Academic journal article Romance Notes

Finding a Place for !Ecue-Yamba-O!: Carpentier's Tenuous Dialogue with Afrocubanismo

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Finding a Place for !Ecue-Yamba-O!: Carpentier's Tenuous Dialogue with Afrocubanismo

Article excerpt

1. Alejo Carpentieri earliest novel has never been a mainstay of the Latin American canon. Hastily written in a Havana prison in 1927 and published on a small scale in 1933, Ecue-Yamba-O! reads like an experiment in avant-garde fragmentation and elemental expressions of otherness. The work has been widely interpreted as an atypical overture to Carpentier's later masterpiece fiction. (1) That critical interpretations of the novel have either discounted or at least devalued its substance should not detract from his engagement with a surge of national reinterpretations of blackness during the 1920s and 1930s. Three competing phenomena were emerging at the time of the novel's release: 1) a creative movement that featured so-called afrocubanista tendencies in poetry, fiction, music, and visual art; 2) a hefty corpus of social scientific research on Afro-Cuban folk traditions; 3) reinterpretations of the national imaginary that sought to reconcile racial disparities while establishing a framework for progress and modernization. In this study I will examine the ostensible connections between Ecue-Yamba-O! and artistic/academic manifestations of afrocubanismo in the Cuban Republic.

2. Wade notes that the afrocubanista "trend" took hold of literary circles in the 1920s and 1930s "with authors such as Alejo Carpentier and Nicolas Guillen leading the way" (33). The observation reveals a crucial stumbling block in critical approaches to Afro-Cuban literature. That the work of white novelist and a mulatto poet are forced into the same categorical definition creates a series of complexities that want for reconciliation. Obvious genre distinctions aside, the stylistic and thematic differences between Ecue-Yamba-O! and Guillen's inaugural Motivos de son (1930) are as numerous as they are significant. The novel reads like a rudimentary exercise in avant-garde experimentation and even partakes of primitive, grotesque representations of the Afro-Cuban subject. (2) The poems, on the other hand, read like authentic expressions of the AfroCuban experience conceived within a position of access and privilege to that tradition. Carpentier himself recognizes that his early work leaves much to be desired. In addressing the place of academic research in the novel from the privileged perspective of hindsight, he shares his frustration with what he sees as the novel's documentary shortcomings.

Carpentier describes twenty years of contact with Cuba's "campesinos negros" during which he attended "countless" santeria rituals. Yet he admits that his Ecue-Yamba-O! experiment barely scratched the surface: "me di cuenta de que todo lo hondo, lo verdadero, lo universal, del mundo que habia pretendido pintar en mi novela habia permanecido fuera del alcance de mi observacion" (1987:11). Despite the growing national allure of things African it seems that Carpentier's academic preparation was insufficient. The principal obstacle, he admits, was his own unfamiliarity with the very cultural subject that even after such determined immersion remained beyond his "observation's reach." He concludes by reiterating the need for deliberate and "patient" cultural observation: "ciertas realidades americanas, por no haber sido explotadas literariamente, por no haber sido nombradas, exigen un largo, vasto, paciente proceso de observacion" (11). To understand this reflection is to grapple with a fundamental reality of the afrocubanista craze. Premiering "certain American realities" in the name of afrocubanismo required rigorous scholarly efforts even when scholarship was not the central purpose. (3)

Such motivations establish a clear connection with Afro-Cuban studies, the conglomerate of scholarly approaches to Cuba's African heritages sustained in large part by Fernando Ortiz (1881-1969). Just prior to Carpentier's novelistic debut, Ortiz establishes the periodical Archivos del Folklore Cubano (1924-1930), a short-lived but vital juncture in the advance of Afro-Cuban studies. …

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