Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980)

Alejo Carpentier is a critically acclaimed novelist and musicologist in his native Cuba, but his work is just beginning to gain recognition in North America and the rest of the world. His "magical realism" writing has influenced a number of better-known Latin-American writers including Gabriel García Márquez. A writer of varied interests and learning, Carpentier infuses his novels and short stories with references to music, history, politics, science, art, mythology, and other subjects. His novels are characteristically complex and detailed, particularly when describing the lush settings and exotic cultures of Latin America.

("Alejo Carpentier (y Valmont).Contemporary Literary Criticism Select, Gale, 2008).


Alejo Carpentier, a major Latin-American novelist with a dense, allusive style that has influenced other writers, was born in Havana on 26 December 1904, St. Stephen's Day. His father, Georges, an architect, was French, and his mother was of Russian descent. The Carpentiers had arrived in Cuba two years before Alejo was born, their sights on a better lot in the newest of the Spanish-American republics. Cuba had been declared independent by the United States on 20 May 1902, after a nearly four-year occupation that followed Spain's defeat in the war of 1898. The Carpentiers were not poor immigrants, however. The house in which they settled in El Cotorro, on the outskirts of Havana, must have been of considerable size, because Carpentier would later recall roaming in his father's library, and in such novels as El acoso (1956; translated as Manhunt, 1959) and Los pasos perdidos (1953; translated as The Lost Steps, 1956) there are mentions of spacious homes and of courtyards where the younger characters frolic. In Georges Carpentier's library Alejo satisfied his curiosities as a young reader--he tells of having read works by French Romantic authors and by Pío Baroja, the modern Spanish novelist. The language spoken at home was French, but in the street the young Carpentier learned Spanish--first from the boys he played with and then in the private schools where his parents sent him. He went first to the Colegio Mimó, which had been founded by a Mason and had great intellectual pretenses. Later he attended Candler College, a Cuban-North American school that the sons of affluent families attended.

The youths Carpentier played with were different from him, not only because they spoke Spanish but because many were black. Carpentier's adult life was in many ways a struggle to bring together the two worlds of his childhood: the sheltered, refined, and European one of his home; and the livelier, more exotic and attractive world of the Cuban blacks in the street. Cuba, a mixture of several cultures, mostly African and Spanish, also included the European world of his father. Carpentier never succeeded in synthesizing the mixture of cultures from which he sprang, and perhaps it is to this failure that one can attribute the tension behind his creative impulse.

Carpentier frequently journeyed to France, and he spent many years in this, his father's homeland. When he was a teenager, the Carpentier family traveled as far as Russia to collect an inheritance. On their return, they made a long stop in Paris, where he attended the Lycée Jeanson de Sailly. In Paris, among French students, he must have felt different but at the same time in his element--a Charles Bovary from the tropics. When he returned to Havana, he finished his bachelor's degree and soon enrolled in the school of architecture at the Universidad de La Habana. Like any good, provincial, French son, Carpentier wanted to join in his father's business. He had also learned music from his father, although by the time he started at the University he had abandoned the piano. As time went on, Carpentier would acquire an impressive knowledge of music as well as architecture, even though he would never finish his degree.

Beyond knowledge and a profession, the university offered the chance to climb the social and economic ladders in Cuba, and the Carpentiers, who had sent Alejo to the best private schools, undoubtedly desired, as immigrants often do, for their young son to establish himself in their new country. But life was to deal Alejo a cruel blow that would radically change his fate. One day Georges Carpentier abandoned his family, and nothing was ever heard of him again. This forced Alejo to leave the university in order to support himself and his mother. Thus he began to write for newspapers; he even wrote a history of shoes for the shoemakers' union. For the first time, two things came together that were to have great importance in Carpentier's life: culture and business. Perhaps to compensate for the absence of his father, he became one of the most learned Spanish-American writers since Andrés Bello. And business, most specifically advertising, would bring him the economic well-being and the social position that his father's disappearance had denied him at a very crucial point in his life.

Economic stability would have to wait, however. Cuba soon began to show signs of social and political distress. Peace had not only abandoned the Carpentier household but had also left the street, where war would break out between the different factions of the unstable island society. It was the beginning of the 1920s. After various North American interventions, meant to reestablish order, the political situation in Cuba became more and more chaotic. Even though he had already abandoned his studies, Carpentier soon found himself involved in political activities at the University. The 1920s was a decade of economic growth and political turbulence in Cuba, which culminated in a full-fledged revolution against the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado y Morales, who had come to power in 1925. Machado was supported by those social classes that would stand to benefit from economic growth, and, of course, the United States; but his opposition was a coalition of groups that included the recently organized Communist party, various student groups, and other sectors, especially workers, who were affected by his politics. Machado had been gradually changing into a typical Latin-American dictator. He had amended the constitution to prolong his presidency, and he employed such violent measures against the opposition that he would soon be dubbed "el asno con garras" (the ass with claws). When the revolution was at the point of victory in 1933, the United States managed to manipulate the situation in such a way that, although Machado had to flee to the Bahamas, the revolutionaries were unable to assume power. From the ashes of Machado's dictatorship would arise the next Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who dominated island politics, directly or indirectly, until the revolution of 1959.

