A grim silhouette looms on the prow of a ship: “Door-without-hinges…a meager frame with a set square, an inverted gable, a black triangle, and fixtures of cold beveled steel.” The year is 1794, and a guillotine is on its way to the island of Guadeloupe. In Alejo Carpentier’s riddle-like opening to his 1962 novel Explosion in a Cathedral, the Machine, as he calls it, yawns against the sky like some Deist mechanism or Dada readymade, an Old World construct haunting the New World. Then, with a turn of the page, the reader is in a Havana hothouse drama littered with the “clink of chandeliers and girandoles, fringed lamps, bead curtains, unruly weathercocks.” It’s the late eighteenth century, not the nineteenth, but the overstuffed interiors and bustling exteriors recall a Puccini opera.
In the English-speaking world, the Cuban novelist, essayist, and musicologist Alejo Carpentier is often associated with magic realism, and while it’s true that his novels (especially The Kingdom of This World, his tale of the Haitian Revolution, published in 1949) inspired Gabriel García Márquez and other writers in the magic realist vein, his own fiction is tonally and conceptually distinct. He coined the earlier term “marvelous realism” and linked it to a notion of the baroque, which he saw as a glorious summit of artistic creation rather than a symptom of decadence. As he put it in an influential essay, “The Baroque and the Marvelous Real,” this style is like Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings of suns in cages: a pure explosion of energy, full of proliferating nuclei, abhorring empty space and classical unities.
This goes some way toward explaining why reading him can feel like entering a time machine that’s run amok. The historical novels that make up most of his oeuvre favor the Enlightenment and its ideas, but there are also currents of mid-twentieth-century surrealism and existentialism, Afro-Caribbean legend, Hollywoodesque epic, and Victorian maximalism. His prose—revered and sometimes gently mocked in the Spanish-speaking world—is extravagant, bejeweled with rare words and majuscules (a rare word he would surely favor), and festooned with lists. The Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra describes his grammar school introduction to Carpentier’s verbiage in his affectionate foreword to Adrian Nathan West’s new translation of Explosion in a Cathedral (issued simultaneously with West’s translation of The Lost Steps, from 1953): “Was that how people in Cuba spoke? Or was it, rather, the writer’s language? Or were we the ones who, quite simply, were ignorant of our own language? But was that our language?”
This sense of marvel and puzzlement is alive in West’s translations, which reintroduce English-language readers to this giant of Latin American fiction. The original 1963 English translation of Explosion in a Cathedral by John Sturrock is mostly sure-footed and highly readable (for better and worse), but West lovingly restores the eccentric sweep and florid detail of the novel, better conveying the grandness of Carpentier’s vision.* That’s only part of the task, though, because for all his ornamentation, Carpentier is not a forbidding writer. West’s translation is sensitive to his humor and irony, and the reader is borne happily along through the thickets.
To begin with, West reverses the decision made by Sturrock (or Sturrock’s editors) to break the text into digestible paragraphs, restoring Carpentier’s monumental slabs of text and thereby the novel’s unconventional pacing. He also takes care not to dispel mysteries unnecessarily. Take the first sentence of the novel: “Last night, I saw the Machine rise up again” (West) versus “I saw them erect the guillotine again tonight” (Sturrock). (In Spanish, Esta noche he visto alzarse la Máquina nuevamente.) Sturrock introduces a prosaic “them,” shifts the ringing Esta noche (“tonight” in his translation) to a weaker position at the end of the sentence, and—most critically—decodes the sinister “Machine,” leaching the text of its cryptic force. (Carpentier never uses the word “guillotine” in this opening section.)
