Carpentier, Alejo: 1904-1980: Writer

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Alejo Carpentier: 1904-1980: Writer

One of the most important figures in modern Latin American literature, Alejo Carpentier wrote in a variety of forms that explored the ways that history and politics influenced the region's culture. His fiction, essays, and poetry consider the epic theme of European colonialism and its impact on the region's indigenous peoples. His work, which broke with more traditional literary styles, became an important influence for such major Latin American writers as Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes.

Carpentier was born on December 26, 1904, in Havana, Cuba. His father, Jorge Julian Carpentier y Valmont, was a French architect; his mother was Russian. The couple met in Switzerland and had moved to Cuba only two years before Alejo's birth. In 1912 the family traveled to Russia to collect an inheritance. While in Europe, they traveled widely through Belgium, Austria, and Russia before settling in Paris. There, Carpentier studied at the Lycee Jeanson de Sally, where he perfected his command of French, which the family spoke at home. When the future writer was in his early teens the family returned to Cuba, settling in the countryside near Havana.

Early Writing Led to Political Activism

Carpentier grew up in an affluent household and spent many boyhood hours in his father's private library, where he read the works of Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and other European writers. Because he had asthma, Carpentier often stayed inside, amusing himself with writing, reading, and playing the piano. At age 15 he began to write, contributing music reviews to El Heraldo de Cuba and La Discusion. After attending Colegio Mimo and Candler College, Carpentier enrolled at the Universidad de la Habana as an architecture student, but in 1922 he quit his studies to help support the family after his father disappeared. Within two years, he became chief editor of the experimental weekly magazine Carteles.

During the 1920s Carpentier became involved with the student movement to depose dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales. The young writer helped to found the radical magazine Revista de Avance, and signed a manifesto calling for sweeping reforms in culture and politics. The document called for an end to U.S. imperialism and the rule of dictators in Cuba, and also advocated reforms in art, education, and economics.

At a Glance . . .

Born on December 26, 1904, in Havana, Cuba; died on April 24, 1980, in Paris, France; son of Jorge Julian Carpentier y Valmont, an architect; married Eva Frejaville (second marriage), divorced 1939; married Lilia Esteban Hierro, 1941.

Career: Author, 1933-80; commercial journalist, Havana, Cuba, 1921-24; Cartels, Havana, editor-in-chief, 1924-28; Foniric Studios (radio), Paris, France, director and producer, 1928-39; CMZ radio, Havana, writer and producer, 1939-41; Conservatorio Nacional, Havana, professor of history of music, 1941-43; Cuban Publishing House, Havana, director, 1969-67; Embassy of Cuba, Paris, cultural attaché, 1966-80.

Awards: Priz du Meilleur Livre Etranger (France), 1956, for The Lost Steps; Cino del duca Prize, 1975; Prix Medici, 1979.

For these activities, Carpentier was sentenced to seven months in prison in 1927. While in prison he began work on his first novel, Ecue-Yamba-O!

After his release, Carpentier was banned from traveling outside of Cuba. But his political involvement nevertheless continued. With his friend, composer Amedeo Roldan, he organized a concert series and promoted Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean movements. The pair collaborated on the Afro-Cuban ballets El milagro de Anaquille and La Rebambaramba, with Carpentier contributing the scenarios and Roldan writing the music.

Exiled in France

Still under the suspicion of the Cuban government, Carpentier was able with the help of French poet Robert Desnos to escape to Paris in 1928. He remained there for eleven years. While in Paris, Carpen-tier presented the Afro-Cuban burlesque Yamba-O, with music by M. F. Gaillard. He also became active in the French avant-garde, establishing friendships with such figures as Andre Breton, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Hector Villa-Lobos, and other major figures in the arts. Carpentier became interested in the surrealist movement, which helped to change his perceptions of Latin American realities. But he later broke away from the movement. At the same time, he continued to contribute to Cuban magazines and worked as a journalist, lecturer, and writer for radio. He even wrote a fashion column under the pseudonym "Jacqueline."