The students and intellectuals who fought against Machado were not alone. The student movement had begun in Córdoba, Argentina, in 1923 with the university reform that reverberated through the entire continent. The Cuban revolutionaries had the support of the Mexicans as well, who were at that time consolidating the gains of their revolution. The Cubans felt they were part of a movement that had international ramifications. Few of their leaders survived the failure of the revolution. Rafael Trejo died of a bullet wound during a demonstration, Eduardo Guiteras was assassinated in Mexico by agents of Machado, and Rubén Martínez Villena died of tuberculosis, his health destroyed in the revolutionary struggle. Villena was the most dramatic figure of the period, having been a major player in the two principal activities of the younger generation: the artistic avant-garde and politics. The so-called Revolución del '33 and its most dramatic participants left an indelible mark on Carpentier, who would incorporate it in his novels, especially in El acoso and El recurso del método (1974; translated as Reasons of State, 1976). The revolutionaries of 1933 were for Carpentier exemplary men of action whom he always admired but could never quite emulate.

Carpentier was, however, involved in the student movement, but he spent the most bloody years of the struggle against Machado and Batista abroad. In 1923, at the age of nineteen, he had been named editor of a new weekly magazine, Carteles, that would become one of the most important in Cuba, and in which his contributions would appear until 1949. Carpentier had the talent of a good business manager, with a solid middle-class sense of money and an enormous capacity for work. Carteles prospered in the midst of the economic growth that, in spite of the political upheaval, the country enjoyed, and Carpentier, although not rich, at least had weathered with his mother the hard times.

Around the middle of the 1920s Carpentier's political activism was increasing at the same rate as his artistic production. He joined the Grupo Minorista, a group that included political and intellectual dissidents, and participated in a protest against Machado's immediate predecessor, Alfredo Zayas, whose venality had become intolerable. By 1927 Carpentier had already begun to distinguish himself as a promoter of the nascent Afro-Cuban or Afro-Antillian movement, he was regularly asked to give lectures on the artistic avant-garde in Europe, and he had been one of the founders of Revista de Avance, one of the key journals of the avant-garde. He also contributed to the literary section of the very conservative (Spanish-oriented) Diario de la Marina, which, paradoxically, was another important vehicle of the artistic and political avant-garde in Cuba. He also began to write around this time for Social--an illustrated weekly geared to an upper-middle-class and aristocratic Cuban audience--which, besides concerning itself with the social activities of its readers, was one of the magazines most infused with avant-garde art in all of Spanish America. Carpentier's contributions to Social were frequent and prolific. Through this magazine, Carpentier rubbed elbows with Cuban high society. Carteles would bring him economic stability, whereas Social afforded him prestige.

Involvement in the new art movement and in political activism led Carpentier and his companions to look at black culture as an autochthonous source of artistic and political energy. The spirit of rebellion that moved the younger generation found inspiration in the art of black people, based in a religious faith that had helped them survive the horrors of slavery. Black culture signified a rejection of the European, which coincided,for the younger generation, with the rejection of European art by the avant-garde itself. Carpentier collaborated with two Cuban composers, Amadeo Roldán and Alejandro García Caturla, in the creation of various ballets, comic operas, and other compositions that would spread the spirit of rebellion and faith of the black people within their own culture. These activities made him even more infamous with the authorities, who arrested him during a roundup of dissidents in 1927. Carpentier went to jail with Communists, Anarquistas, and others who seemed suspect to the police.

Carpentier only spent forty days in jail, but upon his release he knew he was blacklisted and in danger. In spring 1928 he found a way to escape Cuba. An international convention of journalists met in Havana. The French surrealist poet Robert Desnos attended and became Carpentier's friend. Desnos allowed the Cuban to use his papers to sail back to France. In France, Carpentier completed his apprenticeship in the avant-garde. Through his connection with Desnos, he became associated with the surrealists, and he supported his friend against André Breton in 1930, when two factions clashed for motives that were partly political.

From Paris, Carpentier continued his contributions to Carteles and Social. For Social Carpentier wrote almost exclusively about the art of the avant-garde. His articles on Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau , and many others kept the Cuban public informed about the artistic revolution that was developing in Europe. Carpentier also published in Social a column on women's fashion that he signed with the pseudonym Jacqueline. From Europe, Carpentier helped support the Cuban revolutionaries in their fight against Machado by publishing several articles on the atrocities of that government in Spanish magazines of the Left, such as Octubre, managed by Rafael Alberti.

His work in CartelesSocial, and other magazines could not provide Carpentier with enough to live on, because, in addition, he had gotten married shortly after his arrival in Paris. This first wife, who died soon afterward from tuberculosis, barely appeared at all in Carpentier's accounts of himself in interviews and news reports, and she was completely absent in the criticism that was written about him. According to Carpentier his first wife was Swiss and died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in the French Pyrenees, the region he would describe many years later in El siglo de las luces (1962; translated as Explosion in a Cathedral, 1963). Pressured by economic need, Carpentier began to work in radio broadcasting, in a studio called Foniric, the property of Paul Deharme, a French businessman who employed him and promoted his radio programs. Radio and advertising would be Carpentier's occupation until the beginning of the 1960s, even after the success of the Cuban Revolution.

Shortly after the death of his first wife, Carpentier got married again, this time to French-woman Eva Frejaville. He had found his calling in the country his father had abandoned. He had succeeded in reconstructing the world of his home in El Cotorro--the protected and refined orb of the French language. It would not have been difficult for him at this time to take on or reaffirm his French identity. In Havana, according to Juan Marinello, many people considered Carpentier a foreigner at this time, especially because of the guttural r that he was never able to eliminate from his Spanish. Carpentier's ambiguity could have been relieved if he had simply become the French writer that threatened to emerge from his father's library. Carpentier was to remain in Paris until 1939, except for a short trip to Cuba in 1936 to visit his mother--eleven years away from the Caribbean world, leading a well-established life in the French capital, where no one would take him for a foreigner. But Carpentier did not become French and, on the contrary, struggled to remain Cuban.

