Friday, August 13, 2010

The Kingdom of this World

I've just finished reading the El reino de este mundo, 'The Kingdom of this World' (1949) by Alejo Carpentier. Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) was a Cuban writer and musicologist who lived in Europe from 1928-38. He returned to Cuba in 1939 to marry but disliking its political atmosphere choose to live in Venezuela instead. However, when the Cuban revolution occurred in 1959 he returned to become Vice-President of the National Council of Culture, Professor of the History of Culture and eventually Director of the Cuban State publishing House.Carpentier's novella (112 pp.) is set in Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century. It describes the events in which African slaves fought French colonists for their freedom and human rights to establish a short-lived Black Republic. It's written from the perspective of the protagonist Ti Noel, a black slave who witnesses the events in Haiti first-hand.

Although Haiti achieved independence in 1804, the protagonist Ti Noel realizes that the newly-formed Republic is in some ways even worse than colonial rule, 'for the colonists... had at least been careful not to kill their slaves, for dead slaves were money out of their pockets'. Whereas in the new Black Republic the death of a slave is seen as an easily replaceable commodity, the high-birth rate ensuring a constant supply of new slaves. Thus as it ever was, the cry to defeat tyranny with freedom is replaced by the new ruling elite's justification of a new form of tyranny.

Alejo Carpentier's left-wing viewpoint on the human condition argues that-

...a man never knows for whom he suffers and hopes. He suffers and hopes and toils for people he will never know, and for who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for others who will not be happy either, for man always seeks a happiness far beyond that which is meted out to him. But man's greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than what he is. In laying duties upon himself. In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur to be won, inasmuch as there all is an established hierarchy, the unknown is revealed, existence is infinite, there is no possibility of sacrifice, all is rest and joy. For this reason, bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World.

Carpentier is credited with coining the term lo real maravilloso (roughly the "marvelous reality") in the prologue to 'The Kingdom of this World' and the novella is often cited as one of the very earliest examples of the genre of 'magic realism', in which reality and elements of fantasy are mixed to produce a cocktail of highly imaginative literature. Carpentier's familiarity with the Surrealist movement while living in Paris, his admiration of the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, his left-wing politics, interest in Voodoo and ethnicity, all amalgamate in 'The Kingdom of this World' to produce what is seen by many as one of the earliest examples of 'magical realism' writing.
The Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges is credited as one of the key innovators of 'magic realism' writing in which aspects of reality are blurred with magical elements. The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel 'One hundred years of solitude' (1967) is also often cited as a seminal example of this genre. However, although 'magic realism' is frequently associated with the literature of South America, the human imagination transcends national boundaries.

Other novelists who have utilized elements of 'magic realism' in their writing include (and this inventory is far from inclusive) the Australian novelist Peter Carey's 'Illywhacker' (1985), Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' (1988), Patrick Suskind's 'Perfume' (1985), Gunther Grass' 'The Tin Drum'(1959) and not least, the supreme worlk of Russian magical realism, if not the 20th century, Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Master Margarita' (1940).

But in fact the employment of 'magical' or 'fantastic' elements in modern Literature, in particular English Literature can be traced as far back as Jonathan Swift's' 'Gulliver's Travels' (1735). 'Fantastic' or fantasy elements pervade English literary works, especially literature loved by children and adults alike, including Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' (1865), and Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows' (1908) .

Personally, dare I propose it, one of the greatest of all 'magical realism' writings is by an author whom Jorge Borges was a great admirer of, Sir Thomas Browne's 'The Garden of Cyrus' (1658). As T. S. Eliot long ago realized, 'Mankind cannot bear very much reality'.


Nick said...

Carpentier's novel sounds worth reading. The setting is a particularly interesting one. Poor Haiti. What a terrible history.

Borges is a great writer -- and it was his unforgettable story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" that made me interested in Thomas Browne. I'm sure it had the same effect on others. It also got me reading Adolfo Bioy Casares' novella, "The Invention of Morel", which is a sort of science fiction, for lack of a better term.

Hydriotaphia said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for your comment. Carpentier's novella is only 112 pp so not a huge life-style commitment of a read.

Interesting that you 'discovered' Browne through Borges who alludes to Browne frequently in his writings.

Max Sebald's 'Rings of Saturn' is also a popular introduction for readers to 'discover' Browne.

I will look out for the Casare's novella you mention on Amazon

Rise said...

Juan Rulfo was also cited as a progenitor of magic realism (the Latin American strain). I am already interested in this book, being an early instance of the genre. I guess the Brothers Grimm can also be practitioners?

On a side note, New Directions is publishing The Urn Burial as part of its Pearl series. Guess who they "commissioned" for the intro?

Hydriotaphia said...

Hi Rise!

What date is the Rulfo book?

To be honest I can't say I really approve of publications which separate the 1658 Discourses from each which was never the author's intention at all. They were meant to be read TOGETHER as Browne makes clear in the Cyrus Dedicatory Epistle.

'That we conjoyn these parts of different Subjects, or that this should succeed the other...'

My 1658 edition has the two Dedicatory Epistles following each other.

Anyway do tell me who the Introduction will be penned by!

Rise said...

Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo came out in 1955 (later than Carpentier’s). But I have only read his other book, The Burning Plain.

Hate to disappoint you but here it is: “This edition includes a magisterial discourse on Sir Thomas Browne taken from the first chapter of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.”

Hydriotaphia said...

If the Introduction to 'Urn-Burial' is to be written by you, Rise, I would definitely like to read that please!

Hydriotaphia said...

Thanks Rise,

Surely it's not a Discourse upon a Discourse! Well as Max once confessed to me that I was more of an expert upon Browne than himself, I'm not too bothered.

It's just a pity that yet again the diptych is split apart against the author's artistic intentions.

Besides my specialist interpretation is on Cyrus.

And I was hoping you might be the author to the introduction!

Rise said...

Oh I wish I could write that introduction, Hydriotaphia. Due to lack of extensive background on the subject, it will probably consist of an exclusive interview with you.