Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Lost Steps, by Alejo Carpentier

I discovered this book on the office charity table and picked it up for a dollar. I had only heard of Carpentier because of Harold Bloom, who mentions him a few times in The Western Canon. Here is Bloom in his usual mode of bald assertion: "I center on Borges and Neruda, though time may demonstrate the supremacy of Carpentier over all other Latin American writers in this era."

Indeed, time may, H.B. I'm embarrassed to admit that I once believed Bloom's notion that, with adequate sensitivity, one could establish clear hierarchies of literary value -- and that the writers that were objectively the "best" would obviously be the most valuable for me (because naturally I would have that rare sensitivity). The older I get the more I notice that the works I value are largely a matter of personal affinity with the authors -- whether their preoccupations and methods line up with mine, either in obvious or more mysterious ways.

Dostoevsky, for example, despite his obvious creative eminence, has never spoken to me. The issues that he struggles with aren't central for me, and he seems to dedicate most of his energy to creating characters that (again, for me) are grotesque caricatures, grotesque because they are working off all sorts of assumptions that strike me as obviously false. I have the same feeling when I read Graham Greene. Maybe people writing prose out of an essentially Christian imagination have a mindset that I just cannot connect with.

All of this is a long preamble to say that I feel a deep connection with Carpentier's preoccupations, and that I value this book more that others probably will because of this connection. What are these preoccupations? They are not original, and I suspect they will produce some rolling of eyes. My basic feeling is that our current pattern of development in the West is a disaster, that it is creating a living environment of astonishing ugliness and sterility, and that this model is being presenting to the rest of the world as the only reasonable goal for progress; and that modern industrial civilization needs to rediscover some of the virtues of pre-industrial societies if it is to become a good place for people again. The imaginative writers that seem to me to be facing these issues -- Lawrence and Hardy and Orwell in his Essays -- are close to me for this reason.

And now Carpentier as well, at least in this book. The story is about a composer living in an unnamed place that is clearly New York, and writing scores for movies and advertisements. Even when he knows that he has succeeded in terms of craft, he realizes that he is destroying, or at least wasting, his talent. I know, these are cliches, but they are handled beautifully. Here is the narrator describing his mistress and a group of their artist friends, and their interest in mysticism.
...[he] had managed to impose on us a series of practices derived from the Yoga asamas, making us breathe in a certain way, measuring the length of inhalations and exhalations by "matras." Mouche and her friends hoped thereby to arrive at greater control over themselves and at the acquisition of powers about which I had my doubts, especially in people who drank every day as a defense against despair, fear of failure, self-contempt, the shock of a rejected manuscript, or simply the harshness of that city of perennial anonymity amid the crowd, that place of relentless haste where eyes met only by accident and the smile on the lips of a stranger was a build-up for some kind of a proposition.
This feeling of urban anomie is pretty usual in literature, but doesn't something blossom at the end of that sentence? Such magical transformations of common material appear again and again in this book, purely because of the quality of Carpentier's prose, his ability to hit on precisely the right phrase.

The narrator gets an assignment to go to an unnamed country in South America to collect some traditional musical instruments. He takes his mistress, Mouche, along. There are complications, and as he moves farther into the jungle he feels himself shedding centuries of human history and technical progress. Mouche is ill at ease but the narrator finds himself identifying more and more with the types of societies surrounding him. Here is another quote, as he argues with Mouche about progress:
Just to be contrary, I said that the thing that impressed me most on this trip was the discovery that there were still great areas of the earth where people were immune to the ills of the day, and that here, even though many people were contented with a thatched roof, a water jug, a clay griddle, a hammock, and a guitar, a certain animism lived on in them, an awareness of ancient traditions, a living memory of certain myths which indicated the presence of a culture more estimable and valid, perhaps, than that which we had left behind. It was of greater value for a people preserve the memory of the Chanson de Roland than to have hot and cold running water. I was glad to know that there were still men unwilling to trade their souls for a gadget which by eliminating the washwoman did away with her song, thus wiping out ages of folklore at one fell swoop.
I know, I know, the washwoman may be quite happy about not pounding those clothes on a rock anymore, but something true remains after the obvious objections. And Carpentier is intelligent and honest enough to realize that a return to such a society has an immense cost. The novel is not a stupidly romantic fantasy. Its flaws actually lie elsewhere. Carpentier has a good sense of how to construct and pace a novel, but he has little narrative talent. There is not a convincing character in the book other than the narrator, and no truly lifelike scenes between people, although there are beautiful passages of description. When the narrator claims, at one point, that he is deeply in love with a certain woman, I actually laughed out loud because it was so entirely unconvincing.