Paris at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s was, as it has intermittently been since the nineteenth century, the intellectual and artistic capital of Spanish America. Cuban poets got to know Chilean poets in Parisian cafés, and Argentine composers discovered Mexican painters in the art galleries of the French capital. While in Paris, Carpentier became a friend of Latin-American novelists and poets such as the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias, the Venezuelan Arturo Uslar Pietri, and the Chilean Pablo Neruda. He also became better acquainted with Cuban poets and painters, including Nicolás Guillén and Wifredo Lam. From Paris, Carpentier traveled frequently to Madrid, where he met Federico García Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Miguel Hernández, and many other Spanish and Spanish-American writers who, especially during the years of the Republic, created an intellectual and artistic flowering in the Spanish capital that Carpentier would often evoke. Spain was another homeland for Carpentier, as much for its culture as for its political ambience before the civil war. In 1937 he was part of the Cuban delegation that was present at the Congress of Intellectuals against Fascism, which Juan Marinello and Nicolás Guillén also attended. At that time, Carpentier met Octavio Paz, and artists and intellectuals from all over the world, and saw up close the devastation of the Spanish Civil War. These contacts with artists and intellectuals of other Latin-American countries provided Carpentier with a continental perspective. In Paris he realized that his attempt to integrate black culture with Cuban art had its counterpart in the "indigenist" movement prevalent in countries such as Mexico and Peru. This stimulus prompted him to attend courses in ethnology at the Sorbonne and to spend long hours sheltered at the National Library in Paris, where he read book after book on Spanish America. Years later Carpentier would attempt to substitute the Spanish America that he discovered in books in Paris for another experienced firsthand. This effort was, perhaps, together with his attempt to define himself culturally, the essence of Carpentier's spiritual and artistic life.

In 1930 Carpentier founded a literary magazine in Paris with the financial support of Elvira de Alvear, a South American millionaire for whom he apparently worked as a secretary. In it he published the work of his French and Spanish-American friends. Called Imán (magnet), based on his inspiration to unite the intellectual world of Paris, especially the Spanish-speaking one, the magazine only had one issue. In this issue Carpentier advanced a fragment of the novel he had begun to write during his imprisonment in Havana in 1927--¡Ecue-Yamba-O! (Praised Be the Lord, 1933); the title is in Lucumí, one of the African languages spoken in Cuba, though the novel was written in Spanish. Meanwhile Carpentier continued adapting plays for the radio. The two worlds of his childhood would repeat themselves in Paris: his French home, financed by regular employment; and the street, where he spoke Spanish with his Spanish-American friends. Both worlds converged in his personality: the French intellect and the Spanish American's yearning to discover his roots.

Carpentier continued in Paris the creative work he had started in Cuba. Soon after arriving in the French capital, he finished "¡Yamba-O!," a musical poem he produced in collaboration with the composer François Gaillard. He also collaborated with Gaillard in the composition of Poèmes des Antilles (Antillian Poems, 1931), a suite of Afro-Cuban poems written in French, much better than what their author's silence about them years later might indicate. In the magazine Cahiers du Sud, Carpentier published in 1930 a short story, "Histoire de lunes" (History of Moons), his first narrative work of any scope, which anticipates some of the characteristics of his mature work. The story, like Poèmes des Antilles, is also in French, as were his contributions to Bifur, an avant-garde magazine, one of whose advisers was James Joyce. But Carpentier's major work during these first years in Paris was ¡Ecue-Yamba-O! The novel was not a great success. Years later Carpentier rejected it, and there was not another authorized edition of ¡Ecue-Yamba-O! until a few years before his death. Marinello, one of the most prominent intellectuals of the Cuban avant-garde, devoted a piercing and negative review to it, which is one of the first important commentaries about Carpentier.

Marinello pointed out that ¡Ecue-Yamba-O! is an odd mixture of artistic styles, which attempts without success to present a profound vision of the world of black Afro-Cubans. On the one hand, Carpentier tries to give a conventional description of the life of blacks in the sugar mills and the city. On the other hand, he attempts to capture the religious faith that inspired the blacks--through the devices of avant-garde literature, especially bold metaphors; the reduction of the landscape to primary forms, as in cubism; and the creation of an onomatopoeic language resembling the music of African rituals. One of the most innovative aspects of the novel is the inclusion of photographs of liturgical rituals and instruments, which gives the book the air of an ethnographic study or a surrealistic book-object. Carpentier attempts to demonstrate that the connection between religious doctrine, art, and a way of life among the black people would encourage in that sector of Cuban society a resistance capable of rescuing it from the cruel economic exploitation to which it was subjected. With the so-called novelas de la tierra (novels of the earth), such as Doña Bárbara (1928), by Romulo Gallegos, and The Vortex (1924), by José Eustacio Rivera,¡Ecue-Yamba-O! shares an interest in the natural Latin-American world. But unlike these books, it incorporates the characteristic array of avant-garde devices and an anthropological perspective. Carpentier tries to do too many things, and ¡Ecue-Yamba-O! was virtually ignored by the reading public.

Neither ¡Ecue-Yamba-O! nor the ballets, poems, songs, and stories published by Carpentier in the 1920s and 1930s transformed him into a well-known author. In addition his literary production after 1933 was almost nonexistent until around the middle of the 1940s. The first works of fiction published by Carpentier after ¡Ecue-Yamba-O! were the stories "Oficio de tinieblas" (Officium Tenebrae, 1949) and Viaje a la semilla (1944; translated as Journey Back to the Source, 1970), published in a private edition of a hundred copies. His next work of fiction was El reino de este mundo (1949; translated as The Kingdom of This World, 1957). What did keep Carpentier continuously in the public eye in Cuba were the articles he sent from Paris to Carteles.

