Thursday, October 18, 2018

Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps (1953)

This is Carpentier's follow-up to The Kingdom of This World, though it could hardly be more different. Our first-person narrator, a composer living what he increasingly comes to feel is an artificial life in New York, goes on a trip to South America with his mistress, Mouche, ostensibly on an anthropological expedition to locate primitive musical instruments used by trial people, but really out of an inchoate sense that he needs to be doing something else. They spend some time in a never-identified-by-name South American capital, in the throes of a kind of inertial decay, before heading down the Orinoco River and becoming--or so it feels--increasingly displaced in time as the world seems to become more and more archaic. Eventually the narrator takes up with another woman, Rosario, and resolves to shed the precepts of civilization and live a more "authentic life" in a nascent city that is being built up in the jungle. What happens next...would be telling. But--and I suppose this is also telling, really--the upshot of it all seems to be: sorry, some people can live this kind of authentic life, but not creative types because their work inevitably is building on things that are already there; it can't not be artificial in some degree.  Hard not to see this as Carpentier's reflection on his own work, especially given that he was a musicologist in addition to a writer.

Now, the one thing you have to admit about this book is: it's not great with female characters. The narrator treats the three women--along with Mouche and Rosario, his wife, Ruth, as well--with various mixtures of contempt and condescension, and although you don't want to make the mistake of pretending that the narrator is the same as the author, in this case...well, you have these women who all, in one way or another, are foiling his efforts to be authentic, and you think, eh. It's not great. Which, come to think, is an unexpected and unfortunate commonality with Gaddis' Recognitions, another novel about "authenticity."

Still, put that aside, and one must say: it's a very slow-reading, baroque novel, or so I found it. I took a week and a half to get through it even though it's less than three hundred pages. That doesn't change the fact that Carpentier is quite a stylist, and there's a lot that's striking here. Furthermore, as I got closer to the end, I somehow found myself more and more gripped, and by the end, I was ready to rate it a lot more highly than I would've been at the midpoint. I think this would be a good novel to teach, notwithstanding the fact that a lot of students would probably hate it. I certainly preferred it to Explosion in a Cathedral, however, even if I don't rank it as highly as The Kingdom of This World or The Harp and the Shadow. It would probably strongly reward rereading, as well.


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