After having deeply enjoyed Alejo Capentier’s novel Explosion in a Cathedral, I decided to pick up his other renowned novel The Lost Steps. Though the setting and plot are vastly divergent from the other work, his style is similar. The at times rambling poetic descriptions with flourishes of erudition, the variegated display of characters attitudes which leave and return in a mutated form like the evolving rhythms of Latin music, as well as the abiding concern over the interpenetration of personal and political engagement are just some of the qualities that brought me back to his writing. For it is these traits combined with many others that is able to transform a story into an artfully executed, moving novel about disillusionment and the possibilities for finding truth.
The novel follows the life of a composer who has grown up and lived in various countries. He is ambivalent to if not downright antagonistic to the American culture he now lives in, and is additionally alienated from his actress wife, his career, his friends and his mistress. Compounding this with the problems of “intellectualism” and a career which provides money but not the possibilities of self-edification overdetermine him into agreeing to leave for the jungle of an unnamed Latin American country to find a certain set of instruments desired for the collection of a museum. Unable to find meaning anywhere else in his life and seeking to please his former mentor that asked him to accomplish this task, the composer leaves. But not before the composer’s mistress Mouche decides to invite herself along.
Mouche is familiar with all of the “isms” of the time and self-identifies with the “cultural left”. She is not a socialist, as to be so would be to submit to authority over her, which she resists at every turn and to find a profession that was not involved in the continuing obfuscation of the mind – astrology. Instead she is engaged in petty rebellions against the bourgeoisie, of which she is a part, and bases all of her valuations upon the thoughts of the great Europeans aesthetes. This eventually leads to a conflict between her and the composer, as he increasingly looks down upon her inability to understand what she encounters based upon the object itself and as she makes a purchase of an art object there that she could obtain anywhere rather than the special, one of a kind objects d’art that she could only obtain there. We see the stirring of such animosity in the references to the bliss which the composer gets when speaking his mother tongue regularly. As he remember not only scenes from his childhood memories but also his “racial memory,” he feels more connected in this world.
A coup in their city of arrival causes them to delay their trip into the jungle. Time slows but due to the new regime the amount of money he was given is now worth much more. The couple escapes the city and a Canadian artist that the composer rightly fears would draw them back into the milieu he sought to avoid by taking a bus to the edge of the jungle to begin their trek to the place where it’s suspected that the instrument is located. While moving from van to boat to boat, there are several beautiful images and many interesting frontier town characters. Rosario, the Greek, the Adelanto and Fray Pedro are the main persons whose life-stories contribute along with the change of scenery to the dissolving effect on the composers habits and personality.
The composer’s growing respect for the atavistic once there leaves him to break with his Mouche once she’s come down with malaria and to then take up with Rosario. Rosario is a woman who is constantly described as unable to even be conceptualized by those that have not lived in the jungle and truly understood the adaptive requirements to live there. The linguistic signifier which she uses to describe herself once they are involved, “your woman,” implies that she is somehow property and in a disempowered state but as the other shows this is only the case if her choice in the matter is discounted. Rosario’s powerful emotions leads her to acts of service and affection toward the one that she has chosen, the composer, but this is shown to stem from a recognition of mutuality rather than expectation. The composers ability to genuinely change and stay this person, however, is tested and he fails. Following a return of the impulse to create a new musical arrangement, the composer suddenly needs paper and pen desperately. Their distance from civilization and the weather make it hard to do this. Following the arrival of a rescue party, the composer leaves despite his resolution to stay. He will just get some paper to take back with him and divorce his wife so he can be honestly married with Rosario and then he will return. Things, however, are not so simple.
When the composer finally returns to the area near where he was taken, he discovers that the woman that he wants to return to is no longer possible. It is directly alluded to by the Greek Miner that the world they live in is not that of Odysseus and that Rosario that she is no Penelope. The living conditions are such there that it is not possible to hold on to anything but the present.