During these years, Carpentier continued reading voraciously about Latin America, especially the chronicles of the discovery and conquest, as well as works of authors who were his contemporaries. These readings were to crystallize in Carpentier's work, in his mature stage, in those works that would transform him into one of the principal Latin-American writers. That stage was to begin upon his return to Cuba, with the fulfillment of his longing to assert his Spanish-American identity, no longer through books but through direct experience.

The situation in Europe was growing tense around 1939. The civil war had ended in Spain with the defeat of the Republic, and the imminence of another world war was clear. Many of Carpentier's Spanish friends had gone into exile, many to Spanish America. Meanwhile the situation in Cuba was becoming more promising. Batista had come to an agreement with the Left, and the Cuban economy, which had always benefited from European conflict, was on the rise. Nicolás Guillén was also back in Cuba. There were funds for radio broadcasts of a cultural nature, and Carpentier was chosen to produce some of them. He returned to Havana in 1939 with his French wife. A new life was beginning for him.

In Havana, Carpentier met a group of friends eager for his knowledge about the European artistic community. He would meet with these friends in a house on the outskirts of the capital to exchange views about art. His marriage with Eva, however, did not survive the tropics, and Cuban artists and intellectuals continued to be sharply divided by politics. Carpentier participated sporadically in these activities. In October 1939 Carpentier was divorced from Eva, and he was married on 26 May 1941 to a Cuban, Lilia Esteban Hierro, a member of a well-to-do family. With Lilia, Carpentier was to acquire domestic stability that lasted for the rest of his life. To her he systematically dedicated every one of his books published after their marriage, which are the most important of his career. Carpentier's work can be divided into two periods, one before Lilia and one after her. Through his work in radio, his publications in magazines and newspapers, and his marriage with Lilia, Carpentier achieved not only stability but the kind of economic and social status that his family had sought since they arrived in Cuba.

The division in the Cuban artistic and intellectual world manifested itself in literary magazines. One side was led by José Lezama and called themselves the Orígenes group, after the magazine they published. The other side had a more piously political bent, and one of their leaders was Guillén, already a member of the Communist party. Guillén published La Gaceta del Caribe, a tabloid in which Carpentier presented a fragment of El reino de este mundo. But Carpentier also contributed to Orígenes , and although he cannot be considered a member of the group, since by the summer of 1945 he had again left the country, his mature work still shares basic features with those of Lezama and his followers. In addition Carpentier published significant stories in the magazine run by Lezama and José Rodríguez Feo, including "Officio de tinieblas," "Semejante a la noche" (Like the Night), and fragments of El acoso. One should not be misled by Carpentier's apparent lack of Catholic faith, an important factor with Lezama and his disciples. In 1949, in an important essay published in Caracas, Carpentier eulogized the Catholic Paul Claudel, and soon, in the prologue to El reino de este mundo, Carpentier demanded that the Spanish-American artist have faith, no longer a religious one, but in the culture and art of the Continent. This particular position of Carpentier's does not differ much from that of Orígenes .

La música en Cuba (Music in Cuba, 1946), published in Mexico, was conceived with an enthusiasm that could be called the aesthetic of Orígenes. That is, Carpentier's attempt to trace the origins of Cuban music and its peculiarities was motivated by the same desire to understand the essence of Cuban culture that stimulated Lezama and his group. The background to the stories Carpentier published in Orígenes is the sugar region close to nineteenth-century Havana, where the most important aspects of a future national culture persevered; the research needed to recreate that environment arose from Carpentier's investigations while writing La música en Cuba. Furthermore the majority of the stories collected in Guerra del tiempo (1958; translated as The War of Time, 1970) came out of that research, and the same can be said of El reino de este mundo. The Orígenes artists, especially Lezama, practiced a kind of telluric transcendentalism, a search for origins that would instill in their work precisely the kind of religious aura that Carpentier suggests in his prologue to El reino de este mundo. In La música en Cuba , using the research methods he had learned in Paris, Carpentier reaches back to the sixteenth century to the first ballads Spanish mariners sang on the island, to the music of the native rituals, and to the ritual music of the Africans.

But Carpentier discovered a more recent origin of Cuban music, which led him to Haiti and the Haitian Revolution, which is the theme of El reino de este mundo . The catalyst in the creation of Cuban music was the combination of Cuban elements and those features brought to Cuba by Haitian exiles, who arrived mostly at Santiago de Cuba. The main importation was the contredance (country dance), which became in Cuba the contradanza and led to the habanera, which became famous in Georges Bizet's opera Carmen (1875). From the habanera came the danzón, from which contemporary forms of Cuban music are derived. Besides the importance that this theory has for the study of Cuban music, for Carpentier it meant discovering a first stage in Cuban history, a departure whose principal component was the black presence on the island. If Carpentier could suggest a new beginning for the evolution of the history of Cuba and of the Caribbean in general, what would make that history coherent and link the events that composed it? This is the problem Carpentier confronts in his fiction of the 1940s. During earlier years Carpentier had dealt with similar issues, but these had now acquired a historical dimension that would draw him back to the novel form. Carpentier would not return to the present in his fiction until Los pasos perdidos in 1953, at which time, faced with the dilemma of history, he reconsidered the question of origin and of a beginning.

