Literature and Revolution

-by Fernando Alegria-

translated by D. Ohmans
(c) copyright 1997

Text imprint - Mexico City, Fondo de Cultura Economica, (c1970)

                           Table of Contents

       I.    Literature and Revolution
       II.   Portrait and Self portrait:
             The Hispano-american Novel Confronted with Society
       III.  "Der Zauberberg" in the Literature of Latin America
       IV.   Miguel Angel Asturias, Novelist of the Old and the
             New Worlds
       V.    Alejo Carpentier:  Magic Realism
       VI.   Rayuela:  or, Order out of Chaos
       VII.  Cesar Vallejo:  The Mestizo Masks
       VIII. Parra anti Parra
       IX.   Anti-literature
       X.    Antipoetry

Chapter 5 - Alejo Carpentier: Magic Realism

     I should confess that, before the year 1950, the name, Alejo Carpentier
stimulated in me a humorous remembrance of certain intense literary encounters
during my university years in Chile. Down there around 1934 or 1935 we received
his novel, "Ecue-Yamba-O, Historia afrocubana" and, momentarily, it illuminated
us. Resembling a gust of passionate folkloric currents, with something of
popular emotion and almost, almost revolutionary, his work brought dragging
along all that was crass and false in a Cuban pseudo-tradition after the
Spanish gypsies that had been indifferently sustained by critics who, confusing
literature with the couplet, still considered that the Cuban black was a
character out of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Of course, even in those years, we could
see that Carpentier narrated his objects with a certain erudite perspective not
a guarantee for the accuracy of his folk world--with some of the detachment of
the hermaphrodites of Uruguayan folkloric pseudo-poetry or that of the
Caribbean rumba dancers--but his experiment turned in commotion, progressing
like a tractor which opens roads in mountains, plains, plantations and villages
to which the Cuban novel had seldom dared approach. The exoticism of
"Ecue-Yamba-O," the primitive mixed with the societal and embellished with an
attractive constructionist imagery is what seduced us. In that generation we
read Claude MacKay's Black Cocktail and, The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'Neill;
we never completed the discovery of jazz in all its aspects and geographic
variants, but we followed it from New Orleans to Chicago and looked for it too
in Afro-Spanish Harlem.
     Without furthering this literary impression, sensing perhaps but without
clearly distinguishing the aesthetic-social factor contained in "Ecue-Yamba-O"
that would later be expanded and deepened in interpretations of the hemispheric
mythology, Carpentier therefore appeared to us like a precursor, slightly
strange and a little alien in his own country.
     I did not read anything else of his until 1958. I read Los Pasos
Perdidos: the first page with interest, the following, up to the beginning of
the voyage to South America, with indifference; from there until the end with
the unforgettable emotion of having discovered a decisive work, and I say
"discovered" because I learned only after finishing reading it that the book
had achieved an amazing success in France, England and the United States. I
found his other tales and the impression was verified; it seemed incredible
that over years of theorizing about the decadence of the descriptive
super-regionalism of the hemispheric novel and about the advent of a new
novelistic form consisting of essential realities, of universal communion in
the social and philosophical drama of contemporary man, set in the meaningful,
sometimes subterranean, sometimes supernatural realm of the old indian
mythology, the black and white of our peoples, I would not have known the work
of this Cuban, of his power to give form to the passing, solid and splendid
structures in a baroque style only comparable in Latin American literature to
that of Miguel Angel Asturias in prose, and to that of Pablo Neruda, in poetry.
     I then followed the track with greater care. I know of his life through an
essay by his compatriot Salvador Bueno.(1) Carpentier was born in Havana in
1904, the son of a French architect and of a language teacher, of Russian
origin, inclined "toward letters." With his parents he traveled in France,
Austria, Belgium and Russia. After completing his secondary studies in the
Janson de Sailly school, he specialized in musical theory and architecture. He
returned to Havana from France with the intention of obtaining a university
degree, but before long he went back. Music attracted him especially, as much
in its creative aspect as its historical.(2) Carpentier struggled to generate
an autochthonous movement that would supersede the mechanical imitation of the
European vanguard. He wrote four "scenarios" to works by the composer Amadeo
Roldan: "La Rebambaramba" (1928), a ballet in two acts, "El Milagro de
Anaquille" (1929), "Mata-Cangrejo" and "Azucar," choreographic poems.
     In 1927, Carpentier was jailed for his participation in revolutionary
political activities. In prison he wrote the first draft of his novel
"Ecue-Yamba-O," edited in Madrid in 1933. Free from persecutions, he traveled
anew to Europe in 1928. France called to him, to the point where in Cuba many
consider him an expatriate but, as Bueno says:

     ...this expatriate will find his sources of
     nourishment in a variety of cultures: the Western
     European, the Hispanic and the African, in a rich
     blend of their environmental circumstances. In his
     home study the dialogues and the books will bring
     along echoes of those old European cultures, the
     British and the Slavic in fruitful conjunction.
     Outside, in the street, in the city, among the
     friends he meets, among the people he talks to in
     passing, he incorporates the Spanish colonial with
     the African transplant which, in the last analysis,
     form what is essentially Cuban.(3)

