Monday, September 24, 2018

Alejo Carpentier, The Harp and the Shadow (1979)

Just in time for Columbus Day! Okay, a few weeks early. Whatevs.

None of us think much of Christopher Columbus in this day and age, but it's kind of surprising how recent that attitude shift is. For a very, very long time, he was uncritically lionized by about everyone. There was an epic poem written about him, popular in its time but--obviously--unread these days. I remember being taught about him in kindergarten, and there really wasn't even a hint that there was anything problematic about him--just banal "Columbus sailed the ocean blue" stuff. But these days, the only people willing to defend Columbus--let alone Columbus Day--don't even give a shit about the man himself; they're just upset by people trying to upend the comfortable, familiar hierarchy where white men are always, uncritically on top. It's not that they're in favor of exploiting and killing indigenous peoples per se (though in some cases, that may be an overly charitable assertion), but how dare you SJW snowflakes with your political correctness try to suggest that white heroes aren't heroes? Really, it's the same dynamic you're seeing right now with the Kavanaugh debacle: it's not that these republicans are in favor of rape per se (though see above parenthetical); it's just that they can't abide the sheer effrontery of suggesting that it should be enough to derail an elite white male. In the "things they care about" category, one of these very obviously ranks much higher than the other. On the surface, it seems wildly irrational for them to stick with him given that a less obviously poisonous candidate who would nonetheless fulfill all their fantasies would sail through confirmation (and maybe they'll bow to this reality in the near future), but it's the symbolism of the thing. Giving up on Kavanaugh would represent a symbolic blow to a world order that is very emotionally important to them.

Where were we? Right, Columbus. Most relevant for our purposes here is this fun fact: in the nineteenth century, there was a concerted effort by some in the Catholic Church to canonize him. The idea was that both his vision and courage in seeking out new lands and his saving of thousands of savages from idolatry deserved veneration (and yeah, that second part looks very much like nothing more than a rationalization, but my twenty-first-century sensibilities may be getting in the way here). And that's where The Harp and the Shadow comes in. It consists of three parts: the first is about Pius IX, the Pope who kicked off this canonization idea; the second (and the bulk of the book) involves Columbus rehearsing his deathbed confessions as he waits for the confessor to arrive; and the third depicts the official beatification hearing, witnessed by his ghost.

Carpentier, clearly, was trying to push back against the idea of Columbus the great hero navigator. He emphasizes his protagonist's lust for gold and his horrendous treatment of the local peoples. Anybody who doesn't want the Columbus myth upended would find a lot to object to here. However, oddly enough, I think a lot of people today might feel that he goes too easy on the guy. It's not that he downplays what he did, but...well, just as people in the past wanted Columbus to be an uncomplicated saint, today we kind of want him to be a straightforward monster. And the thing is, this book makes him...sorta-kinda sympathetic. He has self-awareness, and he experiences remorse over his actions: he sees that his obsession with gold overwhelmed and drowned out any higher motivations and that, whatever he claimed, he wasn't actually interested in saving anyone's soul. As I said, people may complain, but it seems to me that this nuanced depiction is what elevates the novel to the level of art.

Of course, it's impossible to know to what extent Carpentier captures Columbus's true character. All I can say is that it feels very vivid and real to me. The man was never a very interesting figure to me, whether viewed as hero or villain. It always felt like either way, we know all the bromides, and there's just nothing to him that would engage me one way or another. But this novel (which I really did read just because of the coming holiday and about which, in spite of of having loved The Kingdom of This World, I didn't have any particular expectations) has changed that. I mean, not that I plan on doing a lot of Columbus-related research, but now he occupies a different place in my mind. This is one of the best character studies I've read, and I'm pretty sure that, just as I am now incapable of thinking of Richard Nixon as anything other than the character in Robert Coover's Public Burning, I'll now only ever be able to think about Carpentier's Christopher Columbus.


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