The six years Carpentier spent in Cuba between 1939 and 1945, when he and his wife moved to Caracas, were a period of great activity. His radio programs were a great success, and he mingled with the best writers and painters of the island. In 1943 the French actor Louis Jouvet went on a tour that brought him to Cuba, and there he convinced Carpentier to accompany him to Haiti. Carpentier made the trip and was awestruck by the ruins of the Haitian Revolution at La Ferriere and Sans Souci. They inspired him, along with his research on the origins of music, to write El reino de este mundo. He also traveled to Mexico, where he signed a contract with Fondo de Cultura Económica for the publication of La música en Cuba. He then went to New York, where the Columbia Broadcasting Company proposed that he write radio programs directed to Latin America. Carpentier and Lilia stayed at the elegant Warwick Hotel in the center of Manhattan, and there they began to ponder their future. Carpentier imagined what his life would be like in the big city, living in the suburbs, traveling daily by train and subway to work, anonymous in the immense human masses of New York. The couple decided to return to Cuba, and immediately Carpentier accepted an offer from Carlos Frías, a friend from the Paris days, who was founding Publicidad Ars, which would become one of the most important advertising agencies in Venezuela when the impact of North American capital and petroleum began to transform the Venezuelan economy. Carpentier's knowledge of radio and his proven managerial skills made him an ideal candidate for the position Frías offered.

In Caracas, Carpentier succeeded in becoming one of the best-known and most-respected writers of Latin America, but it was not easy. There was no market for Latin-American novels. Carpentier was forced to help finance the publication of El reino de este mundo , and Los pasos perdidos, the two novels that brought him fame in the 1950s. His first work of fiction from an international publishing house was El acoso, published by Losada in Buenos Aires in 1956. By this time Carpentier had already won two literary prizes in France. In 1954 the French translation of El reino de este mundo was selected as one of the most significant books of the year in France, and in 1956 the French version of Los pasos perdidos was given the prize for the best foreign book of the year. Carpentier was already fifty-two when Losada decided to publish El acoso . Two years later, in 1958, the Compañía General de Ediciones, in Mexico City, collected the stories Carpentier published in the 1940s and early 1950s, together with El acoso, and produced Guerra del tiempo, which would have great success. A year later the same company published a second edition of Los pasos perdidos , which was the first to have a wide circulation in the Spanish-speaking world. On the threshold of the 1959 Cuban revolution, Carpentier was becoming one of the principal novelists in Latin America.

Carpentier has often said that Venezuela widened his vision of Latin America because of the variety of landscapes and the variegated races of its people. Venezuela had all the features that characterized the New World: enormous mountains, plains, bountiful rivers, woods, the ocean, and a population composed of whites, blacks, and Indians. But Venezuela also allowed Carpentier to rethink his conception of history and his theories on the origins and characteristics of that history. This he accomplished in the process that led him to write Los pasos perdidos . Carpentier, in his work as a publicist for a company with strong ties to the United States, lived out in Caracas something of the experience he had rejected in New York. Caracas was undergoing a major transformation that put Carpentier in touch with a postindustrial society and in direct contact with the mass communication that characterizes it. Publicidad Ars produced television and radio commercials as well as programs for both media. During his summer vacations Carpentier took trips into the jungle, where he had an opportunity to experience the sensation of escape and a return to origins. Carpentier, in short, experienced a Latin America of the future and one of the most remote past, which furnished him with the reflective stance found in Los pasos perdidos.

Carpentier led a multiple existence in Caracas: he was a publicist, journalist, writer, professor, lecturer, and promoter of music festivals. His success as a publicist was definitive. In journalism "Letra y Solfa" (Letters and Music), the almost-daily column he wrote for El Nacional, kept the Caracan public up-to-date on music, literature, the visual arts, and the latest European news (the best of these columns were collected and published in 1975). When one remembers that he also finished or wrote El reino de este mundo, "El camino de Santiago" (1954; translated as "Highroad of St. James," 1970; collected in Guerra del tiempo), El acosoLos pasos perdidos, and El siglo de las luces, one has to admire the discipline and scope of his work.

Carpentier carried the manuscript for the last of these novels in his luggage when he returned to Cuba in July 1959, after the revolution. The book was published in 1962 and became one of the so-called Spanish-American boom novels.

In order to return to Cuba, Carpentier had to close down his comfortable home in Caracas and leave behind his secure position. In Caracas, Carpentier had the prestige, the money, and the social position he had striven for much of his life. Carpentier's connection with the revolutionary Cuban government would transform him into a controversial figure in Spanish-American cultural politics, especially when many artists and intellectuals became disillusioned with the revolution as a result of its repressive politics and increasing dependence on the Soviet Union. Carpentier was always faithful to Fidel Castro's regime: he signed every manifesto, supported the policies of the government, turned his back on friends who did not, participated in all the regime's formalities, and refrained from criticism. The revolutionary government rewarded Carpentier with a privileged position. He spent from 1968 until the end of his life in France as a cultural attaché for European affairs, while life in Cuba became increasingly difficult. He was allowed privileges, such as the ability to receive royalties, when Cuba would not recognize copyright laws,and other Cuban writers could neither receive foreign payment nor publish outside the island.

Carpentier was able to travel with all the conveniences and guarantees of his diplomatic status, while José Lezama Lima was denied permission to attend foreign symposia about his work. In Paris, Carpentier aided Cuban policies by appearing before the Russell Tribunal, which denounced U.S. activities in Vietnam, but he also took advantage of his diplomatic status by traveling all through Europe. These contradictions distanced Carpentier from some of the "boom" writers, with whom he had always had a somewhat tense relationship anyway. For some of those writers rebellion was conceived more as a counterculture than Carpentier's docile and solicitous relations with the Cuban Communist bureaucracy. From 1952 to 1958 Carpentier lived a peaceful existence in Venezuela during the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez; from 1959 until his death in 1980 he lived under the regime of Castro. Carpentier successfully directed the Editorial Nacional (national publishing firm) from 1962 to 1966, published novels and short stories, traveled all over the world, and participated in literary panels. This amounted to nearly thirty years of life under governments directed by Latin-American strongmen, during which time Carpentier prospered and wrote his most important work.