     In Paris he devotes himself to radio broadcasting in collaboration with
Louis Barrault, Artaud and Desnos. He also writes the text and prepares the
montage and the synchronization of a documentary film titled, "Le Vaudou."(4)
     In 1944 he publishes a short story, "Viaje a la Semilla." He visits Haiti
in the company of the French actor Louis Jouvet, and the product of this trip
is his novel "El Reino de este Mundo," edited in Mexico City in 1949. He
locates, later, in Caracas where he played a role in a publicity firm. There
he writes "Los Pasos Perdidos" which, translated into French, receives the
"Prix du Meilleiur Livre Etranger" in 1956. Following, Carpentier has published
the short novel "El Acoso" (Buenos Aires, 1957), "Guerra del Tiempo" (Mexico
City, 1958)(5) and in 1962, "El Siglo de las Luces."
     One can see in Carpentier's work a certain evolutionary development that
is relatively easy to identify. From "Ecue-Yamba-O" to "El Acoso" he moves in a
survey--vertical and horizontal--of the mythological hemispheric roots, to
confront them with his urge to understand the secret signs that divide his
creative faculty and his social conscience. Fundamentally, the idea of
exceeding the limits of time obsesses him, of transcending them and achieving a
monumental historical synthesis in which man changes in circumstances but not
in essence and, at root, repeats an eternal fable whose design it is possible
to capture and hold in the work of art. From a literary viewpoint his evolution
proceeds from the scientific exoticism of "Ecue-Yamba-O" up to the
neo-symbolist abstraction of "El Acoso." We shall examine the details of the
     "Ecue-Yamba-O" is a semi-documentary novel about the magic primitive world
of a sector of the black population in Cuba. An important part is played in it
by religious rites, initiation ceremonies, formulas for enchantment, the occult
substratum of peoples who live in an see of collective, pre-logical and
mystical representation, even in the midst of a modern civilization. Referring
to the scientific aspect of the novel, Salvador Bueno says:

     Apparently the work has a documentary character. The
     wish is to reveal the mysteries of the Afro-Cuban
     religions. Therefore the written text is accompanied
     by photographs of occult symbols, of ritual objects
     such as drums for chants. The folkloric is
     predominately Afro-Cuban in nature. Nevertheless, an
     essential note in this novel is the stylization of
     the Cuban life in which it appears. The customs, the
     language, the physical and human scenery are
     artistically elaborated.(6)

     A characteristic product of the African tradition that believes in the
life of one's ancestors, Menegildo Cue, the hero, represents in his passion and
downfall the destiny of his race. Menegildo goes from exaltation to ruin, from
the expressive play of picks, voices and guitars, to the abyss illumined by the
myths which he consecrates with his blood. The sex, the violence, the magic
chant, prepare him for martyrdom. In thrall to Longina, a Negress who lives
unmarried with a Haitian, in a jealous fever he looks for the occasion of
combat with his rival. He kills him with blows and goes to stay in the jail.

     It could have been five in the afternoon when the
     pair of rural guards arrested Menegildo. They did
     not accuse him--fortunately--of making communist
     propaganda nor of threatening the security of the
     State. It was simply that the Haitian, Napoleon, had
     been found on a shoulder of the highway, losing
     blood, with a thigh opened by a knife thrust....(7)

     Menegildo accused of communism? Menegildo has seen how a yankee
enterprise usurps the lands of the Cuban peasants, including those of his
father. The blacks lose their sugar cane farms before the unlimited power of
the company which advances with its apparatus of latest model technical
material. The grandparents received a certain compensation in exchange for the
lands; their descendants, however, came to be peons and, very soon, slaves.
Menegildo sees the theft of which his father is victim and senses, at the same
time, that his own son, whom he shall never know, would have to inherit the
unwritten slavery that is his patrimony, thus perpetuating in an interminable
chain of Menegildos the foreign domination over the deposits of the national

     Perhaps a black was worth less than an American? At
     least the blacks did not exploit anyone or go around
     stealing lands from the poor, obliging them to sell
     for two cents. The Americans? Sanamanbiche! As
     against them he came to take genuine pride in
     his primitive life, full of small complications and
     magical subtleties that the men of the north would
     never know.

     ...what good was the War for Independence, which
     the political orators spoke of so much, if one was
     continually uprooted by those sons of the great
     dog...? It was such that, at last and finally, only
     the yankees, friends of the Central, succeeded in
     benefiting from the ill-won profits of those
     ruinous plantations!

     And the Cuban workers and peasants, exploited by the
     ingenious yankee, defeated by the hiring of scabs at
     low wages, deceived by all the world, betrayed by
     the authorities, bursting with misery, ate--when
     they ate--what they could harvest in the narrow
     alleys between the walls of the buildings.(8)

     Carpentier does not avoid economic and social conflict. He examines it
frankly and responds with aggressiveness, without falling into the excesses of
propagandistic literature. Social injustice is one more ingredient in the
bloody routine that consumes Menegildo. From politics he proceeds, without
transition, to occult rites and in the frenzy of these currents that pulse with
mystical visions, as prisoner of ancestral forces that, without the richness
nor the prestige of ancient myth, churn today in the background of the village,
beneath the light of old street lamps, to the rhythm of sweaty drums and in
the confusion of cheap liquor, Menegildo falls with the jugular cut by a blade
during a mortal duel between the initiates of the "People's Physique Sextet"
and those of "Tropical Soul."
     Still at his back are the consortiums filling with money; the capitalist
patriots hide in the shadows of their sumptuous mansions; the blacks pray, sing
and procreate on the brown and green earth; they expire in miserable shacks;
while in the fathering of the city the eternal rumba persists, the sacrifice of
beaten and possessed women, of betrayed terrorists, of wise perverted shoeshine
boys, of hermaphroditic convicts, all delivering themselves orgiastically to a
black god and a white devil who insist on their demand for secret and fallen
     Like a luxurious and tender shadow, in soft relief, strong in her
primitive passion and in her silence, the negress Longina appears to represent
the only agreeable symbol in the story: somehow one senses that, perhaps, in
the generosity of her giving and in the heroism, tenacity and vigor hidden in
her faith in Menegildo, there is an essence from the land that refuses to
recognize the destruction imposed from outside and that affirms, that tightens
within herself and, with irresistible energy, releases a new and victorious
beginning. This woman-shadow in whose presence one detects a single message,
shall become a splendid type of woman symbol in Los Pasos Perdidos.
     Juan Marinello, considering Carpentier "as anxious about primitivisms as a
slave of refinements," censured his lack of political definition in
"Ecue-Yamba-O." Marinello said:

     Neither our black nor our community achieve their
     reality in "Ecue-Yamba-O." Menegildo, without losing
     his profile, could have communicated to us his great
     anguish of the trapped man, and the poor of "San
     Lucio" the pain of their hopelessness. The novel,
     despite its realized beauties, remains a book of
     effects, when it could have been a book of

