Alejo Carpentier and certain steps

Monday, November 22nd, 2004

The master and his translator at work on two visions of time and space

But what lay beneath us was even worse than the products of the shade. Under the water great riddled leaves waved like dominoes of ocher velvet, lures and traps. On the surface floated clusters of dirty bubbles, varnished over by reddish pollen, which a passing fin sent drifting off into the eddy of a pool with the wavering motion of a sea cucumber. A kind of thick opalescent gauze hung over the opening of a rock teeming with hidden life. A silent war was going on in those depths bristling with hairy talons, where everything seemed a slimy tangle of snakes. Strange clicking noices, sudden ripples, the plash of waters told of the the rush of invisible beings leaving behind them a wake of murky decay. One felt the presence of rampant fauna, of the primeval slime, of the green fermentation beneath the dark waters, which gave off a sour reek like a mud of vinegar and carrion, over whose oily surface moved insects made to walk on the water: chinch-bugs, white fleas, high-jointed flies, tiny mosquitoes that were hardly more than shimmering dots in the green light, for the green, shot through by an occasional ray of sun, was so intense that the light as it filtered through the leaves had the color of moss dyed the hue of the swamp-bottoms as it sought the roots of the plants. (160-161)

and

Each plateau had its own morphology, consisting of groins, sheer drops, straight or broken edges. The one not adorned with the incarnation of an obelisk or a basalt headland had a flanking terrace, beveled edges, sharp angles, or was crowned by strange stone markers resembling the figures in a procession. Suddenly, in contrast to this severity, a stone arabesque, some geographical flight of fancy, conspired with the water to give a touch of movement to this land of the unmovable. A mountain of reddish granite poured seven yellow cascades over the battlements of its crowning cornice. Or a river hurled itself into space and became a rainbow on the cutback stairway of petrified trees. The foam of a river boiled over enormous natural arches with deafening echo before it divided and fell into a series of pools emptying into one another. One sensed that overhead, at the summit, in this series of stairsteps to the moon, there were lakes, neighbors to the clouds, whose virgin waters had never been profaned by human eye.

There were morning hoarfrost, icy depths, opalescent banks, and hollows filled with the night before twilight. There were monoliths poised on the edge of peaks, needles, crosses, cracks that breathed forth mists; wrinkled crags that were like congealed lava–meteors, perhaps, fallen from another planet. We were overawed by the display of these opera magna, the plurality of the profiles, the scope of the shadows, the immensity of the esplanades. We felt like intruders who at any moment might be cast out of a forbidden kingdom. What lay before our eyes was the world that existed before man. (186)

Carpentier’s description has an incredible momentum and sense of disciplined precision. This is rock-hard control, image to image. The Lost Steps, from start to finish, is a lesson in narrative relentlessness.

This is Carpentier’s “unexpected richness of reality,” his realization of the “Baroque as human constant,” his “proliferating nuclei.” What strikes me in the novel is the way Carpentier lays the language over even the roughest of things like gold or silver foil, brushing it into the creases, molding it into the folds.


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