monica de los Venados, he must pass through a series of trials—first, the nocturnal terrors of the jungle and then a cyclone which...
(The entire section is 690 words.)