     Marinello refers, pointedly, to a marginal condition that, even in the
most impassioned moments of the tale, applies to Carpentier: the condition of
the technical and erudite observer, the ingenious artisan who with refined
instinct can combine the types of the Afro-Cuban world, who paints with blood,
who releases sexual odors and fumes from secret initiations at artistically
measured intervals, and who arranges his myths in series of undeniably
surrealist order to extract from them their transcendent moment. So graphic is
his world of standing madness, so real seem his baroque ornaments of wax,
marble and emeralds, that Carpentier soon seems to us a prodigious "meteur en
scene," a master interior and exterior decorator. The truth is that in
"Ecue-Yamba-O" he does not yet demonstrate the road of his own re-integration
into Latin America, nor his explorations beyond time in search of the myths
which, revealing the circular channel between the plains and civilization, will
unite the halves of his creative personality. Such is to be the message of "El
Reino de este Mundo" and "Los Pasos Perdidos." For the moment he toured the
black nation desirous of finding the sense of the visions of his infancy,
accumulated and absorbed, but not comprehended. He photographed its nightmares,
documented its premonitions, and gave order and meaning to its affections; he
did not identify with this world because it was not fully his. He touched it
intimately, could even engage it, but not change it in the sense of definite
salvation or perdition.
     "El Reino de este Mundo" is a novel of fabulous adventures based upon
true incidents in the history of Haiti. Carpentier's attempt in this story is
to demonstrate that the phantastic world of the damned poet, in the tradition
of the English Gothic, of black surrealism--I use the word in its literal
sense, as with its meaning in esoteric literature--is a reality in Latin
America. In the prologue Carpentier declares:

     This was made particularly evident to me during my
     stay in Haiti, upon finding myself in covert contact
     with something that we could call the marvelous
     actual. I walked in a land where thousands of men
     striving for liberty believed in the parapsychic
     powers of Mackandal, to the point where this
     collective faith would produce a miracle the day of
     his execution. I already knew the phantastic story of
     Bouckman, the Jamaican initiate. I had been in the
     La Ferriere fortress, a work without architectural
     antecedents, uniquely foreshadowed by the Prisiones
     Imaginarias of el Piranese. I had breathed the
     atmosphere created by Henri Christophe, ruler of
     incredible designs, much more surprising than all
     the cruel kings invented by the surrealists, very
     prone to tyrannies imaginary although not regretted.
     At each step there was the marvelous actual. But I
     thought, furthermore, that that presence and
     relevance of the marvelous actual was not the
     privilege of Haiti alone, but rather, patrimony of
     the entire hemisphere, where the development of
     cosmogonies, for example, had still not ceased being
     established. The marvelous actual is found at each
     step in the lives of men who inscribed dates in the
     history of the Continent and left surnames still
     remembered: from those who searched for the Fountain
     of Eternal Youth, or the golden city of Manoa, to
     various rebels from the first hour or various modern
     heroes of our wars for independence of such
     mythological stature as the colonel Juana de

     And it is so that, because of the virginity of the
     region, because of its constitution and its
     ontology, because of the conjoint presence of the
     indian and the black, because of the Revelation that
     its recent discovery was, because of the fertile
     cross-breedings that it propagated, Latin America is
     very far from having drained its kettle of

     Without having intended it in a systematic way, the
     text which follows is a response to these kinds of
     concerns. In it a succession of extraordinary deeds
     are narrated, that happened on the island of Santo
     Domingo, in a specific epoch beyond the span of a
     human life, wherein the marvelous flows freely from
     a reality followed strictly in all its details.(10)

