Academic journal article Theory in Action

Alejo Carpentier, the Lost Steps. Art between Nature and Culture

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Alejo Carpentier, the Lost Steps. Art between Nature and Culture

Article excerpt

MUSIC AND MODERNITY

The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos 1953) by Alejo Carpentier is almost unanimously considered the Cuban writer's masterpiece as well as one of the most important Latin American literary works of the last century. Interpretations of the novel have tended to consider the cultural context of South American and its social evolution, or artistic trends of the 50s or 60s. Some readers sought to perceive in this book a definite existentialist influence while some others were fascinated by the protagonist's sense of alienation. Nevertheless, Roberto González Echevarría2 underlined the need of a larger context in order to grasp the full meaning of The Lost Steps. The novel was even regarded as the perfect expression of a "war of time"3, confronting specific aspects of the traditional culture of the New World with expressions of Western civilization; thus the book announced the future aesthetics of the great representatives of Magical Realism or of the Latin American Boom. Taken from a different perspective, the text represents "an extraordinary synthesis of Carpentier's vision with the great artistic problems debated since the Romantics."4 The title ironically suggests Les pas perdus, the same words André Breton used in 1924 for one of his creations. This kind of strategy is not at all new for Carpentier, since The Kingdom of This World is a biblical expression, The Century of Lights alludes to the Illumination and Guerra del tiempo brings to mind Lope's work.

The novel contains many cultural suggestions, with allusions to Schiller, Goethe, Rousseau, Heine, Beethoven, Byron and Shelley. At the same time, the author underscores the importance of Romantic aesthetics and the significance of this cultural pattern during the 19th century. Therefore, some literary critics have tried to interpret The Lost Steps as the perfect expression of a specific type of a late (but extremely elaborate) sui-generis Romanticism, but in the meantime as a literary subversion of the Romantic aesthetics as a whole and the entire Romantic view of art. Furthermore, and without intending to serve as a reiteration of the Faustian myth, Carpentier's novel may be compared to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, especially inasmuch as the artist's image is concerned: "he develops a portrait of the modern artist as Faustian, with his creative and destructive impulses inextricably intertwined."5 The ideas of the Cuban writer's character represent an unexpected echo of Adrian Leverkühn's perceptions of modern music.

The narrator-protagonist in The Lost Steps, whose name remains unknown throughout the novel, may have appeared to readers to be only a new version of the modern intellectual estranged from the society, typical of the years following the Second World War. "He has been described as an alienated individual in modern society, exemplifying the problem of the 'inauthentic' existence."6 However we must bear in mind a very important detail: this narrator is first and foremost an artist, a musician who sees himself as a descendant of his great Romantic forerunners whose names he invokes. Furthermore, he insists that his essential project is to compose a cantata based on Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, which along with his entire creative plan, would serve as a harsh critique of contemporary art, based only slightly on the Romantic ideology he knows so very well.

It is interesting enough that Alejo Carpentier shares many characteristics with his protagonist in The Lost Steps: "both are musicologists and composers, both wrote an autobiographical account of a trip taken up to a South American river, and both find themselves torn between conflicting loyalties to the New and the Old World."7 The error made in numerous interpretations of this novel was, therefore, the complete identification of the author and the narrator based only on such details. It is true, however, that the author's note at the end of The Lost Steps encouraged the comparisons and somehow disturbed or even confused the critics/readers: "Even though the place of the action of the first chapters of this book does not need location; even though the Latin American capital city, or the provincial cities that also appear in the novel are just prototypes, to which no precise situation has been given because the elements that compose them are common to many countries, the author believes it is necessary to make clear - in order to answer any legitimate curiosity - that from a place called Puerto Anunciación the landscape is rendered to precise visions of not very known or photographed places -that is, if they ever were. …

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