Once more, I’ve retraced my steps. I’ve made my way back to the familiar, and being forewarned, I do so with the confidence of the adept. And yet, no sooner have I begun my task than I question myself in a way I never did when I set forth on my several prior journeys down this path. I tread not like a discoverer, nor can I (nor should I) pretend to expertise, because, on this occasion, I am here to orient those from elsewhere, and more than to reveal, my mission is to guide. For this reason, on commencing, I have asked myself for what reason others would wish to trace and retrace this path, follow my footsteps, glimpse the marvelous, see what is known to me even if it remains forever mysterious and impossible to plumb.
In other words: I’ve asked myself why a reader of the twenty-first century, a user of social media, surely, a fanatic or fanatical repudiator of the cinema of Quentin Tarantino, an aloof consumer of “ephemeral” art (a real banana taped to a real wall, sold—just the banana—for $120,000 and immediately replaced by another banana that will be sold in turn), a devourer of Yuval Noah Harari’s unsettling 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which speaks abundantly of artificial intelligence and future uncertainty…why this reader, I repeat, would be interested in reading a novel titled The Lost Steps, which speaks of possible voyages in real time (not virtual, not future) and was published in the for-many remote year of 1953. Why? What might one hope to get out of it?
In this—my ninth or tenth reading of this novel by Alejo Carpentier—convinced that I will still encounter new surprises, that its congenial story will take me in once more, I think of the values and qualities that transform great works of art into permanent revelations, polysemic, defined by their privileged resistance to the blows of time in a war that levels so many walls and pedestals, an unceasing chronological struggle that, in our day, a day of influencers who feign to possess “the truth,” has taken on the proportions of a massacre at speeds so vertiginous they make obsolete by night what was the height of novelty in the morning.
True art speaks of circumstance, but also of the eternal, being rooted in the investigation of the human condition.
Art entails a kind of knowledge that is undoubtedly transcendent in character. And yet art must be, is, something more. Aesthetic creation possesses the faculty of showing from within to humanity, as a universal entity beyond time, the reality that surrounds it, and of reflecting through it and within it the doubts, uncertainties, and even the revelations and learning that characterize us. Only in this way is it possible to make sense of the fact that today we read, and beyond that are moved by, the classics of the Greek tragedians (poor Oedipus, Prometheus forever bound), that the outrages of Lady Macbeth still horrify us, that the absurd adventures of Don Quixote provoke laughter and compassion in similar degrees. This is why George Orwell’s 1984, written in the middle of the foregoing century with reference to a future that is already past, remains so disturbing and revealing in our present place and time.
True art speaks of circumstance, but also of the eternal, being rooted in the investigation of the human condition, taking as its protagonist the immortal man (you, me, us) we have been and will be until we are replaced (or not) by those artificial intelligences that produce such dread in me. Its great mission, as Flaubert wrote, is no more and no less than to “reach the soul of things.”
But let us make these affirmations a bit clearer. In the final pages of The Lost Steps, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, apprised of the enormity of the error that led him to take a decision, reflects:
You dwell in ignorance as you embark upon new roads, and do not recognize marvels as you live them: stepping out past the familiar, beyond what man has cordoned off, you grow vain in the privilege of discovery, and think yourself the owner of unknown paths, and you tell yourself you can repeat this feat whenever you wish. And one day, you are foolish enough to retrace your steps, thinking that the exceptional can be exceptional again, but when you return, you find the landscape changed, the reference points erased, the informants’ faces different.
Written in 1953, in principle for the men and women of 1953, this reflection on the impossibility of reliving the exceptional, on the fleeting nature of the contingency or hazard (“concurrent chance,” the writer José Lezama Lima called it) that flares up one time in our existence and is virtually never repeated, was valid for the generations that came before the characters of The Lost Steps and naturally remained so for those living at the time. In essence, the novel’s hero has confronted the eternal drama of decision involved in the exercise of free will, the trial that free will as put into practice implies…The singular value of its artistry lies in the enduring pertinence of this conclusion of crossroads for those of us who read the novel today and might ourselves know or be forced to reckon with an ordeal that will take us down one of those “exceptional” paths that luck may (or may not) bring us and that force us to take a decision.