     With the years, this description of his aesthetic attitude will become a
declaration of principles and will sound above, below, and on the sides of the
new Hispano-american novel, particularly in the case of "Cien Años de
     The magic realism of Carpentier is affirmed, then, in an authenticity
which is, simultaneously, ideological and material. That which, at first sight,
could seem inoffensive, contains--as will be seen later in "Los Pasos
Perdidos"--a profound rift in a cultural complex that up to now has
compromised the hemispheric artistic expression.
     Carpentier writes like the Spanish chroniclers of the Conquest, for a
European public. He is dominated by the obsession to convince peoples who now
subsist in the quintessence of artifice, that in the Americas there exists an
active deposit of mythological forces--sometimes latent beneath a lid of
superficial Westernism--whose workings, in the area of art, give reality to an
entire system of symbols that the European culture conceives only on a static,
abstract plane. What in the surrealist tradition is organized chaos, in his
work is a natural and irrational chaos; the artifice is reality, and the exotic
becomes the authentically primitive.
     From the European imagination Carpentier is particularly interested in
French Romantic pseudo-primitivism. On first impression, the Cuban novelist
could impress one as a man of culture, a westerner attracted by Latin American
exoticism, a creator who, before producing his fable, proceeds to study it with
the minuteness of an archaeologist, from this
point of view, his work could seem to be an idealization of the Americas'
mythological world. The references to Atala and to Paul et Virginie are many in
"El Reino de este Mundo" and "Los Pasos Perdidos." The basic idea of this
latter novel--the man corrupted by supercivilization, who discovers in the
steppes his true self' and the perfect surrounding for creating his masterwork,
who is born to a sane, pure, primitive life, crystallizing his creative
vitality into art and in a rustic passion and earthly idyll--thus described,
superficially, could be identified as an outgrowth of French Romantic
encyclopaedism. It is possible that his European readers--Sitwell has called
him "one of the greatest writers of our age"--look to his works for the drop of
that barbaric elixir that Montaigne and Voltaire liked in La Araucana,
following in fascination the process of a second discovery of America, of a
hemisphere in which the mythology is preserved and exalted to provide new blood
to the parched remainder of a culture surfeited with itself. Against poisonous
artifice, we have here the myth in flesh and bone. Carpentier's message is
transformed as follows into an admonition directed against the idealizers:
Leave go the tricks of the salon, come to live the delirious reality of the
magic Americas, come to submerge yourselves in the new black saving legend.
     All this falls short, however, because there is something else to
consider, something of fundamental importance: Carpentier wishes to meld
himself in body and soul to this mythological organism in which his literary
work functions. Soon he will give testimony of this dependent essence of his
creative genius and of the venture in which he tries to define his conception
of art and life beyond the limits of time: that testimony and that venture
constitute the core of "Los Pasos Perdidos." Carpentier is not alone in the
attempt. The same year in which "El Reino de este Mundo" appears, "Hombres de
Maiz" by Miguel Angel Asturias is published in Buenos Aires. Both, Carpentier
and Asturias, return from an erudite and analytic Europe to the totemic,
magical, baroque and tropical world of certain zones of Latin America. Both
studied the mythological net they were going to penetrate, not completely
enveloped in artifice and in rhetoric, to search out the soul in an active
animistic ritual, spiced with exorcisms and revolutions. Both come with the
acclaim of sheepskins and diplomas to test the reality of a vision discussed in
French conference rooms.
     In the magical realism of Carpentier and Asturias, nevertheless, there is
no idealization whatsoever of romantic origin; on the contrary, that realism
stems from the facts of historical deeds that become legendary in the popular
imagination and operate, later, as myths out or a collective subconscious. This
ethnological and social root is the distinctive mark of the work of Carpentier
and Asturias.
     Without the anti-rhetorical auto da fe of the prologue, "El Reino de este
Mundo" could be considered as a small masterpiece of Gothic literature, a
surrealist flowering loaded with black elements, rich in self ornamentation,
luxurious in its organic density and in the vivid tone of its sensualism. But,
as was said, each character, each event--the age, the surroundings, the
region--all have an essential historical reality. Art (could one say,
trickery?) consists of the arrangement of the elements and in the focus with
which they are presented to the reader. Thus for example, from the initial
scene we hold the image of a barbershop display where wax combed heads are
exhibited, next to a window where a butcher shows heads of slaughtered animals.
In one scene rich in suggestion the novelist deliberately emphasizes those
heads and achieves the desired extravagant effect. Selecting the occurrence,
presenting his characters--Mackandal, Bouckman, Henri Christophe, Paulina
Bonaparte--at a culminating moment of their incredible adventures, arranging
the objects and the region from an angle which sharpens the incongruity and the
poetic absurdity, in Carpentier's hands the story acquires a frenzy of
movement, a richness of association that as soon touches the feelings as the
     The world of violence, of bloody tyranny, of violations, assassinations,
that is the island described by Carpentier, schematically emerges, direct,
hallucinatory. He lives in a language of such vibrant symbols, both in their
spare hardness and in the suspension of time in which the author places them
among lights and shadows, that the tale is removed from history and we remain
watching with all the faces of his multiple reality. Such a feat of symbolism
of the essence of the history of the hemisphere has not, that I know of, more
than one antecedent: "El Matadero" by Esteban Echeverria and, perhaps, one
parallel: "El Senor Presidente" by Asturias.
"Los Pasos Perdidos" is the highest expression of what traditionally was
called the artistic novel in Latin America. The fine current of modernism with
its search for the exotic and the phantastic, the renewal of hemispheric
indianism in its complex relation with the Spanish Renaissance spirit, ideas
and forms of literature that surpass romanticism and the tradition of Dario,
are harmonized in the work of Carpentier and, taking on the luminosity of an
allegory shaped from a careful aesthetic viewpoint, also acquire the depth and
the transcendence of an adventure of the spirit which directly affects
contemporary man.
     Carpentier's hero is a man consumed in the spiritual vacuum and the awful
psychological pressure that generates the great modern city. His habits consist
in maintaining the efficacy of worry, in giving solid respectability to
cynicism, in elaborating lies and dissimulation, in crowning the collective and
individual corruption with a halo of serene bourgeois superiority. At bottom,
the threads which support his performance are on the point of breaking, the
worry is already desperation, the vacuum is almost madness. Postponing the
culmination he goes from the bed of his wife to the bed of his girlfriend
stopping along the way to replenish his strength in a bar. His woman
conscientiously plays the role of the wreck in the costume of prosperous
respectability. During the week she is the main actress in a play whose events
occur in the south of the United States. On Sunday she celebrates sexual rites
with her husband. The girlfriend, dedicated to astrology and other similar
sciences, is the exquisite stimulant of the spirit and supports the sensual
heat of her body with arrangements of lights, music, paintings and various
aspects of interior decoration.
     On the verge of definitely succumbing, the hero departs for an area of the
Latin American wilderness--the Orinoco, according to the explanation in the
epilogue to the story--with the intention of discovering some primitive musical
instruments that will allow him to test his thesis concerning the origin of
music. His girlfriend accompanies him. First the Hispano-american city, where
they observe a violent revolution, and later the wilds, act like an acid which
upon coming into contact with humanity tired of the couple, produces a sudden
reaction. It accentuates "her lifelessness": without the interior decor,
exposed to the implacable light of the tropics, she falls apart like a wax
mannequin, the knots are loosened, the sensuality becomes flabby and ends,
dragging, impotent, consumed by malarial fever, rejected by the man and by the
woman--the temptation of lust had also affected another peasant woman--who
seeks refuge in the original shelter of her existential home.
     The man, on the other hand, breaks the vacuum bell and enters the world
that ancestrally he brought pulsing in his blood. We have here the path of his
salvation. Faced with two cultures--one which runs in the blood and the other
in books--and silenced by years of dissimulation and upright unconsciousness in
the midst of a common pit where only instinct sustains one, he gradually begins
to know his place of origin, to understand his reason for living, to search for
the final integrity. He must flee from the indecent sterility of the native
artist attached to a foreign culture, like a snail that absorbs the mask of
colors of dissonances and abstractions, resolved to parody a decadence that
still seems excessive. He discovers, en route, among primitive shades, the
expressiveness of harps, flutes and bongos that open the track towards a zone
of the hemispheric world where he is to capture the genuine image of himself,
transfigured in the mirrors of the prairies.
     Referring to his own work in an interview with Salvador Bueno, Carpentier
has said:

     In that book the plot has only one function of a
     structural kind, the factor of unity. In "Los Pasos
     Perdidos" one idea predominates: that of a
     possible evasion within time.

     In said novel a crisis of conscience, suffered by
     the central character who speaks in the first
     person, causes him to confront a mode of evasion
     that leads him beyond everything imaginable.

