Alejo Carpentier, 1979. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
I like to think of literature as a second language—especially the second language of the monolingual. I’m thinking, naturally, about those of us who never systematically studied a foreign language, but who had access, thanks to translation—a miracle we take for granted all too easily—to distant cultures that at times came to seem close to us, or even like they belonged to us. We didn’t read Marguerite Duras or Yasunari Kawabata because we were interested in the French or the Japanese language per se, but because we wanted to learn—to continue learning that foreign language called literature, as broadly international as it is profoundly local. Because this foreign language functions, of course, inside of our own language; in other words, our language comes to seem, thanks to literature, foreign, without ever ceasing to be ours.
It’s within that blend of strangeness and familiarity that I want to recall my first encounter with the literature of Alejo Carpentier, which occurred, as I’m sure it did for so many Spanish speakers of my generation and after, inside a classroom. “In this story, everything happens backward,” said a teacher whose name I don’t want to remember, before launching into a reading of “Viaje a la semilla” (“Journey to the seed”), Carpentier’s most famous short story, which we would later find in almost every anthology of Latin American stories, but which at the time, when we were thirteen or fourteen years old, we had never read. The teacher’s solemn, perhaps exaggerated reading allowed us, however, to feel or to sense the beauty of prose that was strange and different. It was our language, but converted into an unknown music that could nonetheless, like all music, especially good music, be danced to. Many of us thought it was a dazzling story, surprising and crazy, but I don’t know if any of us would have been able to explain why. Because of the odd delicacy of some of the sentences, perhaps. Maybe this one: “For the first time, the rooms slept without window-blinds, open onto a landscape of ruins.” Or this one: “The chandeliers of the great drawing room now sparkled very brightly.”
Although our teacher had already told us that everything in the story happened backward, from the future to the past, back toward the seed, knowing the trick did not cancel out the magic. The magic did come to an end, though, when the teacher ordered us to list all the words we didn’t know and look them up—each of our backpacks always contained a small dictionary, which, we soon found, was not big enough to contain Carpentier’s splendid, abundant lexicon.
Was that how people in Cuba spoke? Or was it, rather, the writer’s language? Or were we the ones who, quite simply, were ignorant of our own language? But was that our language? We discussed something like this, dictionaries in hand, while the teacher—I don’t know why I remember this—plugged some numbers into a calculator laboriously, perhaps struggling with his farsightedness.
I reread “Journey to the seed” just now, and I again find it extraordinary, for reasons I presume are different. But I get distracted by the melancholic attempt to guess which of those words I didn’t know back then: embrasure, denticle, entablature, scapulary, daguerreotype, psaltery, doublet, gnomon, balustrades, licentious, gunwads, matchstaff, epaulet, sentient, décolleté, tricorne, taper, tassel, calash, sorrel, benzoin, sophist, crinoline, ruff, octander …
To read Carpentier entailed, first of all, listening to him—listening to him the way we listen to a song in a language very like our own but that we don’t understand entirely, enjoying the echoes and contrasts, and then translating him. Translating before we knew how to translate, or even that we were translating. Translating him into our own language. For someone who grew up with the Spanish of Chile, reading Carpentier was, of course, to travel to the island of Cuba, but above all it was to travel to the island of Carpentier.
The foreignness of his own language was clear to Carpentier from the start, as the son of a French father and a Russian mother. Throughout his life, he affirmed the official story that he had been born in Havana, but a few years after Carpentier’s death, Guillermo Cabrera Infante leaked the juicy tidbit that he had actually been born in Lausanne, Switzerland (a bit of gossip that was never disproven, perhaps because it was supported by a birth certificate).
The hypotheses about this lie—or, to put it more kindly, this slight displacement of the truth—are numerous, of course. Carpentier probably wanted to minimize his foreignness, for reasons unknown, though it’s fascinating to contemplate the possibilities. Listening to him in interviews on YouTube, any Spanish speaker would agree that this is a person who speaks the language with unusual dexterity and mastery, with his guttural pronunciation of the r as the sole, though conclusive, mark of his foreignness—and so it wasn’t hard to believe this new version of his biography, which presented him to us as a Cuban whose mother tongue was not Spanish, though he mastered the language very quickly, with extraordinary proficiency, when he arrived in Cuba with his parents at four or five years old.