Ecue-Yamba-O!, Carpentier's first novel, was published in Madrid in 1933, while Carpentier was still living in Paris. The novel was not well received, but it contained elements that were to become hallmarks of Carpentier's major works: exploration of black culture and identity in Cuba, and criticism of social oppression. The book is now recognized as the first important work to break with the traditional literary style in Cuba, which had been influenced by European models. After the publication of Ecue-Yamba-O! Carpentier continued to write nonfiction. He also became increasingly involved in the anti-fascist movement in France and mingled with numerous Spanish American artists and writers who had moved to Paris for political reasons.

Exile gave Carpentier the opportunity to immerse himself in the study of American history and culture. As he remarked in a piece quoted in Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, "America was seen as an enormous nebula that I tried to understand, because I felt vaguely that my work originated there, that [my work] was going to be profoundly American." Indeed, critics have argued that this attempt to understand himself as an Americanand thus the heir of indigenous, African, and European traditionswas the defining force of Carpentier's art.

Return to the Americas

In 1939 Carpentier, then 35 years old, returned to Cuba. He became editor of the Havana journal Tiempo Nuevo, and worked as a musicologist at Cuba's National Conservatory of Music. He also worked for Cuban radio stations. He divorced his second wife, whom he had married in Paris after the death of his first wife from tuberculosis, and married wealthy Cuban heiress Lilia Esteban Hierro in 1941. From that date on, he dedicated each of his books to Esteban. During the early 1940s Carpentier wrote a series of articles, "El ocaso de Europa" for Carteles. Critics consider these essays to be among his best works.

A visit to Haiti in 1943 with French actor Louis Jouvet inspired Carpentier's first well received novel, El reino de est mundo, which was published in 1949. In 1945 Carpentier moved to Caracas, Venezuela, to help establish the advertising agency Publicidad Ars with his friend Carlos Frias. While in Caracas, where he lived until 1959, Carpentier continued his work in journalism, teaching, and television. A visit to the interior of Venezuela inspired a series of four articles, "Vision de America," published in El Nacional in 1947. He also visited the region of the upper Orinoco River, which inspired his novel Los pasos perdidos, which was named best foreign book of the year in France in 1953. Many consider this work to be Carpentier's masterpiece. The novel was popular not only in its original Spanish, but was also hailed by English speaking critics as well who read the translated version entitled The Lost Steps. Like all of Carpentier's fiction, the novel deals with sweeping social themes. It tells the story of a musical conductor who travels into a remote region in Latin America in search of an ancient musical instrument. Instead he finds an ancient culture which allows him finally to discover the artistic voice within himself that his more "civilized" culture had suppressed. He decides to give up his successful life in New York City and return to this older culture, but when he attempts to locate the village once again he cannot find it. As Gregory Rabassa noted in a Saturday Review piece quoted in Contemporary Authors, "The Lost Steps is contemporary in time but is really a search for originsthe origin first of music and then of the whole concept of civilization."

When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, Carpentiera supporter of Castro's revolutionmade a triumphant return to his native land. He was appointed head of the Editorial Nacional and took a teaching position at Havana University. In 1962 he published the novel El siglo de las luces, which became a best seller. The book touches on such subjects as Marxist philosophy and the Cuban Revolution. In 1966 Carpentier was appointed cultural attaché for European affairs for Cuba, and moved back to Paris. Though he was to remain in Europe for the rest of his life, his work continued to focus on the social themes of the Americas. His novel El Recurso del metodo, published in 1974, presents the story of South American dictator who loves French culture and attempts to rule his fictional country, Nueva Cordoba, from his home in Paris. Every so often he must return to South America to put down attempts at revolutions. Gene H. Bell, in a New Boston Review article quoted in Contemporary Authors, described the novel as "no drama of the individual soul, but an imaginative evocation of the material and cultural forces of history." The critic went on to point out the book's overt political message, noting that "Carpentier places the Dictator (who is actually something of a cultural-historical caricature) within a broader global process, [and] shows how the petty brutalities of South American politics ultimately interlock with European and, later, U.S. interests."