     (And where does that evasion lead him?)

     Once that supreme independence before Time, before
     the Era, is discovered, the protagonist should
     discover, within the same achieved evasion, the
     reasons which would make him undo what is
     done, returning to the point of departure.(11)

     And in a letter directed to the same critic, Carpentier specifies even

     All this speaks of my present concern to
     universalize the Latin American scenario, to open
     it, amplify it, extend it.... Now one must orient
     himself to a more ecumenical concept of the

     His pilgrimage in the wilderness is a parabola. As in the novel of Jose
Eustasio Rivera, "La Voragine,"(13) the discovery of the plains occurs in a
journey of the protagonist, man of the city, who goes hurried by intense
emotions of a sensual and aesthetic sort, toward a lyrically intuited terminus.
Arturo Cove as well as Carpentier's anonymous hero are fugitives from
decadence; both have, like a Kantian category, a clear-cut artistic conception
in which to place the unfamiliar primitive world, but it flattens them like a
supernatural power. Each is accompanied by a woman who represents what,
subconsciously they desire to destroy. They and the women reveal their most
secret essence in the contact with the mythological presence of nature and with
brutally fascinating beings that the wilderness diabolically uses for their
perdition. But, one should not confuse the fundamental movement of one work and
the other. The wilderness of Rivers is seen through the refined vocabulary of
Romantic modernism and the social conscience developed from the crisis of
capitalism that followed the first European war. Carpentier's wilderness,
without constituting a literary idealization, like that of Hudson, for
instance, is a mythological world interpreted above history and described in a
language full of symbols of surrealist ascent but at base concrete,
contemporary, autochthonous. Both novelists, the Colombian and the Cuban,
express the tropical hemispheric mythology, in the same sense that also Miguel
Angel Asturias and Eugene O'Neill express it, but the romantic-social root of
Rivers becomes a romantic-aesthetic root in the work of Carpentier.
In "Los Pasos Perdidos" the hero marches with a Scout, a friar and a
woman, like the Spanish colonizer of the past. Just like during the Conquest,
there are some to search for gold, some the Fountain of Youth, some to found
missions and some to populate them. But also traveling
with them is a Greek who reads the Odyssey. The truth is that, while on one
plane the expedition repeats the exploits of the Conquest--in the actual 20th
century--and discovers the secret of- the fabulous union of two cultures, on
another plane, of deeper meaning, the hero duplicates the adventure of Ulysses
and the dream of every visionary who would search our Continent for the
Promised Land, call it El Dorado, The City of the Caesars, Cibola or Santa
Monica of the Flock. He finds the source of happiness but, beneath the
implacable divine eye, he abandons it, believing that he has to return, without
guessing that leaving it, even momentarily he has renounced it, for it cannot
exist except in the miraculous instant of possession.
     The two adventures are engrossing. We participate in the founding of the
city in the wilderness, wish to remain with the hero and establish our farm in
the slowly growing township, want to warn him of his mistake when he boards the
airplane of the explorers who come to rescue him. Later--when like the hero in
"Lost Horizons", the novel by James Hilton--he fights to return, wanders the
roads of the plains, to the lengths of the currents of the Orinoco, risking all
to find the secret way through the disorder and the pathway which must lead him
to the hidden city, and we are moved by the dramatic fervor of his exploit and
suffer with him the effects of deception.
     On another plane, that of spiritual endeavor, Carpentier also proceeds
without subterfuge. The process of discovery of the world of his ancestry is
authentic in all its complexity. The language is the first serious obstacle.
The first pages of his tale, written in an idiom in which the verbal ornaments
do not yet hide a certain grammatical stammer, contain sentences like these:

     I knew that the new President of the Republic lived
     there and that, for a few days, I had failed to
     attend the popular festivities....

     Not a magazine remained, not a mystery novel, not a
     distracting lecture....

     Whoever opened a door, all of a sudden would have
     provoked flights of termites still unable to live in

     This same Carpentier has his moments of syntactical extravagance:

     This is, then, the idiom that I spoke in my
     childhood; the idiom in which I learned to read and
     to recite; the idiom rusted in my mind by disuse,
     left to the side like a useless tool, in a country
     where it could little serve me.(15)

     Much later, nevertheless, the grammar and its tiny traps disappear like a
small boat in the tumultuous current of the Latin American baroque and we stop
noticing the incongruities and the errors, do not take account when a term is
invented, translated from French or disinterred from the splendid treasures of
classical Spanish. Carpentier's language rises like a cathedral in the plains,
it rests or soars, it illuminates or it darkens, its jewels are blinding, it
contorts and is stylized, resonates with infinite cadences, explodes in colors,
or exhibits the patina of an antique painting. It is, finally, a magical
     Mariano Ticon Sales, affected by the style of El Reino de este Mundo, has

     Only some of the best designs of Valle-Inclan could
     compare in the Hispanic prose of our time with the
     almost pointedly plastic style in which it is
     written. A style that by strength of mastery gives
     alternatively not only the color or the half-tint,
     but even offers--when it is necessary--that luxury
     of the masters which is called shading. A style
     that when required to, can constitute its own

     The language of Carpentier is not an accumulation of sounds produced in a
hollow and resonant horn, in the fashion of the verbal refinement of the turn
of the century which has traditionally been called tropicalism. The "tropical"
in the language is like a vegetative growth that appears on the surface of
words: a spot of fungus, or a tight bouquet of blossoms of transient stability;
it is a positing of the voice and a translation of the gesture into sounds. The
work of Carpentier does not show this vegetal invasion of the structure of the
language. The frenzy of his extensive and minute descriptions is rational; at
base, it encloses a dominion of exaltation.
     It is not difficult to find similarities in his work with that of Miguel
Angel Asturias. Carpentier seems to follow Asturias when he tries to suggest
one's transition from his human condition to his mythical condition. For
example, Carpentier says in "Los Pasos Perdidos":