If Sturrock tends to underplay Carpentier’s idiosyncrasies and intensity, West sometimes errs on the side of embellishment, but with a sure feel for voice and cadence. Later in this first passage, for example, the sentence Las olas acudían, se abrían, para rozar nuestra eslora—rendered by Sturrock accurately but rather ploddingly as “The waves came to meet us and parted, brushing along the sides of the ship”—becomes “The waves rose in attendance, sundered and stroked the ship’s flanks.” “Sundered,” especially, is more elevated than se abrían, but the rhythms and alliteration of “sundered and stroked” echo the feel of the original. In West’s “Note on the Translation” in this volume—a pragmatic and insightful text, which, together with his note in The Lost Steps, constitutes a concise master class on contemporary best practices in retranslation—he chronicles his attempts to preserve stylistic difference without resorting to a literalism that ignores the imperfect alignment of the conventions of Spanish and English prose.
The immersive first section of Explosion in a Cathedral plunges the reader into the eccentric family life of orphaned teenage siblings Carlos and Sofía, who in the days after their father’s funeral scorn the responsibilities of the family import business and stay up all night with their cousin Esteban (also orphaned) reading mystery novels and conducting frivolous scientific experiments with pendulums and prisms. Enter Victor Hugues, an enterprising French merchant based in Haiti who interrupts the trio’s cloistered existence and excites them with talk of Freemasonry and the ideals of revolution. He gives them a scent, too, of less lofty pursuits, taking them on drives past the island brothels and dropping hints about silk smuggling.
Victor sets out on a jaunt to Haiti with Esteban and Sofía, leaving Carlos to tend to things in their absence. But they’ve only reached the east end of Cuba when news comes of revolution in Haiti. Sofía is dumped in lodgings in Santiago, and after a glimpse of the chaos in Port-au-Prince, Esteban impulsively joins Victor on a journey to France to witness “the birth of a new humanity,” as Victor puts it. Esteban, previously the least central of the trio, now morphs into reluctant protagonist and spends an anticlimactic sojourn in France, where he is shunted to the southwest to translate revolutionary literature into Spanish in order to rouse the citizens of Spain. (A delightful footnote: later in the novel, he encounters his own translations in the Caribbean, now part of an anonymous global stream of propaganda.) Rescued by Victor, who has become a politically connected commissar in the French government, he returns to the Caribbean, where he lingers in various backwaters (and a few hotbeds) of revolution.
Toward the middle of the book the narrative momentum slows almost completely while Esteban works as a bookkeeper aboard a vessel seizing goods for the revolution. (“Bourgeois by birth, a Corsair Scribe by profession,” he muses to himself.) Too cowardly to engage in pirate action, he falls into reveries on nature and time, his thoughts drifting from the tiniest creatures to the grandest theorems:
Lying nude on sand so soft that the smallest insect left tracks as it crossed it…he would lose himself in contemplation of a snail…. Fixed linear evolution, legislated volutes, conic architectures of marvelous precision, equilibria of volumes…. Esteban thought of the Spiral’s presence across millennia, gazed upon in fishing villages not yet capable of grasping or even perceiving its reality.
Carpentier’s novels are full of luscious descriptions of nature, but there is a curiously man-made quality to his depictions of even the most untamed landscapes. Waves are fixed as stonework (“weaving and unweaving the lace of their slender foam, which resembled, over the waters, the nervure of dark marble”); palm trees are fallen temples (“like the shafts of ancient columns”); a coconut is a collector’s item (“no bigger than a walnut, of a green so splendid it looked varnished”). At times he seems an heir to turn-of-the-twentieth-century aesthetes like Huysmans and Valle-Inclán, with his attention to all the senses. His descriptions of food and drink are exquisite, from al fresco feasts (“Bitter orange, salt, pepper, oregano, and garlic. A bed of green guava leaves”) to luxurious tidbits nibbled in comfortable surroundings (“a fig and then a sardine, or marzipan with olives and raw sausage”).
Indulgence in the leisurely pleasures of language and material objects helps explain the unorthodox pacing of the novel, but the fitfulness of the narrative can also be ascribed to Carpentier’s tendency to follow ideas rather than characters. Revolution itself becomes the protagonist of Explosion in a Cathedral, with Esteban and Victor Hugues as its most prominent human avatars. Victor—introduced as a hardheaded merchant who “nonetheless advocated for the redistribution of land and wealth”—is transformed over the course of the novel into an unrepentant disciple of Robespierre, exporting the Reign of Terror to the Caribbean. It is he who erects the guillotine on Guadeloupe, rounding up enemies of the regime so assiduously that the Machine can’t keep up.
