Alejo Carpentier: the marginal vision of the conquest of America

Rethinking Cuban writer and journalist Alejo Carpentier’s narrative (1904-1980) lead us to establish associations with other zones of the continental narrative, especially with the latest works.

Marlene Vázquez Pérez
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2008-01-21

Rethinking Cuban writer and journalist Alejo Carpentier’s narrative (1904-1980) lead us to establish associations with other zones of the continental narrative, especially with the latest works. Among his most laudable effort it’s worth to mention his recurrent works on historical topics though represented in different ways. He had a preference for the conquest and discovery of America which, at the same time, were a way tu study the Latin American identity and the beginning of the future of the novel in the area.

This thematic line is one of the strongest ones of the so called new historical novel but its unquestionable roots date back to 1947, when El camino de El Dorado, by Arturo Uslar Pietri was published, thus ushering Lope de Aguirre into the Spanish American novel, but is also present in Alejo Carpentier’s works of the fifties. It was expressed in two different ways: the perspective of the anonimous character, as part of the historical context and the demythologizing approach to the real character with a leading role in the official history. Both tendencies were present in Alejo Carpentier.

In Carpentier’s works this trend first showed in chapter two of his short story Semejante a la noche (Like the Night) (1952). This topic would recur in Highroad of St. James (El camino de Santiago) (1954), seen from the anonimous soldier’s marginal viewpoint. This piece was inspired, according to the author himself, by an interesting historical tip Carpentier encountered during the researching stage for his essay Music in Cuba (La música en Cuba) (1946), about the first musician who settled down in Havana.

His most outstanding contribution to the topic came to light in 1979, with his novel The Harp and the Shadow (El arpa y la sombra) which, despite being the swan song of his novelistic career, heralded the most prolific phase of the Conquest of America as a literary topic. This apparent lighthearted play introduced the first variation to the issue of Columbus as leading character in the Spanish American fiction and brought to fruition an old concern of the author, dating back to the years when he penned a radio version of Paul Claudel’s The Book of Christopher Columbus (El libro de Colón).

The Admiral’s obscure biography allowed for his conversion into a character of the novel, which is plagued by countless unsupported assumptions on very important matters, including the strange idea that Pope Pius IX tried to beatify him. The novel is divided in three parts: The Harp (El harpa), The Hand (La Mano) and The Shadow (La Sombra). They deal with the laudatory elements and reasons that allegedly prompted the Pope to decree the canonization of Columbus. Also featured is Columbus’ internal monologue before his final confession and the sacramental act that thwarted his beatification. The Spanish American historiographic and literary discourses were questioned in this novel and Columbus figure was demythologized, giving way to his human side, often untouched by the official history.

In this extremely funny novel, parody, irony and anachronisms predominate. These three aspects take on metadiegesis to revise the text, from language to the very telling of a story, considering them expressive codes of a specific cultural referent.
The research about Columbus was continued by Abel Posse in The Dogs of Paradise (Los perros del paraíso) (1983), having dealt with the Conquest from the point of view of well-known and controversial character Lope de Aguirre, the main character in his novel Daimón. Although focused on The Discoverer, The Dogs... focuses on the topic from three different perspectives: the Castilian, the Columbian and the Indigenous. It’s divided in four parts. The intertitles refer to the four basic elements of nature: air, fire, water and earth. These paratextual marks sharpen the reader’s perspective on the quest for the origins and cosmic impact of the told facts. Parody, irony and anachronism are resources that contribute to approach the statement right to the moment of their enunciation, thus eliminating temporal distances between the fictional text and the historiographic document. Conceived as an exercise of continuos rewriting, the novel includes numerous intertexts that not only touch on reports on the conquest, but the Aztec codices too, as well as researches by famous historians and philosophers, previous pieces of Spanish American and universal literature, an even a mention of Alejo Carpentier and The Harp and the Shadow.

By deriding the past, the author offers a carnivalization of the history of Spain before 1492 while repeating his critical vision of the discovery already present in Daimón, in which he approached this event from the point of view of pre-Columbian civilizations.

In keeping this character in the realm of fiction, Augusto Roa Bastos addresses all these issues in his novel Vigilia del Almirante (The Admiral’s Vigil) (1992), “oscillating between the truth of the fable and the fable of this story”, in an attempt to, the author states, “recover the real ordinary man who unwittingly and inadvertently takes on the greatest cosmographic and cultural event ever registered in two milleniums of mankind history”.

In this novel, the image of Columbus is offered from different perspectives –The Admiral, the storyteller, the chronicler, the hermit- making the text look incoherent and fragmented, due to the relative autonomy with which the stories that form its complex structure are presented. In addition, it’s based on the interdiscursiveness stemming from the constant exchange between the oral and written discourses and the intertextuality, given by their evident connection with great generational texts, among which the Columbian works, the chronicle volumes and TheQuixote stand out, just to mention the most significative ones.

The constant references to the process of reception, the reiterated call for the active involvement of the reader, the judgements issued by the storyteller regarding culture, history and literature provide the book with an essay style that integrates coherently into the dominant narrative tone. Therefore, it can be said that the evident exchange and plurality in this work meet the literary genres canonically established.

However, this trend not only affects famous or heroic figures. It also deals with, as we said at the beginning, the marginal vision of the conquest from the point of view of the anonimous participant, fictionally constructed, or from the point of view of the real character, with full name included in the chronicle but with a secondary role in the historical evolution of the continent. But this is an issue that because of its richness and attractiveness need a larger space and its own article. This is something we’ll work on.

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