The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, a composer and music theoretician now writing for films and advertisements. Despising his job, bored with a marriage that is only a convenience, and unable to create anything worthwhile, he is terrified at the prospect of a vacation, which will force him to confront the sterility of his existence. Luckily, an old friend, the curator of a museum, offers him a reprieve by asking him to travel to South America to acquire some primitive instruments. The six-week journey completely changes the narrator’s life. As he travels into an increasingly primitive environment, his own modern alienation gradually slips away until he feels at one with his world. He begins to compose again and finds a woman whom he admires and loves; he vows to remain forever in the primitive settlement where he has found peace. Compelled, however, by outside forces and the pressure of his music, he does leave but insists that he will return immediately. In the city, he is delayed by legal and financial difficulties. When he finally does return, he finds the doors to his happy life closed. He ruefully then starts another journey back to civilization, realizing that an artist must travel with time, not against it.


Mouche (muhsh), an astrologist, the narrator’s French mistress. Priding herself on her artistic sensibilities and modern and progressive ideas, Mouche has intellectual pretensions and superficiality that are stripped away by the authenticity of the jungle. Unable to tolerate her any longer, the narrator takes advantage of her illness to send her away....

(The entire section is 659 words.)