His rise to power is witnessed by Esteban, who at first finds Victor’s energy and idealism (and even his physical prowess) inspiring. But gradually Esteban comes to view the older man with cynicism, mocking Victor’s mimicry of Robespierre’s gestures (his “stare…his way of holding his head”) and lamenting his descent into political expediency. The novel’s true chronicler of revolutionary folly, however, is its omniscient narrator. From the beginning, the narrative voice has an edge of mockery, which retains all its sharpness in West’s translation. The characters’ enthusiasms are presented as naive (“They spent two days talking of revolution, and Sofía was astonished at how the subject roused them”) and—in an editorializing present tense—potentially dangerous (“Those who speak of revolution find themselves compelled to wage it”).
The commanding role played by this omniscient voice turns the novel into an unusual mix of treatise, satire, and fantasia. A recurring subject is the revolution’s abolition of slavery (near to Victor’s heart, at least at first) and the broken promises that follow. In one of the most bitter scenes in the book, a ship of mutinied slaves is welcomed by Esteban’s corsair crew on a deserted coast, but when the women among them become too tempting, celebrations of tricolor unity are disrupted by rape, battle, and reenslavement. Esteban, in an antiheroic moment, takes advantage of the situation to rape a girl himself. This furtive sin is downplayed in the telling (“very docile, [she preferred] this brutality to worse ones”), leaving the reader unsure of whether the intent is to exonerate Esteban or skewer him as a hypocrite.
There is as yet no full biography of Carpentier, and his own accounts of his life are not entirely reliable. He claimed to have been born in Havana to a French father and a Russian mother, when he was in fact born in Switzerland in 1904, and he was vague about just how much of his childhood he spent in Cuba. It is not clear what originally brought his parents to Cuba, where his father worked as an architect. Carpentier probably was not enrolled in school in Cuba until the age of ten (according to recent research by the Swedish scholar Victor Wahlström), and he ultimately spent most of his adult life abroad, too, in France and Venezuela. He cut an unusual figure in the Cuban literary community with his throaty French r’s, and he was likely anxious about his identity as a Cuban writer, but his attachment to Cuba and to the Spanish language was profound. In The Lost Steps the narrator lovingly describes his reimmersion in Spanish—“A force penetrated my ears, my pores: the language”—while also wondering, “What was my real language?”
Carpentier’s father abruptly abandoned the family just as Carpentier came of age, obliging him to abandon his architecture studies in Havana and scramble to make a living as a journalist. In the mid-1920s he was involved in the dissident movement against the dictatorial government of Gerardo Machado, winding up in jail for forty days and then fleeing Cuba for Paris, where he lived until 1939. It was in Paris that he became consumed with learning all he could about the place he had just left: “I felt an ardent desire to express the [Latin] American world. I still did not know how…. For the space of eight years I don’t think I did anything except read [Latin] American texts.”
Still striving to provide for himself, he continued to work as a journalist and embarked on a career as a radio producer. He also published his first novel, ¡Ecué-Yamba-O! (1933), an anthropo-fictional dive into the world of Afro-Cubans, drawing on his deep knowledge of Cuban music. (Music and architecture, always of great interest to him, crop up constantly in his fiction.) It was not until the 1950s, though, while he was living in Caracas, Venezuela, that he made his name as a novelist with the publication of The Kingdom of This World and The Lost Steps.
When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Carpentier had at last become firmly established as both a major writer and a cultural promoter and radio producer at an advertising agency in Caracas. He returned to Havana that year, carrying the manuscript of Explosion in a Cathedral with him. Some readers looked to it as a referendum on the Cuban Revolution, though the chronology makes that unlikely. Whatever the case, his unsparing depiction of the unstable ideals of revolution makes one wonder what hope he can have had for the Cuban experiment. Nevertheless, in Cuba he was embraced by the Castro regime as a cultural asset, never suffering the hardships or censorship of other Cuban writers. He was allowed to publish and travel as he liked, though his baroque prose and pessimistic narratives were far from the social realist models promoted by the regime.
