Alejo Carpentier’s Latin America: Lost and Found

The master narrator found an ignored Latin America in the “unexpected alteration of reality” of her marvelous time warp.

In the very last pages of his second novel, The Kingdom of this World (1949), Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) voices the fundamental creed that would guide his enormously influential oeuvre in Latin America. “In the Kingdom of Heaven,” reads the passage in question, “there is no grandeur to be won…, all is rest and joy.” Humans, overwhelmed by their own fatality but “capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials,” find greatness “only in the Kingdom of this World.”

Until the end of his life, this gravitational pull toward earthly splendor urged Carpentier never to rest on his laurels. He still awoke each morning as if shoved by a largely unnoticed Latin America whose chimes of magic called upon his tuneful New World Baroque writing style for further discovery and exploration.

Soon he had realized, as a young exile in Paris, that the marvels of the universe were contained in the kernels from which his imagination flowered. His trueness departed from the shores of Cuba, not the trite forest of Broceliande, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin the wizard, nor the Arthurian Cycle of Stories. The monk of sins Matthew Gregory Lewis created, the quenched vices of Sade’s Juliette, and the bloodcurdling English novels may have impressed adherents of Alfred Jarry’s ‘pataphysics, but to Carpentier the drama rang as refashioned lies when compared to the “unexpected alteration of reality” that bulged in the Southern Western Hemisphere.

Silenced Rebel and Creator

Carpentier was the first among the serious fiction authors in Latin America who could secure a living solely out of his book sales, a remarkable feat then notwithstanding an incipient pirate industry that issued his bestselling titles by the hundreds of thousands, translated editions included. Late starters amazed by the acuity of his prose wonder why the elder founder of Latin America’s literary “boom” has remained somewhat muted, sparingly reprinted at most. Critics in the vein of Harold Bloom, for instance, venture to lay the blame on his leftist outlook, a valid assumption inasmuch as Carpentier highlights a historical militancy worth recalling.

In the nineteenth century, Cuba’s National Hero and chief modernist wordsmith José Martí had referred to Latin America as the motherland of revolutionaries who had yet to complete the last stanza of their independence. Carpentier saw how his cultural forebears had inherited a practicable sense of liberty that predated its more abstract Columbian and Encyclopedic conception, which prevailing exploiters likewise opted to neglect.

From the fierce waters of Rio Grande to the icy mists of Patagonia, only Cuba came close to pulling off its unfinished “second independence,” in Martí’s advocacy, and sustained at first among the so-called Third World nations a contagious revolution that Carpentier served until his death as a theorist, editor, diplomat, and cultural radio broadcaster. It would be fair to ask as well if his peerless attempts to find in literature a lost Latin America may have stirred hopeful neocolonialists, hand in hand with deconstruction humbugs of the academic sort, into downplaying his otherwise unshackling appeal.

Fortunate Lost Steps

In 1947, while living in Venezuela, Carpentier—by then also admired for his studies in music—embarked in an excursion along the Orinoco, the river whose superior course snakes its colossal golden water belly into the darkest zones of the country’s Amazonian jungle. He noticed that as he navigated inland against the current, historical time reversed. “After passing by cities whose life was similar to that of the Middle Ages, I drew back, little by little, to the regions inhabited by the Shirishanas and Wapishanas, who are, possibly, the most elemental representation of human life on the planet.”

Marvelous and real, it occurred to him that he could recast the experience in a novel he entitled The Lost Steps (1953). His protagonist, a musical scholar on a research grant, would journey through coruscating intervals of pure Stone Age wilderness while charting afresh a kingdom of values that others had failed to render in their full-fevered majesty.

In the sixteenth century, conquistadors deployed language as an instrument of capture and dominance, but their frustration at naming the elixir of phenomena “never seen nor dreamt before” defeated them. The jungle later devoured the heroes that sought to invigorate a Latin American construct in the nativist novel. No longer in exile, Martí met his death shortly after listening for the first time ever to the “composed and soft music” of the Cuban mountains at midnight.

The main character in The Lost Steps in turn advances farther thanks to a polarity of the highest contrast. He is an intellectual thrill-seeker “stupefied by the life his professional obligations in New York imposes upon him.” As he surrenders to the deepest primal forces, he wises up to the period before humans emerged on earth, the period Carpentier calls the Fourth Day of the Creation.

The Inner Arpeggios of Latin America

When The Lost Steps first appeared, local critics deaf to Latin America’s inner arpeggios berated the dialogless novel. Some claimed it was too densely descriptive, carnal, not in line with the “possible epic” of Latin America. Others missed the boat all together, as did afterwards the now defunct postmodernist janissaries. In an ironic twist perhaps symptomatic of a residual colonial mindset rather than the atavistic influence the French Revolution exerted on Latin America’s own independence, the novel gained regional and worldwide praise when the French, in 1956, awarded it the Best Foreign Book of the Year.

Reading is always an adventure if it fosters enthusiasm for life. The goodness that navigates inwards (which is the original meaning of the term “enthusiasm”) seizes the chance to love when “strange lights lit, and everything acquires a voice.” An epiphany encloses the narrator of The Lost Steps. Straight on, he enters this note in his diary: “One day humans will discover an alphabet in the eyes of chalcedonies, in the dunned velour of the moth, and they will learn with astonishment that each blotchy snail had been, forever, a poem.” There are no second chances, but to love in the face of afflictions and trials, to love, and find greatness, in the Kingdom of this World.

[October 4, 2011]

Top image: Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms by Paul Klee, 1920

Photo: Dominique Souse, 1971