Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

Explosion in a Cathedral

-Book Cover

Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier

I’ve now read enough of Carpentier to have a sense of what he is up to in his fiction. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, been impressed by its scope. But I am also much more aware of its limits and repetitions.

Carpentier–more than almost any writer I can think of–has a project and develops it relentlessly. The Kingdom of this World, The Lost Steps and this novel are all very much of the same kind, working in the same way, striking the same tone. This is history compressed and told at a distance. It exists as the context to the four or five acts that together constitute the drama of the protagonist’s life. That life is invariably incidental to the history that frames it but is also hopelessly involved in and buffeted by it. Each of these novels read as an album of exemplary vignettes pulled from the life of that character in order to say something (or provide an occasion for the narrator to say something) about history.

(This description echoes definitions of tragedy, but Carpentier is not a tragic writer. I saw Carlos Fuentes speaking of his own novels at Metropolis Blue. He cited Carpentier and Faulkner as his major influences but specifically credited Faulkner with offering him the tragic sense necessary to write about Latin American history.)

Interestingly, the same pattern holds true in a reduced but telling way in Carpentier’s early novella, The Chase. As it is in the novels, the history is withheld from the character. He isn’t sure what is happening to him or why. But unlike in the novels, the same information is also kept from the reader. In fact, there are clues suggesting that the character may know more than the reader. With this shift in the point-of-view, the reader moves through the story without knowledge of its larger context. The character is buffeted and harassed, but his life–and that harassment–appear senseless. The resulting tone is paranoid as befits life in a police state. The obscurity of it all–and this is related to Kafka surely–seems to encourage an allegorical (i.e. mystifying?) reading of the book.

Perhaps the poles of Carpentier’s fiction are ignorance/paranoia and knowledge/escape.

You need to be interested in Carpentier’s historical-political project to be interested in his novels beyond his development of technique or their influence. For now, I’m not.

N.B. Many people believe Explosion in a Cathedral is Carpentier’s best novel. I prefer The Lost Steps. It’s much more humane and suggestive, much less expository.

June 2011. Hospet, India

Posted August 23, 2011