In a 2004 essay for the Mexican magazine Letras Libres, Roberto González Echevarría—the author of the still unsurpassed 1977 study Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home as well as much subsequent scholarship—parses the contradictions of Carpentier’s dedication to the Cuban Revolution. Cuba continues to claim him as an ardent revolutionary, but González Echevarría reads his commitment as lukewarm, quoting Pablo Neruda, who knew Carpentier in Paris in the 1930s and described him as “one of the most neutral men I’ve ever met.” (Neruda, a staunch Communist, didn’t mean it as a compliment.) According to González Echevarría, even when Carpentier was appointed an adviser for European affairs in Paris in 1968 (a position he held until his death in 1980), the role was relatively unimportant. It may have been a kind of soft exile intended to distract attention from the inconvenient content of his fictions.
Still, he never spoke out against the regime. Indeed, just two years before his death he surrendered the prize money from the Premio Cervantes, a major Spanish literary award, to Fidel with fulsome praise, and his body was flown back to Cuba for a state funeral when he died. If he truly believed that the left was “lame, one-eyed, and ugly,” as he confessed to the dissident poet Heberto Padilla, he nonetheless stuck with it to the end.
The Lost Steps, Carpentier’s most autobiographical novel—inspired by a trip he took into the Venezuelan jungle in 1947—begins in postwar New York City. The unnamed narrator, a classical composer who has stooped to a job in advertising to make ends meet, trudges through the mausoleum-like metropolis, from the felt-lined cell where he works to enervating soirees (with their “mad pinwheel of ideas”) to a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Ninth. The weight of culture oppresses him at every turn, transforming ordinary moments into tortured reckonings with the whole of Western civilization. The mannered intensity of Carpentier’s language—maintained at fever pitch by West—propels the reader into the same overwrought state.
A visit to the dusty rooms of a curator of rare instruments presents the narrator with a possible solution to his malaise. As a scholar earlier in his life, he dreamed of discovering a certain primitive instrument to prove a cherished theory about the origins of music. The curator now offers to send him to South America, where he can complete his mission and escape the oversophistication of modern society. His actress wife has conveniently left on a tour of the West Coast, and his lover—Mouche, a highbrow astrologer—is eager to accompany him.
Their first stop is in an unnamed South American capital, which transports him back to his youth with its light, its scents (of esparto, seawater, basil), and above all its language: “The language I learned to write and hum in.” But as in New York, he is also transported into a great timeless bazaar of classical references. He sees “a world of scales, caducei, crosses, winged genies, flags, trumpets of Fame, cogwheels, hammers, and victories”; the statue of a founding father “resembles Lord Byron with his windblown bronze cravat, and Lamartine in the way he waves his flag”; a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor overcomes him with its outmoded provincial charm.
After the picturesque inconvenience of a short-lived revolution—wonderful scenes of the narrator and Mouche barricaded in their hotel with liquor, gramophones, and carnage all around, apparently based on Carpentier’s own brush with a coup in Caracas—they set off into the interior, becoming ever more conscious of traveling back in time. If the capital evoked the late nineteenth century, they are now embarked on a positively Nerudian descent into the distant past in search of the authenticity the narrator thinks he craves. Along the way, they pass through landscapes in which nature becomes art object, as often happens in Carpentier’s telling: “Solitary trees with billowing tops stand isolated in the distances beside cactuses like long candlesticks of green stone with sparrow hawks perched atop them, impassible and heavy as heraldic birds.”
