While complaining about the frequently inadequate and imperfect democracy of the UK, it is easy to forget that for most of the human race politics is experienced via a series of interchangeable dictatorships. As Western Europe (more slowly than we like to recall) exorcised such totalitarian leaders in the aftermath of World War Two, the cruellest and most flamboyant tyrannies were often to be found in Latin America, a continent which for a while became synonymous with dictatorship. The story goes that two Latin American writers, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, felt a fictional reaction to this was imperative and invited a number of other writers to contribute novellas on the theme to an anthology. Although this ultimately proved impossible to coordinate, three of the writers went on to write full length novels on the subject: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (The Autumn of the Patriarch); Augusto Roa Bastos (I, the Supreme); and Alejo Carpentier (Reasons of State). (I believe the Vargas Llosa story ‘The Cubs’ also arose from this project).
Recently I discussed Fuentes’ already diminishing fame in the English-speaking world, but Carpentier is a writer whose literary renown outside of his own continent (though born in Europe, he regarded himself as Cuban) was only sporadic in the first place despite his association with the development of magical realism. Reasons of State, published in 1974 and almost immediately translated in to English by Frances Partridge in 1976, has long been out of print – until, that is, the intervention of Melville House last year.
The novel begins in Paris where our dictator / narrator lives in comfort – sleeping in a hammock but waking to the sight of the Arc de Triomphe. A typical morning is described: visits from his barber and tailor, his advisor Peralta, and an intellectual he dubs the Distinguished Academician. The clumsy notes of his daughter, Ofelia’s, piano playing drift down and fall flat in the midst of their erudite conversation. (It seems plausible that the names – Peralta / Polonius, Ofelia / Ophelia – are intended to remind us of another ‘rotten’ state). The Head of State is in self-congratulatory mood:
“I was proud – very proud – of the fact that, after a half century of tumult and uprisings, my own country had brought the cycle of revolutions to an end.”
The tone changes dramatically, however, when he receives a telegram informing him that one of his many generals has rebelled:
“ ‘The cunt! The son of a bitch!’ yelled the Head of State, hurling the cables to the ground.”
Interestingly, Carpentier also changes from first to third person at this point (the telegram is the dividing line) allowing him to use the phrase “the Dictator” in the final sentence of the chapter. The first person is how the Dictator wants to be seen; the third person represents him as he is.
The Dictator returns home and ruthlessly suppresses the rebellion, starting with students who have shut themselves in the university:
“And if some are killed…none of these solemn funerals… Just give the stiff to the family and let them bury it without weeping and wailing, because if they do otherwise the whole family, mother, grandparents, and their brats too, will go to prison.”
The general’s eventual, defeat is a massacre:
“And then all hell was let loose; free and uncontrollable, the troops abandoned themselves to hunting men and women, with bayonet, machete, or knife, throwing corpses into the streets, pierced through, cut open, beheaded, and mutilated, to warn the rest.”
Once the rebellion is defeated, he returns to Paris, but to a much cooler welcome. French newspapers have reported the savagery and, although the photographer is soon hunted down and killed, the photographic evidence is damning. As a fellow countryman tells him:
“ ‘I know there’s a lot of exaggeration in it, compatriot…You wouldn’t be capable…Of course it’s all false.’ But he couldn’t dine with him at Larue that night.”
Luckily it seems World War One will intercede and distract Europe from distant bloodshed… and then our Dictator receives another telegram:
“ ‘The cunt! The son of a bitch!’ yelled the Head of State.”
Carpentier does not skimp on his portrayal of the Dictator; at this point we are merely one third of the way through the novel. We will follow out protagonist right to the end. Carpentier is lavish with his detail and seems particularly intent to contrast Paris with the Dictator’s homeland. Chapters are generally prefaced by a quotation from Descartes, and (as hinted at in the title) there seems to be a dichotomy between the enlightened reason of Europe (which the Dictator insists he admires) and the superstitions of the tropics – the Dictator blames the first rebellion on the fact that the prostitute he slept with the previous night was dressed as a nun.
Reasons of State is a wonderful addition to the literature of dictatorship (my personal favourite remains Marion Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat). It is to be hoped that it will lead more readers to explore Alejo Carpentier’s work.