Alejo Carpentier, surrealism and the birth of magical realism

Heading towards the jungle. Somewhere between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, Peru. January 2020

Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.

Arthur C. Clark

Alejo Carpentier is described, in The Penguin History of Latin America, as one of the originators of the literary genre magic realism, although for him, it was less of the magic and more of the marvellous. The novel of his which I’ve recently finished, The lost steps, is chock-a-block full of the marvellous. Although it doesn’t exactly have magical happenings infiltrating its reality, the perception of the characters is swayed by a sense of the magical spirit originating in indigenous culture. As the protagonist goes from the hustle and bustle of his North American city routine to the Latin American jungle, he feels like he’s travelling backwards through time. The author explores the contrast of pace, the emphasis of the moment, and plays with the history of humankind. He’s writing from experience. The dramatic but often florid descriptions of jungle fauna come straight from the author’s own journeys in the Venezuelan wilderness, up the Orinoco river.

While living in Paris, two novelists who had previously written on nativist themes, the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, came into contact with surrealism and saw how the use of primitive myths and beliefs could evoke a sense of the marvellous in fiction while also serving to represent the heterogeneous cultural reality of Latin America.

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson (pg 542)

Magical Realism is a genre I initially associated with Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and, at the other side of the world, Haruki Murakami. It’s not fantasy, because it keeps a tight grip on reality, but nor is it literary realism – it’s often coarse realism is softened with magic. I want to say that Gabriel García Márquez met Alejo Carpentier in Cuba, but I gained this belief through listening to Solitude and Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told with Help from His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls by Silvana Paternostro and because it’s an audiobook I can’t locate the reference.

I hadn’t considered surrealism’s impact on literature before

It’s interesting to reflect upon The lost steps from the perception of surrealism because surrealism has at its heart an exploration of the unconscious and a desire to unite the unconscious with the conscious. In a European sense, perhaps this primarily focuses on the dream world versus the world of the awake. You can imagine Picasso and Dalí at this point. It’s heavily influenced by Freud. Yet, moving to the society of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela and other similar places, where an attitude of let us measure it, analyse it and give it a label has a lesser grip, you can see the difference between conscious and unconscious might not be so black and white. The influence of earth on man (and the respect of earth by man) leaves room for everyday marvels, even with both eyes open and the mind awake. I was reminded of meeting an indigenous lady in the Atacama Desert who read the oncoming storm painted in the skies and marvelled at how we couldn’t.

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.

André Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto

Carpentier… presented the pursuit of a unified consciousness as a problem. … His entire work, therefore, represents a search for a point of synthesis between reason and instinct, matter and spirit.

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson (pg 545)

In the book we slip between the analytical and the instinctual, time trundles backwards, the head argues, the heart pulls, yet at the end of the novel, the protagonist who has floundered within his own uncertainty has to face that his reality is disjoint from the marvellous journey he’s experienced. He isn’t Odysseus. He is, whether he accepts it or not, of his own time and culture.

It was as though I had been hit over the head. My skin felt as though a thousand cold needles were coming through it. With an immense effort I reached for the bottle, and the touch of it seemed to burn me. I slowly filled my glass, poured the liquor into a throat that could no longer swallow, and broke into an agonizing cough. When I recovered my breath, I looked at myself in a mirror, black with fly specks, in the rear of the room, and what I saw was a body sitting at a table, looking hollow, empty. I was not sure that it would move and walk if I ordered it too. But the being that moaned within me, lacerated, flayed, its wounds filled with salt, finally dragged itself to my throat, and I began a stuttering protest. … the Greek looked at me in surprise that turned to pity.

The lost steps, Alejo Carpentier (pg 276)

The language also played the same game

I read it in English, and my gut feeling was that the translation was rather Latin focused, or perhaps merely enthusiastically literary, but that at times, a shuffle from the Latin to the Germanic might have brought some of the descriptions down from the treetops and made it easier to follow. The dense descriptions were solidly from the protagonist’s mouth, rather than some omniscient narrator, and so made him harder to empathize with. There were many words I skipped, often adjectives or specific references to some Venezuelan fauna or flora… such as lepiosiren (which is a South American lungfish – a fish with lungs). Lepiosiren perhaps sounds more fittingly Homeric; the novel plays a game of cat and mouse with the Odyssey, assuming its reader is well acquainted with the classical text.

However, I think it’s worth acknowledging the book’s translator

Illinois-born Harriet de Onís was the sort of woman who accepted, and could afford to accept, being paid in literature. They gave her books. She translated out of love, and belief in, the importance of Latin American literature. She was lucky in that she could afford to do so. We are lucky that had such a compulsion.

The novel is furthermore weighed down by musical jargon

Carpentier’s protagonist is a pianist, like Carpentier himself, and left me with no doubt that if the writing life didn’t quite work out for him, Carpentier could have busied himself teaching music theory. He clearly knew it. With its reference to music theory jargon, the text reminded me of Jan Morris’ Spain, which I had struggled with due to the heavy littering of architectural terms. I normally mark vocabulary that I don’t know, but in this case, there was no point underlining the words I didn’t know, because, like the construction of catholic churches, music theory makes no sense to me. I don’t understand the dictionary definitions.

That said, if you are a lover of music theory, this might be a good book for you. There must be something interesting about all those chapters dedicated to writing about music which I was much too ignorant to appreciate. If I were taking a stab at it, I’d say that I think Carpentier contrasts modern attitudes to technical composition with the indigenous connection to nature through sound, and mocks the naïve way in which modern society, in labelling indigenous customs, fails to comprehend them.

Moving onto Carpentier’s ‘lost’ protagonist

Lost is an adjective which fits. He is, undoubtedly, male character number one: the self-centred soul who falls into a deep infatuation with a woman he doesn’t know how to have an honest conversation with, generally spends most of his time being rude to the people around him, and who could have saved himself a lot of bother by at any point in the novel thinking of anyone but himself. He’s deeply intellectual, has a unique creative gift and yet is (or feels himself to be) deeply misunderstood. Likewise, he’s the same character as Julio Cortázar’s jazz-loving Horacio Olivera in Hopscotch (Rayuela) or, if my memory serves me correctly, William Stoner in John Williams’ Stoner. Women fall for him because he is aloof and mysterious; he makes a terrible partner and won’t wash the dishes because he is too busy having an existential crisis.

I don’t dislike this type of character on principle, but I do feel that he ought to occasionally feel embarrassed or nervous and that sometimes the writer would convey a more believable character by being willing to step closer to some of those tricky to write emotions. In this case though, I did dislike the actual protagonist in the novel because he is the exemplar of that insidious machismo attitude that is so grating to the modern woman.

Overall, it’s a book I’m glad to have read

It was worth the slow start and occasionally confusing language. Despite its extensive descriptions, it managed to maintain a pace which made it quite a quick read, and although I’m not going to be immediately hunting out another book by the author, I’m not averse to reading one. It did however prompt me to reflect on the impossibility of letting go of your own time and culture and how interactions between cultures always have to be a compromise. In my own life, acknowledging this is essential.


Reading list:

The lost steps, Alejo Carpentier (1953)

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson, revised edition (2009)

The Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton (1924)

A biographical article on Harriet de Onís by Victoria Livingstone