Carpentier (y Valmont), Alejo

views updated

CARPENTIER (y Valmont), Alejo

Nationality: Cuban. Born: Havana, 26 December 1904. Education: The University of Havana. Family: Married Andrea Esteban. Career: Journalist, Havana, 1921-24; editor, Carteles magazine, Havana, 1924-28; director, Foniric Studios, Paris, 1928-39; writer and producer, CMZ radio station, Havana, 1939-41; professor of history of music, Conservatorio Nacional, Havana, 1941-43. Lived in Haiti, Europe, the United States, and South America, 1943-59. Director, Cuban Publishing House, Havana, 1960-67; cultural attaché, Cuban Embassy, Paris, from 1967; columnist, El National, Caracas; editor, Imam, Paris. Died: 24 April 1980.



Obras completas. 1983—.

Short Stories

Viaje a la semilla (story). 1944; as "Journey Back to the Source," in War of Time, 1970.

El acoso (novella). 1956; as The Chase, 1989.

Guerra del tiempo: Tres relatos y una novela: El Camino de Santiago, Viaje a la semilla, Semejante a la noche, y El acoso. 1958.

War of Time. 1970.

El derecho de asilo, Dibujos de Marcel Berges. 1972; El derecho de asilo as "Right of Sanctuary," in War of Time, 1970.

Cuentos. 1977.


¡Écue-yamba-Ó! 1933.

El reino de este mundo. 1949; as The Kingdom of This World, 1957.

Los pasos perdidos. 1953; as The Lost Steps, 1956.

El siglo de las luces. 1962; as Explosion in a Cathedral, 1963.

Los convidados de plata (unfinished novel). 1972.

Concierto barroco. 1974; translated as Concierto barroco, 1988.

El recurso del método. 1974; as Reasons of State, 1976.

La consagración de la primavera. 1979.

El arpa y la sombra. 1979; as The Harp and the Shadow, 1990.


Yamba-O, music by M.F. Gaillard (produced 1928).

La passion noire, music by M.F. Gaillard (produced 1932).


Dos poemas afrocubanos, music by A. Garcia Caturla. 1929.

Poèmes des Antilles, music by M.F. Gaillard. 1929.


La música en Cuba. 1946.

Tientos y diferencias: Ensayos. 1964; as Tientos, diferencias y otros ensayos, 1987.

Literatura y consciencia política en América Latina. 1969.

La ciudad de las columnas, photographs by Paolo Gasparini. 1970.

Letra y solfa (selection), edited by Alexis Márquez Rodríguez. 1975.

Crónicas (articles). 1976.

Bajo el Signo de la Cibeles: Crónicas sobre España y los españoles 1925-1937, edited by Julio Rodríguez Puértolas. 1979.

El adjetivo y sus arrugas. 1980.

La novela latinoamericana en vísperas de un nuevo siglo y otros ensayos. 1981.

Ensayos (selected essays).

Entrevistas, edited by Virgilio López Lemus. 1985.



Carpentier: Biographical Guide/Guía Biligráfica by Roberto González Echevarría and Klaus Müller-Bergh, 1983.

Critical Studies:

Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpentier by M. Ian Adams, 1975; Major Cuban Novelists: Innovation and Tradition by Raymond D. Souza, 1976; Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home by Roberto González Echevarría, 1977; Carpentier and His Early Works by Frank Janney, 1981; Carpentier: Los pasos perdidos (in English) by Verity Smith, 1983; Alchemy of a Hero: A Comparative Study of the Works of Carpentier and Mario Vargas Llosa by Bob M. Tusa, 1983; Carpentier by Donald L. Shaw, 1985; Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant by Barbara J. Webb, 1992; Carpentier's Proustian Fiction: The Influence of Marcel Proust on Alejo Carpentier by Sally Harvey, 1994.

* * *

Although Alejo Carpentier is best known as a novelist, he has written some very fine short stories, the most important of which are collected in English in War of Time. Raised in Cuba, the son of a Russian mother and a French father, Carpentier tried to synthesize in his fiction the major elements of Latin American and European cultures. He was especially interested in the blacks and Indians of the Caribbean, and became a leading practitioner of magical realism, a poetic fusion of reality and fantasy.