Such a lack of credibility would seem like a fatal flaw for a novel, but for whatever reason it is not -- for me, at least. I will take a look at his other novels soon as well. But I know that The Lost Steps is already in my small stack of books to reread.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

enjoyed reading your essay on the book. i actually have to read this book by tomorrow but came across your essay and now i really understand it more clearly without readin the book completely

steve said...

As I get older and come to terms with the prospect of never completely reading the canon (if there is such a thing anymore), I've come to the same conclusion you appear to have reached -- you read what speaks to you, regardless of a work's inclusion on or exclusion from the Columbia Classics list.

I've read and taught Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World as well as his essays. I find your assessment dead accurate. His narratives are decidedly pedestrian, but there's a rewarding richness in his well-researched and meticulously designed structures, and his themes and passions remain provocative and relevant in the 21st century.

steve said...

As I get older and come to terms with the prospect of never completely reading the canon (if there is such a thing anymore), I've come to the same conclusion you appear to have reached -- you read what speaks to you, regardless of a work's inclusion on or exclusion from the Columbia Classics list.

I've read and taught Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World as well as his essays. I find your assessment dead accurate. His narratives are decidedly pedestrian, but there's a rewarding richness in his well-researched and meticulously designed structures, and his themes and passions remain provocative and relevant in the 21st century.

Tere said...

I just finished reading this book last night. It was a struggle to say the least. While I enjoyed the overall premise, it was difficult to get to for all the musical, literary, visual and performing art references. I couldn't help but think he was just showing off.

This was written in the late 40s/early 50s. Was everyone more artistically literate then than they are now? I'm fairly well-educated and work in the arts, but this just got to be TOO much. I also felt I needed a dictionary beside me to look up words I had never even seen before. The translator, Harriet de Onis, really set out to impress; didn't she?

Bottom line: good story that may seem full of cliches (by today's standards, but doubt they were when written), however the ending was abrupt and left me wondering whether it was a woman (love/lust) or the "lifestyle" that made him so eager to return. He gives up on the latter when he finds he's lost the former. Doesn't ring true to me.

mike said...

Just finished reading the book.

Liked it for the ideas, especially on the origins of music and the critique of modern civilisation.

The upriver journey reminded me of Joseph Conrad at times, though Carpentier has a different agenda.

On a more trivial note, there was an obscure adjective - "telluric" - that was used about ten times in the book. It's funny how some authors can latch onto certain arcane words and keep coming out with them.

jordan. said...

I enjoyed your treatment of this novel. I found the story to be very engaging, and am puzzled that it hasn't found a larger English-language audience. I got to your blog because I was looking for discussion about this book, but I have to say I enjoy your work. I'm hoping to launch a reading-focused blog soon (The Lost Steps is our first book to tackle) and I plan to direct readers to your site if they seek a different prospective. Just thought I'd let you know. Do not feel any obligation to link back -- like I said, we're not even up and running yet.

Anonymous said...

I actually think that the unreliability of the narrator is one of the strengths of the novel. Any first person account will be unreliable, after all, what we are getting is the person's interpretation. The narrator sheds history as he understands it, but he never really sheds. All of his interpretations are shaped by his own history, which involves civilization and extensive knowledge of Western art and mythology. To question the reliability of the narrator is to question the reliability of history itself, whose account are we getting? I really, really like this book.

Ruth Estevez said...

I read this book several years ago, picking it up in a second hand book shop. A very old, falling apart copy. When I spoke to people, no-one had heard of The Lost Steps or the author. I loved the book. It spoke to me. Reading the other comments, I don't recall thinking these things. It was the feeling and connection and the writing that mattered. I'm sick of novels always having to be plot led and prefer character and theme led books.
Two days ago, in a second hand book shop in Haworth I saw a newer version of this book which wasn't falling apart. Joy. I'm going to re-read it, nervous that I won't feel the same about it, but desperate to see.

Cortes said...

My favourite novel by my favourite novelist.