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Backwards up the Orinoco

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I have to admit it. I am a sucker for novels in which a key element is the passage of time – Buddenbrooks, The Old Wives’ Tale, The Forsyte Saga, I name just three old standbys. And then, first published in the 1950s but not read by me until several years later, came a sensational eye-opener of an entirely different sort, Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. This extraordinary novel is not concerned with a mere few generations. It retraces the history of mankind back to its start.

But first, who was this Cuban author with the French name and the astonishing gift of the gab? He was born in 1904, of a Russian mother and a French father, an architect who later deserted the family and was never heard of again. Though brought up in Cuba, Carpentier was also educated at a lycée in Paris, after which he spoke Spanish with a pronounced French accent and, back home in Havana, was often taken for a foreigner. In 1928 he returned to France, after a brief spell in one of the dictator Machado’s gaols, and there lived the Parisian intellectual life, flirting with surrealism, working with musicians of the stature of Darius Milhaud, and cutting his teeth in radio. Indeed, on returning to Cuba in 1939, he became a star of that medium, and it was not until several years later that he began to make his name as an author.

The Lost Steps, published in Spanish in 1953, and in English, in a spirited translation by Harriet de Onís, in 1956, brought him worldwide fame and an acknowledged status as the trail-blazer of the modern school of Latin American novelists. Carlos Fuentes in particular has extolled his brilliance as an interpreter of the Latin American past – or rather, of its past/present. For, as that younger author has pertinently remarked, there is a huge difference between the south and the north of the continent in that respect. ‘The past is present in Latin America,’ Fuentes has written. ‘The past is past

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I have to admit it. I am a sucker for novels in which a key element is the passage of time – Buddenbrooks, The Old Wives’ Tale, The Forsyte Saga, I name just three old standbys. And then, first published in the 1950s but not read by me until several years later, came a sensational eye-opener of an entirely different sort, Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. This extraordinary novel is not concerned with a mere few generations. It retraces the history of mankind back to its start.

But first, who was this Cuban author with the French name and the astonishing gift of the gab? He was born in 1904, of a Russian mother and a French father, an architect who later deserted the family and was never heard of again. Though brought up in Cuba, Carpentier was also educated at a lycée in Paris, after which he spoke Spanish with a pronounced French accent and, back home in Havana, was often taken for a foreigner. In 1928 he returned to France, after a brief spell in one of the dictator Machado’s gaols, and there lived the Parisian intellectual life, flirting with surrealism, working with musicians of the stature of Darius Milhaud, and cutting his teeth in radio. Indeed, on returning to Cuba in 1939, he became a star of that medium, and it was not until several years later that he began to make his name as an author. The Lost Steps, published in Spanish in 1953, and in English, in a spirited translation by Harriet de Onís, in 1956, brought him worldwide fame and an acknowledged status as the trail-blazer of the modern school of Latin American novelists. Carlos Fuentes in particular has extolled his brilliance as an interpreter of the Latin American past – or rather, of its past/present. For, as that younger author has pertinently remarked, there is a huge difference between the south and the north of the continent in that respect. ‘The past is present in Latin America,’ Fuentes has written. ‘The past is past in the United States.’ But in The Lost Steps it is not only Latin America’s past that is brought alive as the narrator makes his momentous trip through the jungle and up the Orinoco in search of primitive musical instruments for the museum of his former mentor. The progressively more primitive tribes he encounters re veal humanity’s ‘lost steps’ everywhere, back and back to the Fourth Day of Creation. At a modest 288 pages, however, this is far from an overlong book, and fittingly it begins with an oblique and wry glance at a past not far back at all. The narrator’s wife, Ruth, is an actress, currently starring in an American Civil War drama which shows signs of turning into a sort of historical Mousetrap – with this exception, that the cast is never changed. Their only respite is when they go on tour, and this now happens. The narrator, who has abandoned his true vocation as a musicologist for more lucrative work in films, now makes the further mistake of taking with him on his quest his mistress Mouche, who runs a horoscope business in the city and stands for everything trendy and tawdry in the world he holds in contempt. She doesn’t last long amid the increasing rigours of the trip and is transported home with malaria, leaving the narrator to fall in love with a real woman, a native Indian called Rosario. The instruments are discovered. The narrator is ‘rescued’ by the pilot of a plane sent out to look for him, and in a series of farcical scenes is treated on his return as a sort of stand-in for the vanished explorer P. H. Fawcett, with Ruth returning from her theatrical tour to give the performance of her life as his loyal, distraught wife. When he tells her he wants a divorce, the balloon goes up. He tries to return to Rosario and his life in the jungle but fails. The past is past, ‘civilization’ is ‘civilization’, and never the twain shall meet. Moral: the present-day world may be corrupt, but one must do one’s best to go on living in it. So much for the framework. Now for the journey itself. Here is brilliant narrative, immense (and very Gallic) intellectual exuberance, unfeigned depths of musical knowledge, and historical imagination of blazing scope. The settings are memorable – the enmisted mountains, the turbulent rivers, the hidden entrance to a secret town. So are the birds, the animals and the humans. A huge tapir is roasted. A shaman shrieks. Miners, prospectors and prostitutes storm into shanty hotels. Notable among the main participants are the wily little Adelantado, ‘founder of cities’, Marcos, his son, who marries the narrator’s girlfriend; the leper, Nicasio, who rapes a small girl and whom, in a horrific scene, Marcos executes; and the aged missionary Fray Pedro who, in the wake of some flippant remark by the narrator, looks across at the mountains where the most savage of all the Indian tribes have their home and, in a brief but moving moment, foresees his own terrible fate. This is storytelling of a high order and it is not surprising that the late Tyrone Power planned to make a movie out of the book, with Ava Gardner as Mouche and Gina Lollobrigida as Rosario. Alas, he died before the project could get off the ground. Much critical ink has been spilled on it. Some highbrow critics have dismissed it as middlebrow, others have used it as a springboard for arcane theorizing. For myself I remain content to relish the Carpentierian paradox that what once gave me such an unforgettable thrill of the new should have been a book so spectacularly focused on the old.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Rivers Scott 2004


About the contributor

Rivers Scott studied in France after the war, which he says gave him a taste for roving authors like Carpentier. He is a partner of the literary agency Scott Ferris Associates.

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