Carpentier probably saw in the Cuban revolution the culmination of a kind of theodicy similar to the one present in many of his books, a synthesis of politics and art, the unity of a desire for a utopia and its realization in history. Inspired perhaps by the feeling that life ultimately imitates art, Carpentier did not care to test too severely the connection of such lofty ideals with the practice of politics, and he looked the other way.

It would be foolish to criticize Carpentier for the privileges that his monumental work afforded him, but it is shallow to cast him as a political activist. And it is wrong to think that his life was a model of political deportment more deserving of unqualified praise than of analysis. It is much more worthwhile to study Carpentier's decisions, in all their complexity, during the revolution, including his becoming, or allowing himself to be made, a member of the Cuban Communist party. When Carpentier returned to Cuba in 1959, he was impelled to do so probably by a desire to join a victorious political movement whose beginnings glimmered in the revolution of 1933, which had marked his youth. The ambiguity that Marinello had reproached him for and the neutrality that Neruda, in his memoirs, charged him with, must have weighed Carpentier down. The battle between a life of reflection and one of action was a dilemma for Carpentier, and it is a poignant theme in some of his novels, especially Los pasos perdidos and El siglo de las luces. Once he had devoted himself to the revolution, it would have been difficult to retreat from it, even though the political situation on the island was worsening.

Remaining with the revolution in 1959, during a period when most Cubans glorified it, was easy; but breaking with it in 1968, or 1971, or during any of the crises with the intellectuals, would have been difficult. The latter would have been a truly political gesture with enormous risks, and Carpentier was not particularly the kind of man given to political acts that might run great risks. He had railed against "committed" literature in the 1940s and 1950s, and he only attempted it, with little success, in La consagración de la primavera (The Consecration of Spring, 1979), when it was no longer dangerous to do so. He thus passively accepted the government's demands on others while producing books that were replete with aspects of the baroque. In private he admired Jorge Luis Borges, but in public he refrained from protesting the unavailability of the Argentine's work to Cuban readers. He maintained a friendship with Carlos Fuentes in private, but he said nothing publicly about the Mexican writer's break with the Cuban revolution.

The social criticism in Carpentier's work does not emanate from a given ideological or doctrinal position. His fiction revindicates black heritage in Spanish America, especially in the Caribbean, and inexorably chronicles the injustices in the history of the New World since the conquest.

El siglo de las luces , the novel Carpentier had in his suitcase when he arrived in Havana in 1959, incited much debate about political issues. For some the novel is a kind of roman à clef about the Cuban Revolution, an idea that is absurd because the book was written in Caracas before the revolution. Others have attempted to identify any changes Carpentier made in the novel once he joined the revolution. Still others realize that Carpentier's novel not only has little Marxism in it but also seems completely at odds with Marxist doctrine. The book was a best-seller. Carpentier profited from his success as a writer, and his association with Cuba put him in a brighter limelight. El siglo de las luces had an immediate impact on writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Fuentes, to a large extent because it presents a working out of the problems Carpentier introduced in Los pasos perdidos, and it provides a model of how to write fiction in Latin America that is based on the history of the New World. His narratives written in the 1940s, including El reino de este mundo, are aimed at a convergence or correspondence between the natural world of Spanish America and its history. Fiction was to be for Carpentier the fusion of both worlds, hence the circularities, repetitions, and reiterations. However, in Los pasos perdidos Carpentier put his romantic ideology to the test, and the result was that there is no such continuity between nature and history: only the political events of history are its points of departure. Culture is fabricated by humanity. Its origin is not in the jungle, but in those acts of foundation carried out by man. In El siglo de las luces echoes of the French Revolution catalyze a series of political events not linked to the natural world, as are the revolts in El reino de este mundo, but encompassing writing, architecture, and every cultural manifestation. El siglo de las luces is made up of a symbolic system like that of the Hebrew Cabala, which prioritizes hidden codes not based on reason, as the eighteenth-century philosophers and revolutionaries claimed, but on a kind of universal superreason that binds all cultures together. The title of Carpentier's novel (literally, The Century of the Lights) alludes, then, ironically, to the lights of reason, inasmuch as the lights also refer to the Zohar , or "Book of Splendors," the principal text of the Cabala, written in Spain by Moisés de León in the fifteenth century. The novel, which begins in Havana at the end of the eighteenth century, ends in Madrid after the historic events of the second of May--the last scenes of the novel are based on Francisco José de Goya's paintings. El siglo de las luces is a work of extraordinary figurative richness, using actual documentary sources (the protagonist, Victor Hugues, is based on a real historical figure with that name). Apart from its value as a novel, it is one of the most profound studies of the transition from the Enlightenment to the Romantic age in Latin America.

