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Journey Back to the Source (Viaje a la Semilla) by Alejo Carpentier, 1944

JOURNEY BACK TO THE SOURCE (Viaje a la semilla)
By Alejo Carpentier, 1944

The Cuban novelist who invented the phrase "lo real maravilloso americano," Alejo Carpentier considered "Journey Back to the Source" ("Viaje a la semilla") to be the story from which his maturity as a writer began. First published in 1944, the same year as Jorge Luis Borges's Ficciones and collected in War of Time (1970), "Journey Back to the Source" starts from an idea so simple and so universal that a six-year-old has uttered it, "What if we could live our lives backwards?" The story answers that, living forward or living backward, we end in the same place: clay returns to clay. What is important, then, is not the source but rather the journey, the stories people spin out in idleness as they wait for death, a destination reached by the "hours growing on the right-hand side of the clock."

Unlike Carpentier's later work, where the "marvelous" accrues from the juxtaposition of different realities, this story depends on a magician and an explicitly literary trick. A mumbling old black man roves the ruins of a dilapidated colonial mansion being demolished by workmen. With the workmen gone for the day, the old man twirls his stick over "a graveyard of paving stones"; the house magically puts itself back together, and the man enters the house, where the Marqués de Capellanías lies dead. Once he has reset time's direction and lit the lamps, the Afro-Cuban sorcerer and his magical reality vanish into the text. Although the story includes other Afro-Cubans, he is not among them. Nor does the story propose (as Carpentier's later work does) that the man's magic is real in his world though not in ours: unelaborated, the sorcerer's world is not contrasted to our rationalist one. The character derives from Carpentier's interest in Afro-Cuban culture, music, and magic, evident in his first novel, ¡Ecue-yambo-Ó! (1933), and in his next, The Kingdom of This World (El reino de este mundo; 1949). But here the sorcerer's trick constitutes the reality of the text and so resembles the trompes l'oeil that begin The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos) and Reasons of State (El recurso del método).

Outside the house, before the old man acts, a rich, baroque, typically encrusted description establishes the simultaneity of decay and renewal. Walls have sloughed their paper like snakes shed their old skins; capitals lie fallen against their natural propensities, yet the vines recognize their affinity with the acanthus of fallen columns and twine round them. A door frame lets in the darkness. Once the house is reassembled, in the room where the marquess lies the tall candles grow longer and longer until a nun puts them out with a light. When the doctor shakes his head to indicate that there is no hope, the dying man feels better at once. Thus, gradually, delightedly, the reader realizes that he is moving not forward but backward in time.

Going back, everything passes much more quickly. The ruined marquess trades bankruptcy for mourning, mourning for romance, romance for spiritual crisis, spiritual crises for toy grenadiers, the groom, and the only true perspective on a house—the one from the floor. He finally renounces the light, and all grows dark, warm, moist again. As he "slips towards life," everything else in the house rushes still faster and farther back: wool gloves unravel to return to their sheep, palm trees close their fronds and slip into the earth, metal dissolves, all things return to their original state, and a desert appears where the house once was. The next day the workmen return, but the house they were to demolish is gone, the statue of Ceres carted off and sold. So they sit out the day. One tells the story of the drowning of the Marquesa de Capellanías, but no one marks it "because the sun was traveling from east to west, and the hours growing on the right-hand side of the clock must be spun out by idleness—for they are the ones that inevitably lead to death."

Like Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, whose hero tells his story from the moment of his conception, or Machado de Assis in Epitaph for a Small Winner, whose hero begins his story just after his death, Carpentier starts from a conceit—a smart, clever, ingenious idea. Nor does he spoil it in the telling. While accounts of the story emphasize its portentous allegory, the tale itself, the reader's journey, is ironic, witty, and fun. Carpentier is not the first author to put time in reverse. Manuel Durán supplies examples from Quevedo to H. G. Wells and observes that film runs its action backwards or forwards with equal ease. Carpentier makes explicit the fictive and/or magical nature of this backward movement by setting the marquess's reversed time within ordinary, realistic, forward-moving time and by paralleling the storyteller at the end with the magician at the beginning. The storyteller makes comprehensible (and forces the reader back through the text) the otherwise indecipherable death of the marquesa by water. He thus supplements the other story we have just been told and returns us to our own forward time.

With its search for (illusory) origins, its loving descriptions of colonial luxury, its contrast between past and present, its typical rather than individual protagonist, and its account of the material decline of an effete aristocracy, the story adumbrates much of Carpentier's later writing. Critics dispute whether the conclusion represents a glorious return to nature or a dismal annihilation of the human race. This antithesis is too simple, since the fiction enacts an exuberant, uniquely human contemplation of the dismal reality, always and forever impending, of the annihilation of our last trace. In Spanish the title of the story, "Viaje a la semilla," literally means "journey" (or "voyage") to the "seed," which is feminine. Since "seed" in English denotes semen, which is masculine, spurting out to join the egg, it cannot be used to describe the trip back up the vaginal canal to our source. Yet the ironic balance is maintained: of two deaths in the story, one takes us to water, the other to clay. Though the new growth may be unrecognizable, seeds in clay and water do come up again.

—Regina Janes

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