Friday, October 05, 2018

Alejo Carpentier, Explosion in a Cathedral (1962)

This is Carpentier's longest novel (though not massive--merely a fairly dense three-fifty pages), and I reckon the one with the broadest scope. It's another historical novel that takes place in the 1790s. It concerns a somewhat obscure historical figure, Victor Hugues, a French politician who became involved in post-Revolution politics and liberated (not sure that's the right word) the island of Guadeloupe from the British in 1794. He's not really the protagonist of the novel so much as the catalyst, though. The real main characters are Esteban and Sofia (though mainly Esteban, really), orphaned rich kids who get caught up in Hugues' shit. The bulk of the narrative concerns Esteban, first in France getting caught up in the Revolution and the Terror; then back in the Caribbean, which was strongly affected by the political events in Europe in a way that isn't often considered. Sofia becomes the protagonist in the last section.

I must say, even though it's obvious after .2 seconds of thought, I hadn't really thought much about this: the French Revolution really is THE absolute landmark event in the emergence of Modernity: no kings, no priests, and people trying desperately to stay upright and unbeheaded in the face of all this chaos. It's not a neat process, as the novel dramatizes its contradictions and hypocrisies: Freemasonry is bad and should be stamped out; no actually it's good. Slavery must be abolished in the colonies only actually the blacks are still de facto slaves, and somehow it's still legal to sell them to other territories that haven't abolished slavery (don't think too hard about the logic there). We're pillaging Spanish ships to support the Revolution only then no we're really just pillaging them because we like having their stuff. Hugues, who seems at first like a principled character, actually proves extremely malleable, going along with all of these contradictory changes. Esteban is more in love with the idea of being part of a vanguard than he is with anything in particular, though he's still better than Hugues and is disappointed by his hero's ultimate weakness. One of the last events of the novel is France's reinstitution of the slave trade, which I have to say really filled me with rage, at least in part because of the resonance of this with current events: things that we think have been permanently changed for the better turn out to be more fragile than we could imagine. And the promises of the Revolution turn out not to mean a thing. Well, that's putting it too strongly; clearly they did, ultimately--but there was a LOT of one-step-forward-two-steps-back stuff going on.

The novel is vividly written, as Carpentier novels are, and there are some powerful passages here, including sections involving the beauty and nature of the Caribbean. I must say, though, I didn't like it as much as I did the other two I've read. Somehow, the greater breadth elides the mythic qualities that they had. I would never call it a bad novel, but I wasn't blown away, and I doubt I'd be into reading Carpentier's entire output if this is where I'd started.

Worth noting that the English edition is a translation of a French translation of the original. I can understand that when the original is in a somewhat obscure language--for a long time, the only English edition of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris likewise came from a French translation--but really, people, surely you could find a Spanish translator somewhere? Also of interest: Explosion in a Cathedral--which is the name of a painting which figures in the novel--was the title of neither French or Spanish text; both of them are called "Age of Enlightenment." The book's thematic concerns are on display in either case; the latter certainly has irony going for it, but to tell the truth, I think I kind of prefer the new title as more evocative. Not sure whether my preference should overrule Carpentier's, though.


Post a Comment

<< Home