After El siglo de las luces there was a hiatus of twelve years in Carpentier's novelistic production, similar to the one between ¡Ecue-Yamba-O! and Viaje a la semilla. However, in 1964 Carpentier published a book of essays that had an enormous impact on Latin-American literature: Tientos y diferencias (Probes and Differences), which contains Carpentier's recent pieces, but also has others from his stay in Caracas, especially the revised and enlarged prologue to El reino de este mundo, an essay originally published in El Nacional in 1948. In that prologue, which had received little attention even after being published in the novel, Carpentier had proposed a theory that, when it reappeared in Tientos y diferencias, during the boom of the Latin-American novel and at the height of the Cuban revolution, created rifts among critics of the Spanish-American novel. This theory was dubbed by Carpentier "marvelous [Latin-] American reality." In truth, during the period in which Carpentier published Tientos y diferencias, neither his work nor his avowed political position corresponded with the theories of the prologue. Carpentier's theories come from surrealism, Oswald Spengler, and a lebensphilosophie that led him to hypothesize that Spanish-American art arises from an act of faith during which the artist becomes one with nature. In reality, as one sees in El reino de este mundo, there has to be a gap between the premodern Spanish-American ambience and the artist's modern point of view, which is equivalent to saying that an ironic perspective persists in the novel. This is also what occurs in El siglo de las luces, where the origin that is pursued is not a natural one but a political one. The theories of the essay do not conform to El siglo de las luces , and the portion of the essay that makes up the original prologue to El reino de este mundo does not agree with what was added after 1959, which concerns a trip Carpentier took to China and the Soviet Union.

Carpentier's theories on the Latin-American baroque, also in Tientos y diferencias, are more coherent. They are also more consistent with his novels close to that time. Carpentier understood the baroque as a mixture of styles in a single work, a combination that corresponds to the different roots of each style. Spanish-American art, which always tends toward the baroque, exhibits that mixture of styles, which is at the same time a kind of temporal disconnection; the neoclassical coexists in architecture with vestiges of the mudéjar and the modern style. The mixture renders it impossible for each work to be centered in one idea that dominates the rest. It is not an amalgam whose metaphoric base is the natural world, a kind of chaos of Romantic origin, but a coexistence of forms whose origins are the different cultures that people the Latin-American scene--hence the apparently permanent disproportion of such art, not only in terms of size but in terms of the lack of equilibrium in the different parts. Neruda's Canto general (General Song), with its overly ambitious desire to encompass all of Spanish-American history, is an example of this lack of proportion. Carpentier's story "Los escogidos" (The Chosen), where the Noahs of various cultures come together during the flood that seems to be part of every mythological tradition, is another example, but with an attempt at order in diversity, restraint among disproportion, and a multiplicity of origins that only cancel one another. These are the characteristics of the Latin-American baroque, according to Carpentier. García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (1967; translated as One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970) was evidently conceived under the influence of Carpentier's ideas.

In 1974, as if to commemorate his seventieth birthday, Carpentier finally published two more novels: Concierto barroco (Baroque Concert) and El recurso del método (translated as Reasons of State, 1976). Concierto barroco is a return to the Afro-Antillian movement, since one of its protagonists is black and it is a practical test of Carpentier's ideas on the baroque. The final moment of this brief work is a jam session in the Ospedale della Pieta, where all the characters join in with the musical instruments of their traditions. The work makes chronological leaps: it begins in the eighteenth century in Spanish America and ends in the twentieth in Europe, when Filomeno, the black Cuban slave, leaves his master to attend a Louis Armstrong concert in Paris.

El recurso del método is a novel about a dictator, which takes place in a Spanish-American country that is a synthesis of several countries; the central character is based on several dictators, the most important being Cuba's Gerardo Machado. The dictator, a tragicomic figure, or figurehead, who wants to appear refined and spends half his life in Europe, is a parody of the head of state as a product of telluric forces. Carpentier's dictator is surrounded not by natural elements but by products that are flagrantly artificial: the background for political meetings is made of cardboard, and fake palms make everything look like an opera decor. El recurso del método, whose title is a distortion of René Descartes's Discours de la Méthode (1637), is a profoundly comic novel, the only one of Carpentier's that openly demonstrates this characteristic. As in Concierto barroco the major focus is the mixture of elements from different cultural traditions, which manifest themselves as false when they come into contact with each other, and that together are a kind of baroque summa of artifice. The dictator is the center of that proliferating artificiality and ends up having no control over anything; his own self is false and empty, the point of intersection for the various traditions. This approach constitutes not only a criticism of political authority but also the author's authority--he is a tiny dictator who controls, or tries to control, his fictive universe. Carpentier's dictator, a music lover and a Francophile who divides his life between Spanish America and France, is representative of Carpentier himself.

Carpentier's two final novels are very different from each other. La consagración de la primavera , whose title refers to Igor Stravinsky's work, is a long autobiographical novel in which Carpentier, among other things, rewrites Los pasos perdidos: modern man, looking for meaning in his life, finds it not in the remote past but in the future. The novel organizes history in a teleological way. Carpentier begins with the Spanish Civil War, which is seen as a result of the Russian October Revolution, and finishes with the Cuban Revolution. Carpentier writes his life according to how he would have liked to have led it: one character is an architect, another a writer, and another a musician. The most autobiographical of all is an advertising man, but he ends up as a revolutionary activist, wounded at the Bay of Pigs. The novel is melodramatic, poorly written, pedantic, boring, and it was a critical and commercial failure. El arpa y la sombra (The Harp and the Shadow, 1979) was written when Carpentier knew he was dying of cancer; the novel brings a kind of ironic balance to his work. Carpentier projects himself in the figure of Christopher Columbus, the first American "narrator," as a last resort to find the origin of American writing. The pretext is the investigation that was carried out in the nineteenth century, when canonization was being considered for the discoverer, and the trial that was held to that effect in the Vatican. In one strand of the novel Columbus is on his deathbed reminiscing about his life. Readers find out that it was by seducing Queen Isabella that Columbus convinced her to help him, thereby rendering the entire American enterprise part of an illicit love affair. Columbus, of course, is not canonized, and the negative decision undoubtedly alludes to the many occasions that Carpentier (though expected to) did not win the Nobel Prize.

