Toucans and Hurricanes
Reasons of State by Alejo Carpentier translated by Frances Partridge Alred A. Knopf; 309 pp, $10
FROM THE BEGINNING, the meeting of Europe and America was colored by illusions. Columbus retreated from the Orinoco delta because he thought he had found the Earthly Paradise; Coronado chased across the deserts in search of seven golden cities; Ponce de Leon died in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth. The Indians were just as perplexed, believing at first that the conquistadors on horseback were centaurs, and later that these red-bearded, pale-skinned men were gods returning to fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy.
After the conquest, European visions prevailed, and America was the loser. The image of Latin America as an exotic, picturesque garden lacking any real identity traveled from European visionaries to American artists, who returned it with a vengeance. Even scientific travelers such as Alexander von Humboldt were reduced to painting the American landscape as a grotesque parody of Europe's.
Feeling the lack of an autonomous American image, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier has long looked for a way to rediscover the New World. Born in Cuba of French ancestry, and for years a political exile in Paris, he has always known how mistaken Europe and America were about each other. His unique perspective has influenced him, perhaps defensively, to explore in his writing the tensions between European assumptions and American reality.
In Carpentier's early novels, this theme took the shape of an escape into history or the primitive. They dealt with 18th century revolutions in Haiti, the impressions of a traveller who feels he is moving backwards in time as he enters the primitive Venezuelan jungle, and the introduction of the French Revolution to her Caribbean colonies: one ship brings both the edict emancipating slaves and the first guillotine. These historical novels spread out spectacles of lyrical description, rendering a fantastic American reality in overwhelming baroque detail.
Carpentier returned to Cuba from Venezuelan exile in 1959, to join the Cuban Revolution. He worked as a cultural official and diplomat, and proclaimed his artistic program of rediscovering America as an act of revolutionary affirmation. Yet for several years, he published little fiction--it seemed that he was enshrined and preserved under glass, a model writer who wasn't writing.
Finally, in 1974 he broke his silence with two works. Baroque Concert, a novella, is a fantasia about music and travel in the 18th century. Reasons of State, now translated into English, is the epic story, executed in comic opera style, of the downfall of the dictator of an imaginary Caribbean nation around the time of the First World War. An enlightened despot who prefers vacationing in Paris to tyrannizing his country, the unnamed Head of State returns to suppress revolts by trusted generals, crush his civilian opposition, and reflect the tedium of it all:
...the same procession of uniforms and frock coats, of English top hats alternating with plumed Bolivian helmets, as one saw in second-rate theaters, where triumphal marches of thirty men passed and re-passed in front of the same drop curtain, running when they were behind it, so as to be in time to re-enter the stage shouting for the fifth time: "Victory! Victory! Long Live the Regime! Long Live Liberty!
This farcical circle of palace revolts is interrupted by the reverberations of a European cataclysm: The Great War. While a massacre by the Head of State provokes brief, tongue-clucking scandal in the French press, the tales of Hun atrocities shock Latin Americans who believed, above all, in the civilization of Europe. And the ideology that fills the moral vacuum left by the collapse of the old cultural value is Marxism.
From being so poorly understood that a confiscation of "red books" nets The Red and the Black and The Knight of the Red House, but misses Capital. Marxism emerges as the only political philosophy offering hopes of progress. The Student, a young popular leader who organizes the first general strike, comes to symbolize the Communist answer to the Head of State's corrupt method. Though he does not succeed in bringing about a popular revolution, near the end of the book The Student surfaces in Paris as he is leaving for the "First World Conference on Colonial and Imperialist Politics" in the company of Jawaharlal Nehru. He is moving into the future, while the Head of State erodes in his senile Parisian exile.
BUT POLITICAL CHANGES are not Carpentier's major concern here. He leaves rigorous analysis of either Marxism or the Machiavellian method of dictatorship to a historical study. Reasons of State concentrates instead on portraying the myriad cultural changes in Europe and America that resulted from the First World War. The upheaval of the Jazz Age is transmitted to Latin America, where because of an economic boom, they build hideous skyscrapers, dance to "Yes, We Have No Bananas," and,
in a few months of war, oil lamps had been supplanted by the light bulb, the gourd by the bidet, pineapple juice by Coca Cola, lotto by roulette, Rocambole by Pearl White, the messenger boy's donkey by the telegraphist's bicycle...
No one could be better situated to perceive these contrasts than the Head of State. Like the conquistadors, he is plundering America (in this case, to build himself a townhouse in Paris). So his point of view is picaresque: a rogue himself, he must be a careful observer of trends and opportunities in both worlds, ready to declare a crusade of Latinity against Germanity, or to sign over lands to the United Fruit Company in return for its support.
He is also the bemused, sardonic connoisseur of everything that suits his appetite. A gourmet when it comes to pheasant, a gourmand when it comes to tamales, a consumer of fine wines and Santa Ines rum, he can deliver laughably erudite and baroque speeches or lead Indian troops on a jungle campaign. His middleman position allows him to see Europe in the light of America, and America in the light of Europe. From the first page, when he looks out his window at the Arc d 'Triomphe and thinks of the volcano that overlooks his own capital, he continually sees affinities and contrasts between the continents.
However, the prominence of the Head of State's ironic and cynical vision does not reflect Carpentier's emphasis. Carpentier exploits the vulgar cosmopolitanism of the Head of State--who memorizes great quotations from a household dictionary to fabricate intellectual conversation--for comic contrast to the genuine internationalism of The Student. Despite his sneering, the Head of State serves the myths that falsify Latin America's identity, and the political forces that deny its independence. His anonymity is a well-deserved insult. But for The Student, as for Carpentier, anonymity is an affirmation of Third World unity, and the subservience of Latin America's cultural heritage is a challenge to build a new and independent art.
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