Authors: Alejo Carpentier

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Cuban novelist and musicologist


Alejo Valmont Carpentier (kahr-pehn-TYAYR) is a seminal figure in the development of twentieth century Latin American literature. A perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Carpentier ranks with Miguel Ángel Asturias and Jorge Luis Borges as one of the major influences on the emergence and international recognition of the Latin American novelist in the second half of the twentieth century. Carpentier was born in Havana, Cuba, on December 26, 1904, the son of Jorge Julian Carpentier, a French architect, and Lina Valmont, a Russian language teacher. His parents had emigrated from France to Cuba two years earlier. They were convinced that Cuba, independent as a result of the Spanish-American War, was a place to create a future away from the world-weariness of the European continent. Both were fluent in Spanish; both were amateur musicians. Consequently, young Alejo was reared to be completely bilingual and with a knowledge and passion for music which permeated every aspect of his later intellectual and artistic life.{$I[AN]9810001125}{$I[A]Carpentier, Alejo}{$I[geo]CUBA;Carpentier, Alejo}{$I[geo]WEST INDIES;Carpentier, Alejo}{$I[tim]1904;Carpentier, Alejo}

Asthmatic as a child, Carpentier spent his early school years divided equally between Havana and the rural outskirts of the city, where early direct contact with African elements of Cuban society was to have a lasting influence on his understanding of his country’s (and the Caribbean’s) rich and complex cultural identity. His first attempts at writing date from 1916. Throughout his teens, until his registration as a student of architecture at the University of Havana in 1922, he produced stories imitative of his (and his father’s) favorite French and Spanish authors: Alexandre Dumas, père, Honoré de Balzac, Anatole France, Pío Baroja, Benito Pérez Galdós, and Vicente Blasco Ibáñez.

Forced into full-time employment by the breakup of his parents’ marriage, Carpentier left the university after one year of study to begin a career in journalism. Following a brief trip to Paris, where he absorbed many of the new artistic developments of postwar Europe (represented by the works of writer James Joyce, artist Pablo Picasso, and composer Igor Stravinsky), he returned to Havana and enthusiastically embraced avant-garde cultural groups and supported movements of social and political protest. In 1926, after a trip to Mexico and a meeting with the revolutionary painter Diego Rivera, Carpentier signed a manifesto denouncing the regime of the Cuban dictator, Gerardo Machado y Morales (1925-1933). The following year, he was imprisoned for political activities. In prison, he wrote the draft of his first novel, ¡Ecué-Yamba-O! (Lord, praised be thou!), a historically important narrative (thematically and stylistically) in the development of the Afro-Cuban movement of the 1930’s. A unique synthesis of armchair anthropology, social criticism, and formal experimentalism, the novel’s final version was not completed and published until 1933 in Madrid. Fearing for his safety, Carpentier went into exile upon his release from prison in 1927, spending the next eleven years (from 1928 to 1939) in France. There he wrote, developing his craft and increasing his knowledge of new tendencies in the arts, particularly music and literature; he also met many of the leading poets and painters of the Surrealist movement, exploring their theories and techniques while reading, he later said, “everything I could about America, from the letters of Columbus to the writers of the eighteenth century” in order to discover the “contexts” and the “essences” of Latin America.

From 1939, the year of his return to Cuba, to 1945, Carpentier’s creative energy was divided equally among music research, writing, and traveling. In 1946, he moved to Caracas, Venezuela, and the fruits of this earlier period began to appear: in 1946, Music in Cuba, the first attempt at a systematic, historical survey of Cuban music from its colonial origins through the twentieth century (a study to which all Carpentier’s subsequent writings are, to some degree, indebted); in 1949, The Kingdom of This World, a novel of the Haitian revolution inspired by a visit to that tiny Caribbean country in 1943; and in 1953, his most universally acclaimed (and most autobiographical and personal) novel, The Lost Steps. In the preface to The Kingdom of This World, Carpentier wrote that the trip to Haiti which had inspired the novel also revealed to him the fantastic nature of the Caribbean and the South American continent and of their history: “What is the whole history of America but a chronicle of the marvellous-real?” In The Lost Steps, the alienated writer-composer protagonist undertakes a journey from North America to a South American jungle in search of indigenous, primitive musical instruments. He discovers, however, that magical dimension Carpentier called lo real-maravilloso: “the marvellous reality” of South America, where different stages of the human past and different levels of humanity’s cultural evolution coexist in a natural, telluric grandeur which resists description from outside by an old or inherited cultural perspective. In The Lost Steps, the most persistent and characteristic thematic concerns and stylistic devices of Carpentier’s later works can be found: music, architecture, mythology, and the circular nature of time, to name a few.

In 1956, Carpentier published Manhunt, a short novel which, like The Lost Steps, reveals his fascination with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. War of Time, an important collection of stories exploring the ambiguous and complex nature of temporal experience, was published in 1958, and in 1959, the year of the Cuban revolution, Carpentier returned to Cuba with the almost completed manuscript of his second most acclaimed novel, Explosion in a Cathedral. Published in 1962, the year Carpentier was appointed director of the Cuban National Publishing House, Explosion in a Cathedral is an intriguing, complex attempt to dramatize the impact of the French Revolution on the entire Caribbean and to reveal how, more often than not, the painful and costly process of abrupt social transformation brings about in the end feelings of frustration and disillusionment. In 1966, Carpentier was removed from his directorship and appointed Cuban cultural attaché in Paris. From 1966 to 1980, he continued to produce essays and novels in which his principal social and artistic concerns were explored. Critics at times attacked his work for being too “essayistic,” for having too little psychological development of characters, for the ornate and complex style of his language (Carpentier called it “baroque”), and for his political allegiance to the Fidel Castro regime. Despite hostile assessments from both the political Right and the political Left, however, international recognition of his importance continued to grow during this period. In 1975, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Havana and the Alfonso Reyes Prize for Literature by the Mexican government. In 1976, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the University of Kansas, and in 1978, he received Spain’s highest literary award, the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, from King Juan Carlos in Madrid.

