Archive for the ‘Alejo Carpentier’ Category

The Chase

October 8, 2020

In 1956 Cuban author Alejo Carpentier was in exile (again) in Venezuela – he would only return to Cuba three years later after Castro came to power (he was Cuban ambassador to France for a while). The novel he published that year, however – The Chase – though it is not explicitly mentioned, is clearly set in Havana. Despite being widely regarded as Carpentier’s best novel, and also an important influence on later Latin American writers (it is still ten years until Marquez writes One Hundred Years of Solitude), it was not until 1989 that it was finally translated into English by Alfred Mac Adam.

The Chase is a short novel in three parts. In the first part we meet a man on the run, as observed by the ticket collector in a theatre where a concert of classical music is currently underway:

“’A seat,’ said an urgent voice. ‘Any seat,’ the man added impatiently, while his fingers slid a bill through the bars of the ticket booth. The ticket books had been put away and, as the ticket taker was searching for the keys to get them out, the man disappeared into the darkness of the theatre. Then two more men came up to the booth.”

The ticket collector, who is also a music student, decides to take the bank note and use it to visit a prostitute, Estrella, but she turns him away, the note is a forgery, and he returns to hear the end of the concert. In the second part we learn of the journey that has led the fugitive to the theatre. We find him hiding in the house of an old woman, now bedridden, who once nursed him. The old woman dies and, after attending the wake, he goes to the house of Estrella, whom he also knows, and asks her to take a message to the one person he feels might still save him. She returns, however, to tell him that the bank note he gave her is fake, causing an argument with then taxi driver that soon involves a passing policeman and leads to an exit out of the window.

Eventually we discover why he is on the run. Responsible for an assassination using a bomb hidden in a book, he was captured and quickly confessed, implicating many of his comrades:

“He told them whatever they wanted to hear; he explained the recent attacks, and depicted himself as an apprentice, an extra, in order to lessen his own guilt; he listed the names of those who at that moment were sleeping on the couches in a certain villa in the suburbs or drinking an dealing cards at a long table in the dining room with their pistols hung over the backs of their chairs.”

Now he has one last hope of leaving the country, but when he reaches the house of the man whose help he was relying on, he finds it destroyed. In the third part we return to the theatre to discover the man’s fate.

Carpentier makes a number of connections between the narratives – not only the bank note and the relationships with Estrella, but more subtle links such as the man in hiding hearing the music of the music student, and the student seeing the wake. When the man is in the theatre is transfixed by the neck of the person in front of him:

“I must not look at that neck: it’s scarred by acne; it would be there, exactly there – the only place in the hall – so that the very thing I should not look at is near me.”

Later we discover that it reminds him of the first assassination he took part in:

“The back of the victim’s neck was soon so close that they could have counted his acne scars.”

The style of the novel is dense, with each chapter a single paragraph, using (as can be seen) semi-colons and dashes to break up the sentences. At times it is almost stream of consciousness, at others a distanced third person: in one chapter, the fugitive, whose every thought we have known, suddenly becomes “the person lying on the floor.” It is also morally dense, with the fugitive a heroic freedom fighter, a killer, a traitor, and possibly a police spy. His struggle for political freedom is contrasted with the student’s struggle for individual freedom, to be allowed to live as a musician:

“Despair gave way to shame. He would never get anywhere, never free himself from the maids’ room, from pressing his handkerchiefs on the mirror to dry, from worn socks tied up at the big toe with a piece of string, as long as the image of a prostitute was all it took to distract him from the True and the Sublime.”

These, of course, may represent contrasting forces which Carpentier understood. Despite its length, The Chase is not a quick read. The prose is demanding, and the reader is required to be attentive to the narrative which, at times, also feels like it is on the run. It is novel, however, in which passages can be picked out and enjoyed and, in that sense, it is easy to see why it was such an important work.

Reasons of State

July 23, 2015

reasons of state

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.