There is no disputing that Carpentier was born on December 26, 1904, which is not relevant in and of itself, of course, except for readers who are interested in astrology. But I mention it because that is also the birthday of Esteban, one of the protagonists of Explosion in a Cathedral, who in fact becomes a translator—significant, since the book is often understood as a novel about the “translation” of the ideals of the French Revolution to the Caribbean. Although we later come to realize that the beautiful and terrible initial section foreshadows Esteban’s importance, the figure of that orphaned, sickly boy seems, in the first chapter, less relevant than his cousins, Carlos and Sofía, with whom he lives as one more brother in a big house in Havana.
The novel opens with these three teenagers in mourning after the death of their father, a well-to-do plantation owner who had been widowed years before. Instead of returning to the convent where she has been educated so far, Sofía chooses to stay home with her brother, Carlos—who is destined, or more like condemned, to take over the family business—and her cousin, whom she tries to care for and protect. The three young people cope with their pain even as they discover the joys of this shared life, “absorbed in interminable readings, discovering the universe through books.” Grief becomes, as well, “a fitting pretext to stay aloof from all commitments or obligations, ignoring a society whose provincial intolerance tried to bind existence to ordinary norms—to appearing in certain places at certain times, dining in the same modish pastry shops, spending Christmas on the sugar plantations or on estates in Artemisa, where rich landholders vied with each other over the number of mythological statues they could place on the verges of their tobacco fields.”
They are distracted from this intense and entertaining life of seclusion by Victor Hugues, a trader from Marseilles of indeterminate age (“thirty or forty perhaps, or maybe much younger”), whose seductive irruption on the scene opens up a promising space attuned to revolutionary idealism and enthusiasm. Rounding out the group is Doctor Ogé, a mestizo physician and Freemason and a friend of Hugues’s, who tries to help Esteban as he is in the throes of an asthma attack. There is a crucial scene in which Sofía refuses to give her hand to the doctor, betraying racial prejudices that are typical of her class and time (“No one would trust a negro to build a palace, defend a prisoner, arbitrate a theological dispute, or govern a country”). But Victor Hugues replies categorically, “All men are born equal”—and it turns out that Ogé not only treats Esteban’s asthma attack, but also cures him completely. This miracle leaves an indelible mark on the characters’ values and prospects, especially Sofía’s and Esteban’s; the latter, now free of illness and faced with the racing speed of history, dares to embark on a different life.
I don’t want to give anything away here about the fate of certain characters who go on to engage directly with the changing and bloody era in which they live. Perhaps it will suffice to say that Victor Hugues and Esteban set out for France, from where Hugues—a historical character adapted by Carpentier from diverse and elusive sources—returns to the Caribbean in a position of power, on his way to becoming the “Robespierre of the Islands,” while Esteban, after discovering Paris and feeling “more French than the French, more rebellious than the rebels, clamoring for peremptory measures, draconian punishments, exemplary retribution,” and moving to Bayonne to translate ineffective revolutionary pamphlets, also returns to the Caribbean, having now become the narrator whom, almost without realizing, we met in the novel’s preamble. Increasingly disillusioned and guilt-ridden, Esteban finds the appreciative contemplation of nature to be practically his only consolation. As for Sofía, her marriage seems to set her up for riches and insignificance, but widowhood and her later reunion with Hugues turn her into the surprise protagonist of the novel’s last stretch; her decisions, motivations, and fate have for decades fed an interpretive debate that is today perhaps more urgent than ever.
“I think I am one of the few Cubans who can boast of having visited almost all of the islands in the Caribbean,” said Carpentier in an interview in which he emphasizes that none of those islands is like any other. That cult of the specific inundates each of the minute and vivid descriptions that abound in his work. The beauty of Carpentier’s prose can never be emphasized enough, and in this novel it rises to incredible levels, especially in the descriptions of marine landscapes: “Esteban saw in the coral forests a tangible image, an intimate yet ungraspable figuration of Paradise Lost, where the trees, still badly named, with the clumsy and quavering tongue of a Man-Child, were endowed with the apparent immortality of this luxurious flora—this monstrance, this burning bush—for which the sole sign of autumn or springtime was a variation in tone or a soft migration of shadows …”
This exuberant prose, which is proudly and decidedly baroque, still manages not to compete with the story. We are carried forward, it seems to me, at a fluctuating speed, and we even, at times, laboriously change ships; the pace is remarkable, as are the pauses, the tricky overall tardiness that opens up emotional spaces and unsuspected storylines. The narrative inhabits us, so to speak. At times, we don’t really know what we are reading, and, more importantly, for long stretches we forget that we are reading. Carpentier works his style in such a way that it is still possible to read this book as a historical novel, even as an adventure tale, although of course he problematizes the idea of adventure (“Esteban knew well the tedium the word adventure could conceal,” the narrator says at one point).