     Already near the dwelling, summoned by
     Montsalvatje, were appearing the medics who closed
     wounds reciting the spell of Bogota, the giant Queen
     Cicanocohora, the amphibious men who to sleep would
     go to the bottom of lakes, and those whose
     nourishment was the mere fragrance of flowers. He
     already accepted the Carbuncle Kids who wore a
     sparkling stone between their eyes, and the hydra
     seen by the people of Federmann, and the Bezar Rock,
     of prodigious qualities, found in the entrails of
     sheep, and the tatunachas, beneath whose ears up to
     five persons could hide, and those other savages
     whose legs were crippled into the talons of

     The Amazons had existed: they were the women of the
     men lost to the primitives, in their mysterious
     migration toward the Maize Empire. From the wilds of
     the Mayas surged stairways, piers, monuments,
     temples full of portentous paintings, representing
     rites of priest-fish and of priest-locusts....(17)

     This language which evinces the intention to transcendentalize by means of
word-symbols is common in a certain area of the contemporary Latin American
novel; it is employed by writers desirous of creating powerful and deep
syntheses, amalgams of men and surroundings, of visions that surpass the
circumstantial and the ordinary. This frequently imbalanced linguistic
ambition, or heavy or arid, always difficult, holds no relation to what is
usually called "tropicalism." If "tropicalism" is untying, the language to
which I refer is uniting; if "tropicalism" means to cover the void with a dense
fabric of lyric frenzy, the style of Carpentier and Asturias is to denude the
deep spiritual vein to define it in a rigid poetic structure.
     Nevertheless, the word "tropicalism" properly understood should be in this
case as valid as the word "baroque," except to the extent that it refers to the
style of Carpentier and Asturias which represents the adaptation of a European
artistic form to the native idiosyncrasy of the Americas, or to be more exact,
of tropical America. Let us revise, in consequence, the meaning of the term:
those who speak of political "tropicalism" to refer to the rule of Central
America, in fact refer to a type of excess not foreign to the rest of the
hispanic world; similarly those who speak of "tropicalism" when they allude to
an easy and puerile sensuality, or when they censure an exuberance in the
customs, in the manner of dress, or of speaking, a lack of reserve, an
inconsequential enthusiasm, in truth recognize a mixed tendency in the peoples
called "white" of South America, but they transfer it to those who carry it,
accidentally, more to the surface of the skin.
     We shall consider then legitimate the use of the term, tropical, to
designate the variety of the baroque that constitutes the language of
Carpentier. Tropicalism in his work--like in that of Asturias-- is the name
for an artistic expression in which the magical basis of the primitive cultures
of the Americas joins with the formal beauty of the European baroque tradition
in an attempt to interpret the spirit and the sort of reality of the man of the
Caribbean and of Central America. No other idiom serves for such an enterprise:
not that of the old traditionalist norms, not that of crude branched
regionalism, nor that of modernist impressionism. An instrument is needed to
create myths, or to rescue them from the pre-Columbian past, to bring to life
the resident and the region in the essential unity that artistic creation
requires, to take the magic of the indigenous hemisphere to the fatigued
intellectualism of Europe. Exactly that which makes Carpentier "strange" and
Asturias "difficult" in Latin American literature, and distances them from
the official critique, is precisely that which they communicate to us with the
aesthetic thinking universally projected. Not otherwise can we interpret the
eulogies of Paul Valery upon the "Leyendas de Guatemala" by Asturias and those
of Edith Sitwell about the novels of Carpentier.
     On the linguistic plane Carpentier awakens mysterious resonances that
promptly invade the worlds of the sensations and ideas. From the words matter
is released which touches the hero and changes him. To the extent that he
confines himself to the selva he proceeds losing one soul and having another
emerge, like a serpent that changes skin. We see him advance in the Tierras del

     Upon entering a town where there was much talk of
     tail-lash and hoof-covers, I knew that we had
     arrived in the Lands of the Horse. It was, before
     anything else, that smell of the circus ring, of
     equine sweat, that walked the earth for so long,
     announcing the culture with the whinny. It was that
     flat hammering sound that announced to me I was near
     the blacksmith, still toiling upon his anvil and
     bellows, painted in shadows, with his leather apron,
     before the light of the furnace. It was the
     horseshoes heated to red put out in cold water, and
     the song tapped by the quarter-horse shod with new
     iron, still timid about sliding on the stones, and
     the bucking and snapping, held bridled, before the
     youth by the window, a ribbon displayed in her hair.
     With the horse had re-appeared the saddle shop,
     perfumed of leather, fresh with hides, with its
     operatives laboring beneath hangings of cinches,
     cowhand stirrups, embossed leather covers and
     bridles for Sundays with silver disks on the
     frontispieces. In the Lands of the Horse it seemed
     that man was more manly. He returned to being master
     of ancient techniques which put his hands in direct
     contact with iron and hair, it taught him the arts
     of breaking and riding, developing physical
     dexterities to flaunt on festival days, in front of
     the admiring women who knew so well how to squeeze
     with their legs, who knew so much what to do with
     their arms. Reborn were the male games of taming the
     plaintive mules and jumping and tossing the bull,
     the ancient beast, causing his arrogance
     to roll in the dust. A mysterious solidarity was
     established between the animal of well placed
     testicles, who entered his cows more deeply than any
     other, and the man, who had for symbols of universal
     courage that which the sculptors of equestrian
     statues had to model or forge in bronze, or shape in
     marble, so that the steed would properly convey the
     hero upon his mount, casting a fine shadow over the
     lovers who strolled past in the municipal parks.
     There was a grand reunion of men in the houses where
     many horses nuzzled in the driveway; but where only
     one horse waited through the night, half hidden
     among the threats, the resident must have removed
     his spurs to go more quietly into the house where
     the shadows awaited. It seemed to me interesting to
     now observe that, after having been the greatest
     fortune of the man of Europe, his machine of war,
     his vehicle, his messenger, the pedestal for his
     personages, the ornament of his monuments and
     triumphal arches, the horse extended its great
     history in the hemisphere, and in the New World
     continued to fulfill, generously and on an enormous
     scale, its secular offices.(18)