Carpentier's most anthologized story, "Journey Back to the Source," attempts to negate normal temporal progression by narrating the life of its protagonist in reverse, from death to birth. Two of his best tales are "Like the Night" and "The Highroad of Saint James." In the former the five protagonists are warriors departing for war from ancient times to the twentieth century. The first of these is preparing to join Agamemnon's army to lay siege to Troy and rescue Helen from her infamous captors; the second is a sixteenth-century Spanish youth departing for the New World to enhance the glory of God and the Spanish king; the goals of the third warrior, who is leaving for the French colonies in America, are to civilize the savages and achieve wealth and glory for himself; the thirteenth-century crusades motivate the departure of the fourth warrior; and the last of the five is an American determined to vanquish the "Teutonic Order" opposing the allies during World War I. In the final pages the Greek warrior reappears, but as he boards the ship for Troy he becomes aware that his suffering will soon begin, that his true mission is not to rescue Helen, who is being used for propaganda purposes, but rather to satisfy the ambitions of politicians and businessmen seeking power and economic gain. Carpentier destroys the barriers of time by depicting archetypal situations and by suggesting that although individual identities change, human behavior (based on the desire for power, wealth, prestige, and sexual gratification) remains the same throughout history.

In some respects "The Highroad of Saint James" resembles "Like the Night," but instead of portraying different protagonists in similar situations it depicts a single protagonist in a series of episodes that, like those of the previous tale, suggest circular instead of lineal time. Juan of Antwerp, a sixteenth-century Spanish soldier stationed in Flanders, falls ill with the plague and vows to do penance in Santiago de Compostela, the site of the tomb of St. James, if he recovers his health. (The story's title in Spanish, "El camino de Santiago," also means the Milky Way, which supposedly guides pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.) In the Spanish city of Burgos Juan of Antwerp (now Juan the Pilgrim), once again physically fit, abandons his pledge to God and surrenders to the desires of the flesh. Also in Burgos he is convinced by a charlatan recently returned from the Americas that he should proceed to Seville and from there to the Americas, where he can make his fortune. Juan sails to Cuba, but in Havana he kills a man and is forced to flee, eventually making his way back to Spain as Juan the West Indian. In Burgos again, Juan the West Indian meets a young man, also named Juan, who is on his way to Santiago de Compostela. But Juan the West Indian convinces this second Juan the Pilgrim to accompany him to Seville, from where they set out for the Americas under the "starry heavens … white with galaxies" (translated by Frances Partridge). In addition to the cyclical repetition of the human experience, "The Highroad of Saint James" dramatizes the struggle between earthly reality and the heavenly ideal (the latter symbolized by the story's title). Thus the two sinners' departure for the New World under star-studded skies ends the story on an optimistic note.

"Right of Sanctuary" and "The Chosen" are fine examples of satire, the former of Latin American politics and the latter of religious bigotry and war. The protagonist of "Right of Sanctuary" is the secretary to the president of a Latin American nation who manages to escape to the embassy of a small neighboring nation when the president is overthrown by General Mabillán. After several weeks of boredom in the drab embassy, the secretary becomes the lover of the ambassador's wife. Then, having gradually assumed the duties of the ambassador, he applies for citizenship of the country represented by the embassy and ultimately is named ambassador of that country to his own. Meanwhile, General Mabillán feels obliged to accept this preposterous turn of events because he must settle a border dispute with the newly appointed ambassador's nation in order to receive aid from the United States. The absurdity of Carpentier's tale is further underscored by a series of cardboard Donald Ducks that are sold and replaced in a toy store opposite the embassy of sanctuary. This recurring image of Walt Disney's famous creation serves as a reminder of the ever-present American influence in Latin America.

"The Chosen" reflects Carpentier's research on cultures with myths similar to that of the Biblical deluge and Noah's ark. In this allegory the vessels of five "chosen ones," including Noah, meet during the flood, each captain believing that he alone has been selected by his deity to survive and repopulate a purified world. After the waters recede, the world indeed is repopulated but instead of peace, misunderstanding, violence, and war ensue.

In his short fiction Carpentier develops his principal existential preoccupations, including the archetypal patterns of human behavior, mythical as opposed to historical time, and the fusion of the real and the magical in Latin American life. Known for his baroque style and avant-garde literary techniques, he is considered a major innovator in Latin American letters and a writer of universal stature.

—George R. McMurray

See the essay on "Journey Back to the Source."

About this article

Carpentier (y Valmont), Alejo

Updated About content Print Article