Long before the world of letters turned its attention towards the generation of new writers whose inventive narrative structures triggered the so-called “Latin American boom” in the early 1960s, there was already a strong foundation of literary giants spanning from the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío, to the Guatemalan humanist Miguel Anguel Asturias, to the Mexican thinker Octavio Paz – whose influence was to be deeply felt in the literature of the boom and post-boom period. Nowhere in this constellation is the confluence of past and new, of island and continent, of Eurocentric and New World visions more palpable than in the fiction of the monumental Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier (1904 – 1980).
Born in Switzerland from a Russian mother and a French father, Carpentier spent his early life between Paris and La Habana, where he worked as a journalist until 1927, when he was imprisoned for his activism against President Machado’s dictatorship. His surreal-enough escape from Cuba, one year later, carrying the passport of the French Surrealist poet Robert Desnos, has long been source of romantic fables and fantasies. Back in Paris, Carpentier came in direct contact with the competing Surrealist tendencies of André Breton and Georges Bataille. He also discovered an intense affection for Caribbean and Latin American culture, on which he focused progressively more of his attention. Like so many other émigrés before and after him, Carpentier found the core of his identity in his exile.
This attraction for the tropical latitudes of his childhood took him back to La Habana at the break of World War II, and later guided him on a crucial journey into the depth of Haiti, where, in 1943, he discovered the substance of what he would come to call “American Magic Realism.” This visit inspired the first novel of his mature period, The Kingdom of this World (1948), where he recounts through the eyes of a simple slave, Ti Noel, the turbulent struggle for independence and emancipation in the French colony of Saint Domingue, later to become Haiti. From the early days of the uprising of the maroon slave Mackandal in 1757-58, to the revolt led by the Jamaican-born Dutty Bouckman in 1791, to the exploits of Toussaint-L’Ouverture, the invasion by Napoleonic troops, the successful revolution of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the restitution of slavery under the absolute monarchy of Henri Christophe, Ti Noel experiences in his long life more excitement, tragedy, suffering and hope than most people would in about three lifetimes.
However, Carpentier’s narrative style in The Kingdom of this World distinctly sets him apart from the European tradition, as he adopts the perspective of the slave population to make sense of the unfolding events. Hence, a mixture of tribal heritage blended into some form of Christian teachings provides a worldview where nothing, really, is impossible, and where faith becomes the primary engine. Commenting elsewhere about the characteristics of the “American Magic Realism”, Carpentier makes it clear that “for the marvelous to be truly so, it must come together with an unexpected alteration of reality (a miracle).” Therefore, it is closely linked to faith, and it must operate within the specter of the belief that holds it together in order to be effective. Such belief, Carpentier goes on to explain, is what was lacking in the Surrealist experiments that, inevitably, turned predictable and uninteresting on the other side of the Atlantic.
Carpentier’s literary explorations through the 1950s took him to experiment with chronological structures in his quest for novel narrative forms. His collection of short stories War of Time (1953) includes two of his most outstanding tales: “Journey Back to the Source” and “Highroad of St. James”. The first one is a fascinating story in which time passes simultaneously backwards and forwards. Often described as a tale of regression in which the protagonist lives his life backwards, this explanation ignores the clear frame of traditional time keeping within which the episode is inscribed. Parallel time frames recur yet again in “Highroad of St. James”, where a pilgrim on his way to the shrine in St James of Compostela is sidetracked on his journey by the tales of fame and riches he hears from a fellow traveler who has just returned from the New World. No longer a pilgrim, the adventurer embarks on a miserable journey where none of the fortunes promised can be obtained. Upon his return to Spain, the former pilgrim, former adventurer becomes a raconteur of a thousand lies of fame and fortune which he never found in America. However, his talent attracts the ear of a number of people, including a pilgrim on his way to the shrine in St. James of Compostela, who is, of course, himself in prior times.
Carpentier’s extraordinary ability to manipulate time and to understand the complexities that have shaped the New World come together in the final work of his mature period, Explosion in a Cathedral (1962), where he chronicles with astounding accuracy the turn of events that followed the French Revolution from a Caribbean perspective. Using the historical figure of Victor Hugues, originally a trader from Saint Domingue who is sent to Guadeloupe to fight the invading British forces, Carpentier manages to map the contradictory tendencies at play in a Revolution that lost sight of its own goals and that, by default, immersed the distant colonies in its confusion. The results, however catastrophic, fail to stand out in the troubled history of oppression and dissent that Carpentier dates back to the slave revolts of Venezuela and Mexico (XVI century), of Brazil and Jamaica (XVII and XVIII century), of Surinam and Haiti (XVIII century).
Careful to a fault, Carpentier’s writing is often obscured by an excessive attachment to a Baroque aesthetic that sometimes makes him stretch one paragraph through four or five pages. However, his work, chiseled with long-winded descriptions and copious doses of a Magic Realism that doesn’t always pass the test of time, remains one of the cornerstones of Caribbean literary achievement. Because it is in its accomplishments, not in its shortcomings, that the truly remarkable can be found: in his musical ear, and his overwhelming knowledge, in the faithful transcript of the Old and New World mélange that was his life and, most importantly, in his ability to create an alternative reality in his literature – a reality that was close enough to the real world to remain attractive, interesting, educational, and which nonetheless operates according to its own rules, its own laws, and most strikingly, its own time.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON OCTOBER 3, 2009.
ORIGINAL SPANISH VERSION PUBLISHED IN THE NOVEMBER ISSUE OF R.E. LECTURA.