     We see how the hero moves into the Tierras del Perro (pp. 147-48); we view
with some amazement the slow and steady knotting of two worlds-- now, not the
Spanish and the indian of the 15th century, but the European and the mestizo of
the 20th century--both crossed with magical and cabalistic strains: sometimes
scientific, psychological and philosophical, sometimes religious and sexual.
One of them, that of the European decadence, chases the other with a sensual
voracity. It saw the latter in the distance, and imitates it wearing
ritualistic masks upon its factions of blonde and brunette being. In moments of
aesthetic paroxysm a cult has been dedicated extravagantly mixing the east and
the west, magic, superstition and the dramatic apparatus. From that cult we
have Negroid masks hanging in luxury departments on the banks of the Seine, we
have ceramics, leathers, woodwork and opals in fashionable stores, we have
piano chords, and saxophone wails and rhythms of drums in little obscure
     "Los Pasos Perdidos" are lost steps which lead Carpentier's hero to
discover the truth behind this parody and in his words to revive the life that
ended in useful but artificial concepts of primitive art and in the automatic
approximations of surrealism. What could have been a surrealist picture hanging
at a Parisian exposition is here an environment of impeccable reality:

     The matter taken care of, with a magisterial
     handling of finances and another choice of pathways
     made, I found myself that noonday in a prodigious
     city in ruins. It was long deserted streets, of
     uninhabited houses, with rotted doors, down to the
     jambs or the plaster, whose ivied tiling collapsed
     at times merely in the center, following the break
     of a master beam, shortened by termites, discolored
     by exposure. There remained the columns of an
     entranceway burdened with the remnants of a cornice,
     broken by the roots of a fig tree. There were
     stairways without beginning or end, as if suspended
     in emptiness, and flimsy balconies, attached to a
     window frame opening on the sky. The layers of
     bluebells simulated the lightness of curtains in the
     space of rooms that still retained their slotted
     tiles, and there were old treasures of aromas,
     captured in poinsettia in obscure corners, and armed
     cacti in a lamp that trembled in the corridor, in
     the path of air currents, like uplifted hands of
     invisible servants. There were mushrooms behind the
     doors and vines in the chimneys. The trees struggled
     the length of the walkways, claws grasping the
     crevices of the masonry, and of a burned down church
     there remained a few buttresses and decorations and
     a monumental arch, ready to fall, on whose bell
     tower one could still detect, in vague outline, the
     figures of a celestial concert, with angels who
     played the woodwind, the horn, the composite organ,
     strings and maracas. This last left me so admiring
     that I wanted to go back to the boat in search of
     paper and pencil, to show the Caretaker, by means of
     some sketches, this rare reference to the organ. But
     at that instant there was the sound of drums and
     sharp flutes and various demons appeared on a corner
     of the square, pointing to a miserable Church, of
     plaster and tile, situated in front of the burned
     out cathedral.(19)

     In France they have dreamed of a surrealist Latin America and Africa, like
Chateaubriand imagined the Americas romantic. The Atala crowned in feathers and
icons has had her counterpart in a nocturnal Atala, totemic, laden with
diamonds or grounded on planes of Mexican sun, open and wounded by the
accumulation of phallic symbols that the poet-ethnologists fire there during
impassioned trances. Carpentier recognizes the deceptive duality, and through
the intermediary of a character, alludes to the poison of that puerile
idealization, or of the superimposed symbol that could discredit the
authenticity of the hero's adventure. Because this hero, although apparently
motivated by an old Romantic utopia, although in moments of sexual laxity
confuses the clarity of the wilderness with the wilderness itself and thinks he
sees it in the woman who follows him, prepares, he enjoys and develops, a kind
of earthly allegory, something like an upside-down war drum, soon shaken by the
impact of the elemental realities. As soon as he leaves the hidden city, his
Atala joins with another colonist, thus, as the Greek of the novel expresses

     " She no Penelope. Young woman, strong, beautiful,
     needs husband. She no Penelope. Nature that woman
     here needs man....(20)