The novel is based on documentary sources that reconstruct Columbus's life, as if Carpentier wished to show his hand, that is, the artifice, subtly. The result is almost more of a rococo miniature than a baroque work. The end of Carpentier's work is this refined joke, this magnificent display of technical mastery, and this ironic vision of his own literary enterprise. History is not moved by great events or by economic forces but by something more human, like passion. In the end Carpentier seems to have chosen Sigmund Freud over Marx. The origin that Carpentier sought is in a love affair, not in the depths of the jungle or the vagaries of history.

Carpentier's death came in Paris, after he had gotten up early to write and had attended an official function in his diplomatic capacity. He died in his home, with Lilia at his side, on 24 April 1980.


From: González-Echevarría, Roberto. "Alejo Carpentier (26 December 1904-24 April 1980).Modern Latin-American Fiction WritersFirst Series, edited by William Luis, vol. 113, Gale, 1992, pp. 96-109. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 113.


  • Further Reading
    • César Leante, "Confesiones sencillas de un escritor barroco," Cuba, 3, no. 24 (1964): 30-33.
    • Klaus Müller-Bergh, "Conversando con Carpentier: Paris 1974," Casa de las Américas, 131 (1982): 117-122.
    • Entrevistas (Havana: Letras Cubanas, 1985).
    • Roberto González-Echevarría and Klaus Müller-Bergh, Alejo Carpentier: Bibliographical Guide (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1983).
    • Araceli García-Carranza, Biobibliografía de Alejo Carpentier (Havana: Letras Cubanas, 1984).
    • Lloyd King, Alejo Carpentier, Caribbean Writer (St. Augustine, Trinidad: University of the West Indies Press, 1977).
    • Roberto González-Echevarría, Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977).
    • Eduardo González, Alejo Carpentier: El tiempo del hombre (Caracas: Monte Avila, 1978).
    • José Vila Selma, El "ultimo" Carpentier (Las Palmas, Spain: Mancomunicadad del Cabildo, 1978).
    • Leonardo Acosta, Música y épica en la novela de Alejo Carpentier (Havana: Letras Cubanas, 1981).
    • Carlos J. Alonso, "Viaje a la semilla," Modern Language Notes, 94 (March 1979): 386-393.
    • Salvador Arias, ed., Recopilación de textos sobre Alejo Carpentier (Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1977).
    • Frederick A. de Armas, "Metamorphosis as Revolt: Cervantes' Persiles y Segismunda and Carpentier's El reino de este mundo,Hispanic Review, 49 (Summer 1981): 297-316.
    • Antonio Benítez-Rojo, "'El camino de Santiago' de Alejo Carpentier y el Canon perpetuus de Juan Sebastián Bach: Paralelismo estructural," Revista Iberoamericana, 49 (April-September 1983): 293-322.
    • Benítez-Rojo, "'Semejante a la noche' de Alejo Carpentier y el Canon per tonos de Juan Sebastián Bach: Su paralelismo estructural," Eco, 43 (April 1983): 645-662.
    • Ramón Chao, Palabras en el tiempo de Alejo Carpentier (Barcelona: Argos Vergara, 1984).
    • Ariel Dorfman, "Entre Proust y la momia americana: Siete notas y un epílogo sobre El recurso del método,Revista Iberoamericana, 47 (January-June 1981): 95-128.
    • Dorfman, "El sentido de la historia en la obra de Alejo Carpentier," in his Imaginación y violencia en América (Caracas: Nuevo Siglo, 1976).
    • Helmy F. Giacoman, ed., Homenaje a Alejo Carpentier (New York: Las Américas, 1970).
    • Roberto González-Echevarría, "Socrates Among the Weeds: Blacks and History in Carpentier's Explosion in a Cathedral," in Voices from Under: Black Narrative in Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by William Luis (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1984), pp. 35-53.
    • Frank Janny, Alejo Carpentier and His Early Works (London: Tamesis, 1981).
    • Jo Labanyi, "Nature and the Historical Process in Carpentier's El siglo de las luces,Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 57 (1980): 55-66.
    • William Luis, "Historia, naturaleza y memoria en 'Viaje a la semilla,'" Revista Iberoamericana, 154 (1991): 151-160.
    • Sharon Magnarelli, "'El Camino de Santiago' de Alejo Carpentier y la picaresca," Revista Iberoamericana, 40, no. 86 (1974): 65-86.
    • Alexis Marques Rodríguez, El barroco y lo real maravilloso en la obra de Alejo Carpentier (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1982).
    • Marques Rodríguez, La obra narrativa de Alejo Carpentier (Caracas: Universidad Central, 1970).
    • Nora Mazziotti, ed., Historia y mito en la obra de Alejo Carpentier (Buenos Aires: García Cambeiro, 1972).
    • Klaus Müller-Bergh, ed., Asedios a Carpentier (Santiago, Chile: Universitaria, 1972).
    • Angel Rama, "Los productivos años setenta de Alejo Carpentier," Latin American Research Review, 16, no. 2 (1981): 224-245.
    • Modesto Sánchez, "El fondo histórico de El acoso,Revista Iberoamericana, 41, nos. 92-93 (1975): 397-442.
    • Donald L. Shaw, Alejo Carpentier (Boston: Twayne, 1985).
    • Emma S. Speratti-Piñero, Pasos hallados en El reino de este mundo (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 1981).
    • Frances Wyers Weber, "El acoso: Alejo Carpentier's War on Time," Publications of the Modern Languages Association of America, 78 (September 1963): 440-448.