The Kingdom of this World was a charred little fable of revolutionary violence – vengeful voodoo, conspiratorial caves, signal drums in the night; a revolt of slaves, “senseless and merciless” – and I sought out Explosion in a Cathedral hoping for something in that line. The novel’s scope is broader, embracing, as Carpentier writes in his afterward, “the whole area of the Caribbean” in a time of revolution, abolition, piracy and war. Explosion in a Cathedral (the original Spanish title is pointe
And since the whole island must learn its lesson, the guillotine was removed from the Place de la Victoire, and began to travel, to go on journeys and excursions.
The scenes of re-enslavement, of expeditions to recapture runaways in their jungle strongholds, of reversion to the regional order despite the proclamations of the distant Republic, are especially fucked-up. Of the novel’s the fourteen epigraphs, thirteen are titles of etchings from Goya’s The Disasters of War, and one is a long extract from the book of Job. So that’s the kind of book this is.
And it’s right up my alley: little dialogue; casual violence; descriptive catalogues of frightful plants and beasts; mordant political reflections. The New World is seen not as a new start for humanity but the theater of Europe’s racist cruelty, its outsourced exploitation; its sweat shop, abattoir, lions’ den, “Rape Room”; the anus mundi, as a Nazi doctor called occupied Poland, where kidnapped peoples are exterminated or worked to death for small profit. The translation is occasionally entrancing, and suggests that behind it lies an interesting Latinate style, a morbid, tropically warped classicism, an incipient baroque, elegant and oppressive.
There were silent houses, hidden in the woods, where columns from some Greek temple rose up to meet pediments obliterated by ivy…
Halfway through I posted a status update recommending this to people who enjoyed the pace and texture of The Radetzky March, and I stand by that. Carpentier’s characters are not intricately conflicted – this is no Woolfian kaleidoscope of memory and desire – and they are defined by their relation to the French Revolution, as Roth’s three generations of von Trottas are defined by relation to the different stages of Austro-Hungarian decay. Especially read this if you’re interested in the revolutionary type of “hard man,” the rationalist who revels in the supposed necessity of his murders. The heyday of Robespierre and Saint-Just was short, but the orator of caustic blasphemy survived as a French style. More than a few times while reading I thought of this glimpse of Baudelaire in the Goncourt Journals:
Baudelaire had supper at the table next to ours. He was without a cravat, his shirt open at the neck and his head shaved, just as if he were to be guillotined. A single affectation: his little hands washed and cared for, the nails kept scrupulously clean. The face of a maniac, a voice that cuts like a knife, and a precise elocution that tries to copy Saint-Just and succeeds.
The Wikipedia entry on Carpentier says that soon after reading Explosion in a Cathedral (1962), Garcia Marquez destroyed the first draft of One Hundred Years of Solitude and started anew. That entry also notes that Carpentier’s “magic realism” (a phrase Carpentier coined) is not fantastic, and his characters do not defy physical laws; the history and politics of the Caribbean are sufficiently surreal. I wonder if Garcia Marquez realized Carpentier had already made the history strange, and the only place to go was pure fantasy.