Alejo Carpentier


(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

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Alejo Carpentier

Los Pasos Perdidos/ The Lost Steps displays the writer's fluent narrative instinct and supernatural attention to detail at their peak. Both the city and the jungle are depicted with such hyper-realistic power that they become living beings, perhaps the real Manichean protagonists of this metaphysical tale, fighting each other on a battlefield that happens to the be the life of the protagonist. The first part is simply the story of an alienated and lonely man who lives a sordid life. The second part is his journey into the belly of civilization, back in time, away from his real life. Here tragedy becomes epics. Then the epics turns into comedy when he is rescued and finds himself an unwilling celebrity. Finally, the novel becomes another tragedy, the tragedy of a man who fights his roots to become something else, and it becomes a meditation on life and art, as his destiny is ironically decided by his need for art. The tale explores the human condition while mocking the Bible and the Odyssey, but, ultimately, carving its own vein of existential tragicomedy.

The story begins in New York. The protagonist, once a music composer, has taken a lousy job in a film studio to support his wife Ruth's career as an actress. However, she has been playing the same role for five years and has become a slave to the success of that play. Meanwhile, he is getting more and more frustrated. His most recent video is a masterpiece of production but, ultimately, it is just a commercial. His relationship with his wife has become pure routine, with little affection on either side. After the success of the commercial, he is given a month of vacation just when his wife is leaving for yet another tournee. Alone at home, he stumbled into an old acquaintance, his old teacher the curator of the museum of organography and a collector of ancient instruments. The curator has found proof that the protagonist's old theory of how music originated (to mime animal movement and bird songs) is correct and invites him to travel on a trip paid by the university to recover stone-age instruments from remote tribes. The protagonist is skeptic, having been outside the loop for too long, and visits his lover Mouche, an astrologer, whose friends include the spiritual guru Exteeaych (XTH). Mouche is excited about the trip and convinces him to accept. She has a simple plan: hire their friend who specializes in faking paintings and have him build facsimiles of the legendary instruments while the two of them enjoy their vacation. The protagonist, aware that many museums, display artifacts of dubious authenticity gives in. Unfortunately, their plans are disrupted when the mob stages a revolution in the third-world country the moment they arrive. They see people being killed and soon all the staff of the hotel for foreigners deserts the guests. That's when Mouche befriends a Canadian painter who rescues them and takes them to her private villa. The protagonist becomes jealous of the close friendship that blossoms between the two women; and one day, while the revolution is still being won and lost, he simply decides to buy the bus tickets to the interior against Mouche's will. During the trip they meet a woman, Rosario, who is bringing a Christian talisman to her sick father but also believes in pagan spirits. in a flashback evoked by Beethoven's ninth symphony, the protagonist summarizes his life from his humble upbringing as the son of a European-born music-shop owner to the voluntary exile in Europe at the time of fascist intolerance to the war that ended it and that returned him to the USA. They reach an oil town where Mouche is fascinated by itinerant whores and is mistaken as one of them by a Greek diamond hunter who becomes a friend of the protagonist after their fistfight. They all take a boat to a ghost town where Rosario's father is cared for by missionaries. The protagonist is getting bored of Mouche (an urban woman who can't lived without city comforts) and attracted to Rosario. The Greek diamon hunter introduces the protagonist to the Adelantado, an old mysterious gold digger who knows exactly where the famed stone-age musical instruments can be found. Just then Rosario's father dies. Mouche convinces Rosario to follow them further up into the primitive areas. Mouche is eager to see the diamond mine. The trio thus continues the trip with the friar, the Adelantado and the Greek diamond hunter. Meanwhile, the relationship between Mouche and the protagonist begins to unravel. First she is caught with flowers that come from an abandoned mission that is now only use for secret sexual encounters. Then she provokes Rosario's wrath by trying to have lesbian sex with her. And finally Mouche falls sick with malaria. The protagonist is happy to get rid of her by entrusting her to the care of a providential doctor. Before parting with her, the protagonist and Rosario make love right under the hammock where Mouche is lying sick. Then the Adelantado, the Greek (Yannes), the friar (Pedro), Rosario and the protagonist continue the journey further away from civilization. The protagonist feels like they are reenacting the legendary endeavours of the early explorers who set out to find the El Dorado (one is looking for diamonds, one for gold, one for musical instruments). Everybody believes that the Adelantado is immensely rich, but the man confides the truth to the protagonist, who is surprised and delighted (but we are not told). After miraculously surviving a storm, they reach a stone-age village, where the protagonist witnesses revolting practices but also skills that have long been lost by civilized people. Then they travel further inland, to an even more primitive village, where the protagonist sees the lowest form of humanity. Here he finds the musical instruments that he was looking for. Here he also witnesses the birth of music: the desolate song of the shaman trying to revive the dead. The journey has reached a region of the world where there are no humans, just ancient geological formations, and the protagonist feels that they have traveled back to the very genesis of the biblical world.
