Saturday, October 27, 2018

Alejo Carpentier, Reasons of State (1974)

Yes! So now we come to this one--the book about a Latin American dictator that Carpentier wrote as part of a deal with García Márquez and Roa Bastos that led to those two writing Autumn of the Patriarch and I the Supreme respectively. Gotta finish the epic trilogy!

So. Here we have the autocratic head of an unnamed Latin American country (also unnamed, mostly referred to as "the Head of State") who prefers to spend most of his time in Paris, hobnobbing with the literati (the secondary cast is a mix of historical and fictional characters--if indeed we can make that distinction), attending the opera, and visiting high-class brothels. Basically, he would prefer, culturally, to be a European. But when a rebellion breaks out at home--as these things seem to do pretty regularly--he goes home to put it down, via the most brutal means possible. Alas, due to an inconvenient photographer and a series of photo essays, his atrocities become common knowledge and France becomes a lot less hospitable to him. Fortunately, then World War I breaks out, distracting people. But then he has to go home to deal with another damned rebellion. All of this is in the first third of the novel. The balance of the rest of it consists of him trying to modernize his country, improve its PR, and put down subversive ideas, until ultimately he's ousted and dies in exile back in Paris. I don't think that's really much of a spoiler. The novel picks up a lot of the themes of Baroque Concerto: Old vs New Worlds, the way the one perceives the other, the uneven cultural development, and so on.

One odd thing about the book is the shifting perspectives: as in, it switches freely, within chapters, between first-person perspectives from different characters (and even first-person plural at one point) and the third-person. This works, it's not distracting, but it's also not entirely clear what the point of it is. To provide sort of a revolving perspective on the character, like a panopticon, perhaps.

It's a really terrific novel. I haven't disliked any of Carpentier's books, but I'll admit that the ones I'd read since The Kingdom of This World and The Harp and the Shadow hadn't quite knocked my socks off the way those two did. So this one is a return to form. Carpentier's endless erudition is impressive and his Zolaesque facility for invoking physical objects keeps everything very palpable. More, his Head of State is a great character: a real psychopath able to pivot effortlessly between great charm and charisma and the most brutal violence--like Tony Soprano with more continental sophistication. Really unforgettable; more so, I would say, than García Márquez's and Roa Bastos' dictators.

There's one interesting thing I'd like to mention: the novel refers to a number of characters from Proust, who seem to be real people here--if we were being crudely literal, we could say the book apparently exists in the same universe as À la recherche. And not only that, but the Head of State's daughter Ofelia has a decidedly Madeleine-esque encounter with a tamale, which Carpentier characterizes as "a marvelous rediscovery of time past" (299). What to make of all this? Well, obviously, on one level, we can just see this as another of multiple levels of reality: the book has fictional and historical characters, so why not characters from other fictions? Still, this seems very idiosyncratic in a distinct way, and I'm having trouble figuring it out. I can hazard guesses, but they all seem overly facile. But really, it's not just that; the book as a whole is a little slippery and hard to get a hold of. Just how Carpentier works, I guess. More like poetry than prose in the way it defies interpretation. Certainly, Stanley Crouch's irritatingly digressive and self-indulgent introduction provides no answers. But that's okay. You probly oughta should read this one.


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