Carpentier’s work now enjoys universal praise. His importance to thematic expansion and technical innovation in the Latin American narrative has been acknowledged by world-famous novelists such as Argentina’s Julio Cortázar, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes, and Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, a Nobel laureate. His position as a major novelist of the twentieth century is assured and is reflected in the constantly increasing number of translations of his works.

BibliographyAdams, M. Ian. Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpentier. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975. Examines alienation as a literary theme in the works of María Luisa Bombal, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Carpentier, each of whom modifies traditional literary forms to present different aspects of the theme. Section devoted to Carpentier is subtitled “Alienation, Culture, Myth, and ’Marvelous Reality.’” Includes select bibliography.Brotherston, Gordon. The Emergence of the Latin American Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Intended as an introduction to the Latin American novel, particularly from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, this is a scholarly work that is also accessible to the general reader. The chapter on Carpentier discusses the historical, cultural, and mythic dimensions of the author’s work. Contains a general bibliography of secondary works on Latin American literature as well as a list of works by and on the major authors mentioned in the text.Cox, Timothy J. Postmodern Tales of Slavery in the Americas: From Alejo Carpentier to Charles Johnson. New York: Garland, 2001. Analyzes seven works of twentieth century fiction about slavery from a postmodern perspective, describing their uses of irony, narrative structure, and other features. Includes an examination of Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World.Figueredo, Danilo H. “Beyond the Boom: García Márquez and the Other Latin American Novelists.” Wilson Library Bulletin 69 (February, 1995): 36-40. Notes that although Gabriel García Márquez is the most famous Latin American novelist, many of his predecessors and contemporaries, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, and Carpentier, refined belles lettres and invented a literature that did not wish to duplicate reality; notes that Borges, Rulfo, and Carpentier sought universality and employed experimental literary techniques.González Echevarría, Roberto. Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home. Rev. ed. Austin: University Press of Texas, 1990. Good introduction to Carpentier’s works presents a sustained consideration of their overall significance, both within the field of Latin American literature and in the broader context of contemporary literature. Addresses the basic questions posed by Carpentier’s fiction as well as the larger theoretical questions about literary modernity and history. Includes bibliography of primary works and select bibliography of secondary works.González Echevarría, Roberto, and Klaus Müller-Bergh, eds. Alejo Carpentier: Bibliographical Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. An important bibliographical source of primary and secondary works.Harss, Luis, and Barbara Dohmann. Into the Mainstream. New York: Harper and Row, 1966. Includes a chapter often cited as a succinct introduction to Carpentier’s work up to the early 1960’s.Harvey, Sally. Carpentier’s Proustian Fiction: The Influence of Marcel Proust on Alejo Carpentier. London: Tamesis, 1994. Examines the themes and style in Carpentier that are derived from Proust. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Janney, Frank. Alejo Carpentier and His Early Works. London: Tamesis, 1981. An introductory survey that is still useful.Kilmer-Tchalekian, Mary. “Ambiguity in El siglo de las luces.” Latin American Literary Review 4 (1976): 47-57. An especially valuable discussion of Carpentier’s narrative technique and handling of point of view.King, Lloyd. Alejo Carpentier: His Euro-Carrbiean Vision. St. Augustine, Trinidad: University of the West Indies Press, 1972. Often cited for its perceptive introduction to Carpentier’s work.Peden, Margaret Sayers, ed. The Latin American Short Story. Boston: Twayne, 1983. The essays in this insightful collection chart the main currents and principal figures of the historical mainstream of the Latin American short story, suggesting the outlines of the great depth and breadth of the genre in these lands. The section devoted to Carpentier focuses on the story “Semejante a la noche.” Includes a select list of authors, and collections and critical studies in English.Shaw, Donald L. Alejo Carpentier. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Critical overview contains chapters on Carpentier’s apprenticeship, his discovery of the “marvelous real,” his handling of time and circularity, his fiction about the Antilles, his explorations of politics, and his last works. Includes chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography.Souza, Raymond D. Major Cuban Novelists: Innovation and Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976. Critical study traces the development of the Cuban novel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Carpentier’s work is discussed in the chapter “Alejo Carpentier’s Timeless History.”Unruh, Vicky. “The Performing Spectator in Alejo Carpentier’s Fictional World.” Hispanic Review 66 (Winter, 1998): 57-77. Argues that Carpentier uses the concept of performance to explore subjectivity and identity, and that he was interested in performance because of his interest in switching identities. Asserts that his theater activity is a key to understanding his fictional world, in which spectatorship is an important way of experiencing the world.Wakefield, Steve. Carpentier’s Baroque Fiction: Returning Medusa’s Gaze. Rochester, N.Y.: Tamesis, 2004. Traces the origins of Carpentier’s literary style to his interest in Spanish baroque architecture and the Spanish Golden Age. Explains how Carpentier’s historical fiction sought to create the ambience of this period through descriptions of architecture and the visual arts and parodies of Spanish Golden Age writers.Webb, Barbara J. Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Comparative study of Caribbean literature includes a discussion of marvelous reality and mythological and historical elements in the works of the three writers. Provides analysis of The Kingdom of This World, The Lost Steps, Explosion in a Cathedral, and Concert Baroque.
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