At this point Yannes leaves the group, determined to find his diamonds. The Adelantado, instead, has a differenmt goal: he founded a city in the jungle. That's the secret he confided to the protagonist. The Adelantado had used his gold to buy the materials he needed for the city. He was not interested in the gold anymore, but in his legacy. The protagonist is disappointed to find out that the "city" is just a group of primitive huts, but that's how the first cities got started in Mesopotamia. The friar will be the first bishop of the city. The protagonist decides to stay and help to build the church. Rosario, who grew up at the edge of the jungle, is excited at their new life. The protagonist only has to acquiesce his conscience: he finds a way to send the precious musical instruments to the museum, so that the curator would not get in any trouble. He is told of the legend of the flood: when the waters of the river flooded the plains, a man survived and saved animals too. He realizes that each place has its own version of Noah's legend. History has started moving forward again, from Eden towards the first cities and agriculture. When the rains keep them confined to the city, the protagonist rediscovers his passion for music and starts composing the threnody he always dreamed of. Unfortunately, there isn't enough paper in the city for a composer to write his music, and he soon runs out of it. Meanwhile, the friar intimates to him that he should get married to Rosario to set the Christian example to the Indios. He is reluctant to betray Rosario (he is already married) but then eventually he proposes to her: to his surprise he rejects him, revealing a strong feminist ideology. They also meet Nicasio, an old gold hunter who lives in a cave dying of leprosy who comes around to beg for food. Later Nicasio tries to rape a child and the protagonist is charged with gunning him down. The protagonist cannot pull the trigger, but the Adelantado's son Marcos does it, and the first execution is thus carried out in the new city. A plane appears amid the rains: it turns out that the protagonist has become famous, that rescue missions have been organized, that rewards have been offered to aviators. The plane is a sight never seen before by the people of the village. The protagonist is determined to stay and ignore civilization but then realizes that civilization has paper and ink, the tools that he needs to complete his threnody. He tells Rosario that he will be gone just a few weeks, just the time to buy what he needs and come back. Rosario does not believe him and starts walking towards their home in the mood of a widow.
To his surprise, the whole world is waiting for his return. Not only the media went beserk over his life's story, but his wife became a heroine too, fueling the media frenzy. He has been made a modern Ulysses, returning to his Penelope. Ruth has decided to quit the theater and just be a wife; in fact, a mother, because she announces her pregnancy. After a grandiose reception attended by all sorts of dignitaries and acquaintances, the protagonist is alone with his wife and about to confess that he wants a divorce when she finds a newspaper that just came out with the story of her husband's illicit affair with Mouche, deliberately spun out by the vindictive Mouche. The protagonist finally has a chance to tell his wife not only about Mouche but also about Rosario, and to ask for a divorce. Throughout this excruciating homecoming ritual his wife (who, it turns out, is not even pregnant) displays the skills of the tragic actress. The result is that the protagonist is suddenly transformed from hero to villain. His wife sues him, his old employer fires him, and he soon is reduced to poverty. He cannot find the money he needs to go back to Rosario, while he is battling Ruth in courts. One night he meets Mouche and sleeps with her mechanically, and she shows him an article about the tragic death of the old friar, massacred by the Indios. This news causes him to leave everything behind and set out with what little money he has. He reaches the remote country again and embarks on the same trip. He fails to reach the hidden city because the river has risen and erased the familiar markers. He meets Yannes, who has found the diamonds he was looking for and can't wait to register his new mine. Yannes would know how to get to the city, but Yannes has news for the protagonist: Rosario did not wait for him, she is married to the Adelantado's son and is even pregnant. The protagonist is devastated. He realizes that this was just a vacation from what his real destiny is. What caused the failure of his dream was his passion for music: the paper and ink that he needed to finish his masterpiece. He belongs to the race that has invented art and that is doomed to sacrifice everything for it.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )