Thursday, November 01, 2018

Alejo Carpentier, War of Time (1956)

Why do the short stories always come last? Well, here they come. There are five of them, and there is never a dull moment. You just don't know what's coming next; what Carpentier has planned for you. The first one, "The Highroad of Saint James," is probably also the most normal. It concerns a Spanish pilgrim in...I wanna say the seventeenth century...who gets distracted from his mission by the New World and all its allure, which nonetheless does not turn out to be as alluring as one might hope. And then he lures someone with the same name as him to go in turn, in a cyclical kind of thing. It's very vivid, as you'd expect given the author, but man, the protagonist is such a little shit--nothing but racism and misogyny--that...ah. Fuck 'im, I say! It's...I don't know, by Carpentier standards, it seems like kind of a normal historical thing.

"Right of Sanctuary" is the second-most-normal. Or maybe the first, actually; hard to say. The last three aren't normal AT ALL. But we'll get there. In this one, a secretary to the president of an unnamed Latin American country manages to escape a bloody coup by taking, uh, sanctuary in another Latin American country's embassy. While he's there, he sort of starts taking charge from the ambassador and sleeping with the ambassador's wife, until he gains citizenship in the second country and becomes the new Ambassador. And...that's it. It's entertaining, though it's not entirely clear what if any point it's trying to make. But entertainment may be enough!

Third, it's "Journey Back to the Source," involves the death of a noble, and then goes backwards from there. Like, the kind of backwards where first he's dying but then he gets up, recovers from his illness, and goes back through his entire life. A sort of SF-y type of premise, one that's certainly been done plenty of times before, but it remains a fun story.

"Like the Night" is probably the best thing here: you have a man going away to be a soldier in the Trojan War, only he's also a contemporary European, planning on going to the New World to kill/convert the heathens. This seems to be the inspiration for the collection's title. The sort of "eternal war" theme is really effectively executed. Kudos.

Finally, it's "The Chosen," a farcical tale--but with dark undertones--where Noah and a whole bunch of equivalents from different cultures meet up in the flooded ocean, each having been assigned to save all life by their respective gods. Solid conclusion, and the whole collection demonstrates the breadth of Carpentier's talents.

And...also the conclusion to my reading Carpentier, at least for now, on account of I've read everything that's been translated into English, with the exception of his study Music in Cuba. It's supposed to be groundbreaking and influential, but I'm just not convinced it would be the best use of my time.

So what is there that's not been translated? Well, there's his first novel, ¡Écue-Yamba-O (Praised Be the Lord!). It's unsurprising I guess that it's not translated; he wrote it sixteen years before he first made a literary splash with The Kingdom of this World, and as far as I can tell it's generally considered his most minor work. I still want to read it, though! There's also Otros relatos (Other Stories), a posthumously-published second collection that I assume is basically an uncollected stories deal. Given how much I liked this one, I'd REALLY like to read that one.

But by far the most glaring lacuna is his semi-autobiographical next-to-last novel, La consagración de la primavera (The Rites of Spring). It's his longest novel by far (I was wrong when I suggested that Explosion in a Cathedral had that title), and as far as I can tell it's considered Major, as well you'd think. hasn't been translated. UNBELIEVABLE. Imagine a novel, let along a height-of-powers one, by Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, or Cortazar remaining untranslated. Yeah yeah, Carpentier doesn't quite have the prominence of those three in English, but it's still a goshdarn sin. Get your shit together, people!


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