Reasons of State
Alejo Carpentier, translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge
Knopf 311 pp. $10.00

While American novel-writing suffers from loss of markets and intellectual decay, the “boom” in South American fiction continues to astound readers the world over with the freshness, energy, and sweep of its products. Out of a dozen or so major authors (Borges and García Márquez are the best-known here), Alejo Carpentier remains the one least recognized in these parts—an anomalous situation, since Latin Americans routinely cite him with García Márquez or Cortázar, the Europeans give his novels high praise. Carpentier’s local neglect may stem partly from his Fidelista ties (he is the Cuban cultural attaché in Paris); this connection inevitably places the man on our immigration blacklists, rendering him inaccessible (unlike the ubiquitous Borges) to the North American campus lecture circuit. Some readers may be put off by Carpentier’s displays of learning, an encyclopedism that ranges over anthropology, history, geography, botany, zoology, music, folk and classical, the arts, visual and culinary, and countless forgotten novels and verse—in all an erudition easily rivaling that of Borges.

This wide learning is neatly complemented by Carpentier’s varied and venturesome personal career. In the 1920s, in Cuba, he gained fame as a reporter, his leftism landing him a jail sentence. Emigrating for Paris on phony papers, he spent the 1930s editing magazines, producirig films and ballet, buddying with Surrealists, co-writing an opera with Varese, and planning radio programs with Barrault and Artaud. In the 1940s Carpentier did commercial broadcasting in Havana and field research in Haiti, then drudging as an adman in Caracas, until Castro’s revolution drew him back to Cuba, where he was appointed director of the newly formed Book Institute. Amidst all this activity Carpentier managed to travel throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia. His list of writings ranges correspondingly widely—from much hack work (e.g., columns on women’s fashion) to monographs in The Musical Quarterly (he is a respected musicologist). Now a noted figure in French letters, his articles still crop up in Le Monde.

And then there is the handful of superb fictions: The Kingdom of this World (1949), about Henri-Christophe and the Haitian Revolution; The Lost Steps (1953), about a jaded musical huckster from New York, who finds in the Caribbean jungles a more authentic human culture; Explosion in a Cathedral (1962), Carpentier’s masterpiece, a broad panorama of the French Revolution and its attendant consequences throughout the Old World and the New; and some shorter works. Only the first of these titles exists in American paperback; none enjoy much of a following here. Some movie possibilities, which might have helped, fizzled out in curious ways—Bunuel once considered filming Manhunt, Carpentier’s morose thriller about terrorism at a Beethoven concert, but (of all things) went deaf; another time, Tyrone Power paid Irwin Shaw $100,000 for a movie script to Lost Steps, lined up Gina Lollobrigida to play the sexy female lead—and then suddenly died.

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