Alejo Carpentier’s book Explosion in a Cathedral has the distinction of being amongst Lolita and several of Henry Miller’s novels as books which have required me to reference the dictionary in search of rarely used words. It is in these terms for shipping that the layman doesn’t know and in architecture and science terms of the time as well as the gothic descriptions of surroundings that causes this book to be seen as one of the ur-text’s of Latin American magical realism. Set in the island of Guadeloupe during the time of the French Revolution, the novel’s main characters are three wealthy orphans, the siblings Sofia and Carlo and their sickly cousin Esteban, and the adult Victor Hugues. While the youths are fictional, Victor was in fact a historical personage who was the French Revolutionary government’s military leader of the assault to retake the island of Guadeloupe from the British and later Governor of various French holdings in the Carribean.
The novel begins “I saw them erect the guillotine again to-night” and then follows by telling of the death of the family patriarch. The children isolate themselves from the local community and begin purchasing through catalogs the newest literature, scientific instruments and fine arts that they can fit into their house. They amuse themselves with games of the imagination and experiments with the scientific equipment until Victor comes knocking at the door, bringing with him all of the conflict present in this age of Atlantic revolutions. We quickly learn that though a businessman, Victor idealizes the classical Republican conception of virtue. This aspect of Victor’s can be seen in his quotations of Roman orators while playing pretend with the children as well as his stated manner of identifying his motivations as stemming not from private interests that causes him to profit off of others, but from a notion of universal brotherhood. Such a set of beliefs at such a time sets him in league with a number of interesting characters who make brief appearances amidst the turmoil which soon commences. Voodoo doctors with Masonic ties, and a corrupt Catholic executor of the dead father’s estate are just two examples of the island population. In his characterization and description, Carpentier is deft in showing that each of these characters are not simply representatives of fundamental energies of the age but are also individuals. Through this stylization, he is able to illustrate the social complexities of the global system in a very personal manner.
The play that characterizes Victor’s first appearance in the orphans house soon vanishes as rumors strike upon their idyllic shore that those involved in the Masonic lodges may soon be expelled from the French dominions. Forced to choose between abandoning their new friend and going with him and his black, voodoo practicing associate Oge, they leave and begin an adventure that will cause them to be separated for years and mature in ways that they never thought possible. The characters rich internal life that is shown to be constantly at odds with the situations in which they find themselves. For instance Esteban finds himself trying to navigate the dangerous position of being a Guadeloupean working for the French on the border of Spain with Revolutionary sympathies for the party that has just been ousted in the Thermidorean reaction. Though he has been nothing but felicitous to their cause, as he sees the heads start to roll from Paris outward and surveys the task he’s been assigned as impossible, his beliefs are sorely questioned. Sofia, though loyal to the rhetoric that Victor embodies, abhors the violence that comes with it’s ascent and is empathetic with the Africans who now no longer slaves are forced into capitalist market relations with a mother country that has brought them naught but suffering and compulsive labor.
Timothy Brennan suggests in his introduction to the novel that the book was a prescient defense of the Cuban revolution’s values, an interpretation that I agree with. Unlike, the novels by Rizal that I reviewed earlier, as the above should suggest the novel succeeds not only as a thinly veiled defense of Cuba’s new political powers but as an aesthetic work itself. As a defense of the revolution, it constructs the framework of the conflict impelling the youths out of the comforts of their home as originating amongst foreign powers vying for control of islands viewed as little more that rebellious forced labour populations. Lacking the industrial goods and capacity, the population, history of armed self-defense on the scale with which foreign powers could bring to bear upon them – the island of Guadeloupe and the others around it are de facto tributary vassal states. Such a terrain of complex relationships is not something that is not merely described but narrated, to use a distinction made by Georg Lukacs, in such as way that shows the deep historical research that Carpentier put into the book. One of the issues that I have with Brennan’s interpretation in the introduction is his conception of Sofia as the “only positive character” by citing an interview where Carpentier says that she represents praxis. Praxis understood via Marxist categories is something that is broad and applies to all individual and groups actions that are based upon their beliefs and material situatedness. As such she is not the only positive character. Victor is as well, though in his role of cleansing the inherited oppressions and inhumanity by using those same tools he is deeply alienated. Sofia, from the Greek word signifying wisdom, however sees this as both necessary AND horrible and thus represents the second stage of the transition to a new society.
Also worth mentioning is that in addition to the historically veiled defense of the revolution, the book is also a call to the intellectuals of the period to remove themselves from the confines of their houses and studies, which the children were once in, in order to take an active role in the management and direction of the newly created polity, as Esteban and Sofia do. Victor, a charismatic leader, is the point of convergence for Esteban and Sofia’s respective sentiments of admiration and romance and alludes to the many historical circumstances where intellectuals have rallied around an energetic leader that seeks to level the inherited norms to make way for greater material progress.
One of the methods that I have for a novelists in determining how good a book is if after reading it it makes me want to read their other works, in this case it’s a resounding yes and as soon as I make my way through the other books I have on my list I’ll definitely make an effort to pick up Carpentier’s other renowned novel
The Kingdom of This World.