     The roads to the hidden city close and when they re-open they lead
nowhere, so the protagonist, although he conquers time, does not discover the
secret of his own inner liberation, but only exterior recourses, probes,
signals, aids of an inconclusive sort. He does discover the road for a resigned
return to the usual world.
     As already stated, in 1958 under the title of "Guerra del Tiempo"
Carpentier brought together three brief, stories--"El Camino de Santiago,"
"Viaje a la Semilla" and "Semejante a la Noche"--and his short novel: "El
Acoso."(21) Carpentier experiments in these works with an idea which seems to
have long obsessed him: that of breaking the artificially solid margins of time
and of integrating the past, the present and what is to come in one duration,
simultaneously stable and volatile, whose locus can be a person, an event or an
entire life. That this idea is not completely original could go without saying;
antecedents of Carpentier in this respect are: the Romantic comedy of John
Balderston, Berkeley Square, and the lyric novel of Virginia Wolf, Orlando.
Just as a tap of the finger changes the planes of a kaleidoscope, the stories
by Carpentier willfully situate themselves beyond the conventional unities of
time until they establish in their nobility, throughout "years" and even
"centuries," a harmonious flux in which the root of the human destiny is
identified with hallucinatory clarity.
     A supreme moment of crisis in "Semejante a la Noche" concerns the fortune
of a man before the imminence of war, and the will to live. The Greek soldier
who observes the loading of the ship in which he shall sail to Troy and
approaching the community to bid farewell to his parents becomes, without
transition, the Explorer who marches to the Americas and, during his meeting
with his girlfriend, is transformed into a colonist who emigrates across the
Gulf of Mexico, to conclude anew as a Greek soldier in the moral downfall and
the shame of his impotence, that soldier is man, from the beginnings of history
in a mortal trance, corroded by the acid that, beneath the heroic adventure,
peels off layer after layer, the solitude, the emptiness, defeat and the tragic
cynicism of those who manipulate him from the shadows and who make ready to cut
the threads that suspend him in the abyss.
     The pilgrim who goes to Santiago de Compostela--"El Camino de
Santiago"--is a man who undergoes, through the experience of another man, that
which he himself- should have later tried. That which is going to happen later
is already lived in this and other tales of Carpentier's. We have here, basic
intrigue and the surprising effect of its story line. Fighting against time,
plotting to dismantle it like a clock, piece by piece, and re-assemble it
arbitrarily, in "Viaje a la Semilla" Carpentier recounts the life of his
character in reverse. He leaves a house being disassembled and, like in a film
in which the action regresses thanks to a trick of the projector, the house is
reconstructed, the hero returns to dwell in it, he is rejuvenated, once more he
reaches adolescence, infancy, he joins his mother, is unborn, installs himself
in the womb and ends in the uterine darkness re-integrated to the original
     "El Acoso" is a synthesis of these experiments with the notion of time and
an application of Carpentier's theories to the technique of literary narration.
The equilibrium between the diverse occurrences that continue accumulating like
a dramatic charge around the characters is the result of a tension that
Carpentier maintains until the last instant of the story. Everything in this
drama of the terrorist pursued by his persecutors seems to depend upon a
diabolical will that lets the minutes fall like grains of sand in an hourglass
and with each one the fateful execution approaches. The scenes, the words, the
gestures, constantly seek their respective places in the puzzle until, with the
integration of the final image, the resolution is produced and the entire story
is shown in essential complexity. The ethical substratum of the drama is, as in
the allegories of Kafka, gathered in the atmosphere of the tale, intense like a
presentiment or like an echo of something that still must be said. Nothing has
a meaning in itself--not even in the classic perfection of the detail--but
rather in the final and total concatenation where the secret significances are
defined, where time, detained for an instant, or better 46 minutes, the length
of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, resumes its circular progress inciting us to
begin again to read the story, assimilating ourselves to that lapse of time
which reflects the pace of life.
     The scheme of the tale--if we organize it chronologically and in the
abstract--is of a deceptive simplicity; it begins with Beethoven's "Eroica"
symphony in a concert hall; an individual arrives in haste, throws currency
between the bars of the box office, and enters the theater; two men follow him,
and without losing sight of him, they take seats in a back row. The ticket man,
who cannot identify who has given him the currency without awaiting the change,
leaves during the performance of the Symphony in search of a woman. She tells
him that the currency is counterfeit; he returns to the theater, hears the last
moments of the concert. The music terminates. Applause. The public leaves. The
two men that arrived behind go to a box where the one with the counterfeit
hides and they blast him with bullets. Let the reader compare this plot with
the organization that is given to the events in the tale. Carpentier narrates
the story in an interior monologue extending from the two central characters:
the persecuted terrorist and the ticket man of the concert hall. From within
them is spun the spider's fabric in which move the assassins, the old negress
of the Mirador, Estrella, the prostitute, the revolutionaries, the spies. A
world of portentous dramatic intensity emanates from the condemned man, it
leaves him like blood, a trickle first, a spot and then an overflow. True
happenings from the modern history of Cuba--the subplot in the cemetery to
overcome the authorities, the shooting of the debtor--are interlaced with the
chronic nightmare of the terrors of the hunted, with the details of his
confinement starving of hunger, and the chase through the streets of the city.
The worlds of both central characters touch at each instant in acts of
insignificant appearance but full of fatalism, they touch and are confounded,
but not essentially, instead, like two concentric circles that, floating, cross
to later separate.
     In this novel in which Carpentier--like O'Flaherty in The Informer--
reveals in the crisis of a man, pursued by the band of betrayed terrorists, the
naked and brutal basic solitude of the human condition, his talent as a
narrator culminate. Neither his previous work nor El Siglo de las Luces
surpasses this novel in artistic perfection and genuine emotion. The techniques
of the account--counterpoint, the flashback, the interior monologue and the
free association of ideas--are mechanisms of an accelerated rhythm. The
traditional baroque exuberance of Carpentier comes measured with a cold and
calculating power of aesthetic discernment, nothing is lacking here and nothing
is left over. The language does not detach from the work like an ornamental
afterthought, on the contrary, it comprises it, the one joins and integrates
the other like flesh on the bone, it painfully exposes the marrow and leaves
vibrating in its spareness echoes that are going to follow us, insistent,
pointed, like the memory of the fright of the accused.

1 Cf. Salvador Bueno, La Letra come Testigo, Havana, 1957. The essay is called,
"Alejo Carpentier, Novelists Antillano y Universal," pp.153-79.
2 Carpentier is the author of La Musica en Cuba (F.C.E., Mexico City, 1946), a
work noted for its historical and critical value.
3 Salvador Bueno, op. cit., p.157.
4 The protagonist in "Los Pasos Perdidos" (1st ed., Mexico City, 1953,
pp.34-35) similarly creates a cinematographic work.
5 This last volume includes "El Acoso" and the stories, "El Camino de
Santiago," "Viaje a la Semilla" and "Semejante a la Noche."
6 Salvador Bueno, op. cit., p.163.
7 "Ecue-Yamba-O," Alejo Carpentier.
8 Ibid.
9 Cf. Juan Marinello, Literatura Hispanoamericana, Mexico City, 1937, p. 175.
10 "El Reino de este Mundo," pp.12-16.
11 Cited by Bueno, pp.169-70.
12 Ibid., pp. 178-79.
13 Carpentier--through the intermediary of his central character-makes a
curious reference to a South American novel that could very well be "La
Voragine" by Rivera: "I have in my bag a famous novel, by a South American
 writer, in which are given the names of animals, of trees, references to
indigenous legends, ancient occurrences, and all what is necessary to give a
ring of veracity to my tale" (Los Pasos Perdidos, p. 293).
14 "Los Pasos Perdidos," pp. 52, 54, 68, 70.
15 Ibid., p.53.
16 Cited by Bueno, pp.169-170.
17 "Los Pasos Perdidos," pp.174-75.
18 Ibid., pp.139-417.
19 Ibid., pp.141-42.
20 Ibid., p. 331.
21 "El Camino de Santiago" is based upon a sentence taken from Carpentier's
book, La Musica en Cuba: "In 1557, Havana had no more of a musician than one
Juan de Amberes who played on the drum when there was a ship in sight...."
"Viaje a la Semilla" was published previously in Havana in 1944 and was
included in the Antologia del Cuento Cubano of S. Bueno.