Works Proliferated with Voluminous Knowledge

In addition to his acclaimed fiction, Carpentier produced a prolific array of essays and criticism on a broad range of themes, from music and visual art to literature and politics. His book on the history of Cuban music, La musica en Cuba, was published in 1946. In a 2001 review in Americas, Mark Holstein hailed the book as the "definitive work on the history of Cuban music" through the mid-twentieth century. Carpentier published another book on music, America Latina en su musica, in 1974. A three-volume work, Ese musico que llevo dentro, was published posthumously in 1980. Indeed, Carpentier's early musical training was a strong element not only in his nonfiction but in his fiction as well. His novel The Chase, for exampleas Christy Post pointed out in The Review of Contemporary Fiction is constructed "in the form of a sonata, and the action unfolds in exactly the amount of time it takes to perform Beethoven's Eroica Symphonyforty-six minutes."

Carpentier's writing became known not just for its engagement with political and historical themes but also for its encyclopedic scholarship. Carpentier's knowledge of anthropology, history, geography, natural sciences, music, visual art, folk traditions, and literature was on prominent display in his novels. Many critics admired this quality, while others suggested that it contributed to his relative lack of recognition among North Americans audiences. Nevertheless, Carpentier remained extremely popular in Latin America. In 1974, the Cuban government declared his birthday an occasion for official celebration, and awarded him an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana. Carpentier also received the Alfonso Reyes Prize in Mexico and the Cerro del Duca Prize. He was elected in 1976 as an Honorary Fellow of the University of Kansas. In 1979 he was awarded the Prix Medici.

When Carpentier died of cancer at his Paris home on April 24, 1980, he had just published Consagracion de la primavera, the first novel of a planned trilogy. He was buried in Cuba in the Necropolis de Colon.

Selected writings

Ecue-Yamba-O! (title means "Praised be the Lord"), Espana, 1933.

La musica en Cuba, Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1946.

El reino de este mundo, Ibero Americana, 1949; translated by Harriet de Onis as The Kingdom of This World, Knopf, 1957.

Los pasos perdidos, Ibero Americiana, 1953; translated by Harriet de Onis as The Lost Steps, Knopf, 1956, Gollancz, 1956.

El acoso, Losada, 1956; translated by Alfred Mac-Adam as The Chase, Farrar, Straus, 1990.

Guerra del tiempo, General, 1958; translated by Frances Partridge as The War of Time, Knopf, 1979, Gollancz, 1979.

El siglo de las luces, (title means "The Century of the Lights"), General, 1962; translated by John Sturrock as Explosion in a Cathedral, Little, Brown, 1963, Gollancz, 1963.

El Recurso de metodo, Siglo XXI, 1974; translated by Frances Partridge as Reasons of State, Knopf, 1976, Gollancz, 1976.

America Latina en su musica, UNESCO, 1975.

La consagracion de la primavera (title means "The Consecration of Spring"), Siglo Vientiuno, 1979.

Ese musico que llevo dentro, edited by Zoila Gomez Garcia, Letras Cubanas, 1980.



Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2000.

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996, pp. 177-180.

Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto, Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home, Cornell University Press, 1977.

Janny, Frank, Alejo Carpentier and His Early Works, Tamesis, 1981.

King, Lloyd, Alejo Carpentier, Caribbean Writer, University of the West Indies Press, 1977.

Shaw, Donald, Alejo Carpentier, Twayne, 1985.


Americas, October 2001, p. 60.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2001, p. 174.

Elizabeth Shostak

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Carpentier, Alejo: 1904-1980: Writer

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