It’s possible that a pessimistic reading of the novel, one that is grounded in the brutality it relates so bluntly, might be more persuasive than one that fully validates the idea of progress. The world of this novel is—much like our own, in fact—complex, protean, ambivalent, filled with characters who fluctuate between feeling fascinated and repulsed by the present, between heroism and mediocrity, between opportunistic conformity and radical idealism. It occurs to me that, as much for Spanish-speaking readers as for English-speaking ones, the shift in the English title is useful. The original title, El siglo de las luces—which would be “The Age of Enlightenment” in English—is ironic in a way that hangs over the book like a disturbing shadow, while the actual English title highlights the crucial recurrence in the novel of a painting called Explosion in a Cathedral, inspired by a work by François de Nomé, which depicts a halted movement, an “endless falling without falling,” and, along with the repeated references to Goya’s The Disasters of War, gives the novel a constant and powerful visual counterpoint.
Because it was first published in 1962, the novel was initially read, naturally, in light of the Cuban Revolution, with Carpentier already en route to becoming an emblem of a successful revolution, as he was until his death. I don’t think that the novel, in and of itself, allows for some of the unequivocal expert readings it was subjected to: there are critical commentaries that seem to understand it as a collection of the author’s badly disguised opinions, which is particularly unfair given its complexity, ambition, and reach. Does this novel express a real hope in revolutionary processes, or rather a radical skepticism? “Esteban’s journey is not circular but spiral,” notes Roberto González Echevarría in his stupendous book Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home, a particularly illuminating reading that attends to the nuances of Explosion in a Cathedral’s striking monumentality.
Italo Calvino once stated that classic works of literature are those that have never finished saying what they have to say. Explosion in a Cathedral is one such novel. Especially to us, who in a way inhabit the future that it foresees or prefigures. Read today, some sixty years since its original publication, at the end of a pandemic, amid wars and totalitarian governments and a radical climate crisis, a novel like Explosion in a Cathedral continues to accompany us, to question us, to challenge and move us, and ultimately to help us in the arduous and terrible exercise of reading the world.
Contrasting the world of the novel with the present could open many a debate, and I imagine them all as vibrant and impassioned. What happens to us when we realize that there are others for whom we are the others? Do we ever truly become aware of such a thing? Is it possible to change history without violence, without thousands of innocent dead? What does this novel have to tell us about colonialism, globalization, feminism, human rights, the rights of nature, transculturation, migration, war?
Perhaps the irrational wish that Spanish were his mother tongue led Carpentier to build his astonishing version of that language, which takes on, even for Spanish speakers, a music that is old and new at the same time, one that allows past, present, and future to coexist. Literature, at the end of the day, is a complex form of consciousness that allows us to imagine what we would be like if only we spoke more languages. And, of course, that includes imagining what we would be like had we learned the languages that were wiped out in our own lands and in the territories of neighboring countries, the languages that were savaged and erased to create the illusion of monolingualism. Perhaps if we respond to the challenges raised by this novel, if we undertake the countless discussions it permits and induces, it will help us become more humble, less dumb, less deaf.
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
From the foreword to Alejo Carpentier’s Explosion in a Cathedral, to be published in a new translation by Adrian Nathan West by Penguin Classics next month.
Alejandro Zambra’s latest novel, Chilean Poet, was a New Yorker Best Book of the Year in 2022. He is the author of Multiple Choice; My Documents, a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; and three previous novels: Ways of Going Home, The Private Lives of Trees, and Bonsai. He lives in Mexico City.
Megan McDowell is the recipient of a 2020 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other awards, and has been short- or long-listed for the Booker International prize four times. She lives in Santiago, Chile.
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