Alejo Carpentier wields two grand, universal, eternal principles in the conception and shaping of this, one of his finest works, which for many readers is the most alluring of his novels thanks to its plot, characters, uncertainties, and exotic locales. One is the real possibility of traveling through time and history, and the other, dramatically counterposed, is the simultaneous impossibility of avoiding the historical moment one has been shaped by and for. These seemingly contrary principles are valid for people in all places and times. They are a wellspring of art, and it is because of them that today it is possible to read and enjoy The Lost Steps, a novel published seventy years ago.
Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980), one of the foremost figures in twentieth-century Spanish American literature, focused in his work on the urgent need to define and delineate in literary and conceptual terms the singularities of the Latin American continent often subsumed by the explanations of it that emerged from the centrist gaze of a Europe anchored in the times of the “discovery of America” and the conquistadors.
A member of an intellectual generation born at the dawn of the twentieth century and preoccupied above all with the intricacies of identity and the need to cordon off, define, and reveal what belonged to them, Carpentier drew on the breakthroughs of the European avant-garde of the first decades of the past century, especially the experiments of Surrealism, which he took part in during his eleven years in France. He likewise possessed a comprehensive grasp of the history and culture of the Americas that allowed him to coin a sociohistorical, literary, and above all ontological theory he would first formulate in 1948 in the concept of “the American marvelous real.” As a theoretical proposal, Carpentier’s idea was to distinguish and define in concrete terms a reality the singular expressions of which were extremely complex to capture and assimilate. A reality permeated even by manifestations of magic, but consistently presumed to emanate from a context in which certain temporal slippages, natural conditions and geographies, and ethnic and cultural confluences, viewed against the backdrop of devastating historical traumas, had produced a definite, multiple, and unique identity that expressed itself in myriad ways.
This principle, which was fed by firsthand experiences in certain regions of Latin America and expressed in theoretical articles and reportage, would find mature expression in the Cuban author’s work with the noteworthy publication in 1949 of the novel The Kingdom of This World, set in Haiti in the run-up to and the aftermath of the revolution that gave the country its independence. This would be followed by one of his masterpieces, The Lost Steps.
In these two novels, which represent the most orthodox expression in literary terms of his theory of “the marvelous real,” Carpentier delves deeply into several of the obsessions that would pursue him throughout his career, presenting them as aspects of American reality that attain the level of the marvelous (or singular, or strange) as a result of the particular conditions and legacies that circumscribe their appearance and determine their development.
If Carpentier in The Kingdom of This World investigates the presence of magical performance in American reality through Black Haitians and their cosmology, seeking the causes of the revolution’s failure and the consequent foundering of its social utopia, what sustains his narrative in The Lost Steps are Latin America’s temporal discordances and the consequent possibility of traveling in time.
A Cuban composer, residing in a large Western capital, suffers all the burdens of alienation that his surroundings, his civilization, his era give rise to. When the opportunity presents itself to travel to a Latin American country on a mission to locate prehistoric musical instruments and explain their ancestral function, which predates all aesthetic intentions, this twentieth-century intellectual undertakes a geographical, cultural, physical, and sentimental journey across time that brings him to the very origins of humanity and music and even further, to the fourth day of the book of Genesis, to the biblical origins of creation. With this real journey through chronology inverted, he confronts an aspiration many have dreamed of: evading one’s own time, overcoming one’s era, and thereby escaping alienation and finding one’s own human essence.
The emblems of this adventure begin to reveal themselves from the moment he arrives in the Latin American capital that is the first stop on his voyage. For him, the city represents a return to belonging in terms of both physical realities (the architecture, the outbreak of revolution) and his memories and sensibility (flavors, scents, heat). From there, he proceeds to a provincial city where he finds himself returned to the years of nineteenth-century Romanticism, then further backward to the colonial era with his arrival in Santiago de los Aguinaldos, a village of rubber tappers and miners, before finally, on the threshold of the uncharted forest, reaching the days of the discovery of America, and even managing to glimpse the time that preceded it.
Yesterday it had amused me to imagine us as Conquistadors searching for Manoa. But it baffles me now to recognize no difference exists between this Mass and the Masses heard in these climes by the Conquistadors of El Dorado. Time has stepped back four centuries…We are, perhaps, in the year 1540. A tempest lashed our ships, and now the monk is telling us in the language of Scripture how a great shifting of the seas battered the ship with waves; He was asleep, and when His disciples arrived they woke Him, saying: Lord, save us, lest we perish, and He said to them, Why fear ye, ye of little faith? and then He rose and restrained the wind and sea, and the weather turned clement and fine. It is, perhaps, the year 1540. But no. The years decrease, dilute, desist in the vertiginous process of time. We have not yet entered the sixteenth century. We are living long before. We are in the Middle Ages.