On the road they meet another traveler, a traditional but independent woman named Rosario, who embodies the narrator’s fantasies of a simpler existence. Mouche has long grated on the narrator’s nerves, and the deeper they go into the jungle, the more superficial she seems to him. His bickering with her produces some of the funniest moments in the novel, building to a slapstick scene in which he copulates with Rosario beneath the hammock of malaria-stricken Mouche. (“And now Mouche peers down at us, rigid, sardonic, mouth salivating, her locks falling over her forehead a bit like the snakes on a Gorgon’s head”—even here he can’t help but see things in classical terms.) Mouche is then sent home, and the narrator is free to carry on (in both senses) with Rosario.
By this point, the reader can’t help but wonder when the narrator will get his comeuppance, and sure enough, when he finally unscrolls time all the way back to the most primitive past, landing in a remote valley where “those who write the laws…are men who use stone knives and stone scrapers, bone hooks and bone darts,” he finds himself recoiling in horror from lepers, wallowing in mud, and desperate for paper—of all things—on which to set down a threnody, based on the Odyssey, that he’s composing in his head. Just when he is closest to escaping civilization, it pulls him back. Every sentence in the novel, freighted with learning and a passion for high art, foretold this outcome, but the punishment that follows is severe (and, satisfyingly, meted out by all three of the women he wronged).
The original 1956 translation of The Lost Steps is by Harriet de Onís, an important figure in Latin American literature in translation who brought many midcentury writers to US publishers. It, too, tries to smooth the way for the English-language reader by breaking the text into sensible paragraphs. And where Carpentier fluctuates between past and present tenses, Onís converts all to the past tense, which strips the prose of some of its diaristic urgency. West deftly restores the shifting tenses and reverts to the original long blocks of text.
Onís—like Sturrock and West—is a discerning reader of Carpentier’s more abstruse passages, and her nature descriptions are often a match for West’s. Compare her “Here and there in the distance a thick, solitary tree stood out, always flanked by a cactus like a tall candelabrum of green stone, on which unmoving, heavy hawks rested like heraldic birds” to West’s “solitary trees with billowing tops” (superior) and “long candlesticks of green stone” (inferior), as quoted above. West’s “in the distances” is a creative but strained translation of de lejanía en lejanía; Onís’s “Here and there in the distance” is perhaps too prosaic.
This example gives some sense of the translators’ inclinations, but it is dangerous to dwell too much on isolated lines. What the reader takes away overall from West’s translation of both books is a freshness and bite and aesthetic ambition that match Carpentier’s. The Kingdom of This World, also originally translated by Onís, was retranslated not long ago (by Pablo Medina in 2017). If Carpentier is ever to get a new reading in English, it should be now.
In another influential essay, “On the Marvelous Real in America,” he tells us that fabulists must be true believers:
Those who do not believe in saints cannot cure themselves with the miracles of saints, nor can those who are not Don Quixotes enter, body, soul, and possessions, into the world of Amadís of Gaul or Tirant le Blanc.
And yet his novels are full of doubters. Esteban doubts the revolution: “No sooner was the Revolution presented to him as sublime, devoid of defects or failings, than it became, in his eyes, questionable and perverse.” More profoundly, he doubts himself: “I am a skeptic…. But I am skeptical of myself, and that is worse.”
Toward the end of Explosion in a Cathedral, the torch of the true believer is unexpectedly passed to Sofía, who flees a respectable life to pursue her passion for Victor Hugues and the revolution he is waging. She follows him to Guiana, where he is posted after Guadeloupe, but the brutality Esteban witnessed there only deepen in this remotest of outposts, as Catholicism is restored and slavery reinstated. It’s hard to imagine a more pathetic scene than the revolution dying a chaotic death in a land where tropical paradise becomes a vine-choked swamp of decay and disease; the reader is reminded of the muddy end of the narrator’s idyll in The Lost Steps. Sofía’s instinct for self-preservation, however, earns her a surprise heroic finale. If it seems a little hard to credit, it may be because Carpentier has made a better case for skepticism than faith—or because history has made it for him.
Sturrock worked from René Durand’s French translation, which makes West’s translation the first from the Spanish. The use of an intermediary language is common enough in translation, but usually for lesser-known languages—I can’t think of another instance of a novel translated from Spanish via a third language. ↩