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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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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