In the lost world of Grandes Mesetas, essentially unseen by Western man, where the Pathfinder has founded the city of Santa Mónica de los Venados, the temporal reversal extends to the Neolithic and Paleolithic eras. The narrator finds a sort of Arcadia or utopia in which the only social order that exists is the imperative to ensure survival, just as at civilization’s origins. This is a time that precedes writing, and therefore history, where the hero seems to have found justification for his flight and paradise on earth.
All around me were people devoted to their vocations in the tranquil concert of the errands of a life subject to primordial rhythms. I had always seen the Indians through fantastical stories, as beings on the margins of man’s true existence, but in their medium, their environment, they were absolute masters of their culture. Nothing was more alien to their reality than the absurd concept of the savage. The fact that they were unaware of things that for me were essential and necessary in no way relegated them to the primitive…Here there were no useless occupations, as mine had been for so many years.
Faithful to the author’s patented method, each of the incidents and revelations the narrator and hero experience—this twentieth-century intellectual transported to an increasingly remote past—is noted down in the novel with geographic, natural, and historical precision. These necessary references validate the possibility that all historical time past, every culture that has developed, may converge on the Americas, making possible the realization of a marvelous reality the confirmation of which is expressed in the novel on the wealth of occasions when the narrator is “surprised,” “impressed,” “amazed,” “astonished,” “stunned.” “I wondered,” he remarks, “if the purpose of these lands in human history might not be to make possible, for the very first time, certain symbioses of culture,” of civilizations and people who, for dozens of centuries, lived unconnected before finally creating in America a reality at once mestizo and absolutely unique.
The marvelous, the bizarre, the extraordinary can manifest themselves only through contrast and comparison.
Here, Carpentier hits on an essential point that manages to reveal America’s singularities beyond the undoubtedly important geographical peculiarities that the novel nonetheless emphasizes. The marvelous, the bizarre, the extraordinary can manifest themselves only through contrast and comparison. In none of his other works—not even in his most celebrated and substantive novel, 1962’s Explosion in a Cathedral, concerned with the failure of revolution and the perversion of the ideals of social utopia in a story that crisscrosses the Caribbean and Europe—does Carpentier so explicitly oppose a Latin American here to a European there as a method of validating his theoretical proposals regarding the singularities of the so-called New World.
In the sixth and last chapter of the novel, the hero returns to the big city, to his time, and everything falls to pieces. He is back in the world where people live in fear (“Fear of some reprimand, fear of the hour…”). It is also the world of the Apocalypse (“Everything foretells it: the covers of the magazines in the shop windows, the titles, the letters over the cornices, the phrases shot up into space”). He is trapped by the city, its time and its laws, which he wants to escape but can’t, the same way so many in this age, our age, can’t…And yet, he does manage to break away to attempt to recover the abandoned earthly paradise, retracing his own steps.
Here, a more pressing question arises as regards my wanderings through the Kingdom of this World—the only question, in the end, that admits no dilemmas: whether I or others will be the master of my time, whether I am prepared to live rather than row alongside the galley slaves. So long as my eyes are open, my hours are mine in Santa Mónica de los Venados. My steps are mine, and I shall leave them where I choose.
And here, the theme of the work, the motif that makes eternally contemporary this novel from the 1950s, overtakes him. He has made his decision, and he understands, as we’ve already quoted, that:
One day, you are foolish enough to retrace your steps, thinking that the exceptional can be exceptional again, but when you return, you find the landscape changed, the reference points erased, the informants’ faces different.
The road back to the ideal world outside time has closed; for the hero, it is closed forever, and he will realize it. As the novelist hints at one point, the vacation of Sisyphus is over and he must go back to pushing the rock that defines him. His grand decision has led him into error. Or was it always futile, the pretense that one could sidestep one’s human and historical time? The war of time knows no truces. It is constant, eternal combat, revocable, perhaps, for a while, but ultimately invulnerable to human resistance. To the people of yesterday and those of today. Perhaps even to those of tomorrow.
It is of those battles and of our decisions in the midst of a world both marvelous and real that this beautiful and stirring novel speaks, this book of voyages through space and time, which Carpentier wrote in 1953 and which has been celebrated and canonized ever since.
From The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier. Published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction copyright © 2020 by Leonardo Padura.