The pacing of Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Kingdom of This World
means that the life of Ti Noel, the main character, goes by in a swift 180 pages. The novel also includes the perspectives of Pauline Bonaparte and Lenormand de Mezy, a French planter, that flee Haiti to Cuba following the outbreak of the revolution. This lack of focus on the main actors of the slave revolt, such as Toussaint Louverture, as well as it’s change of setting to Cuba helps contextualize these events as not being cordoned off within what came to be Haiti but as an event of Caribbean and indeed World History and additionally seeks to hint at the means in which other “ordinary” people played in it. This subaltern perspective additionally hints at some of the later conflicts that would develop in Carpentier’s home country, Cuba, and also gives him the capacity to allude to similar developments that would happen far after the events of the revolution. Most specifically, the French planters violent enforcement of productive relations unperturbed by the moral and legal rights emanating from the “mother country” has clear overtones to the American/Cuban financial interests that perpetuated terrible conditions for agricultural laborers.
Though one of the main ur-texts of magical realism, a style Carpentier called “lo real maravilloso”, the book is also the product of deep historical research. Carpentier extensively read up on the Haitian revolution. One such example of this is the novel’s early narrative of Macandal, a mentor to Ti-Noel, a historical figure that was a charismatic leader of Maroon bands that lead raid and killed slave-owners through armed violence and poison. As it relates to this particular historical figure, the magical aspects of the novel describe his ability to transform into various animals and insects in order to escape detection by the slave-owners. This is especially significant as it explains how he was able to travel to foment rebellion amongst the slaves in an area that as a black person would have meant capture, imprisonment or, as was to later happen, death. Additionally the attribution of such potential for magical transformation allows Carpentier to highlight the oppression felt by the Haitian slaves. Non-human creatures, lacking owners, are potential sources for the spread of insurrectionary sentiment. A bird, a fly, a horse – all are Macandal because all are free. This is not, however the only way that news of Macandal’s
One of the dominant themes of the book is the conflict which exists between the Christian and Voodoo religions as well as the practices of African and European soveirgnty. As Ti-Noel relates it to the latter, the Europeans are an effeminate, weak people and are only powerful because of their increased capacity to use weapons that are in comparison to their own much technologically advanced. From Macandal’s teaching, Ti-Noel comes to remember the wisdom of his homeland and view it as superior to that of Europe. A good example that directly tackles this conflict is found in the narrator’s description of Ti-Noel’s thoughts: “In Africa the king was warrior, judge and prier; his precious seed distended hundreds of bellies with a mighty strain of heroes. In France, in Spain, the king sent his generals to fight in his stead; he was incompetent to decide legal problems; he allowed himself to be scolded by an trumpery friar.” The scorn shown by him towards the French is serious, but also a point of mockery due to the naming of the French king as Dauphin, or dolphin. On the issue of religions, the slaves see the Christian God as the God that is impelling the French to make the slaves suffer while their gods demand vengeance and the destruction of the white God that is attempting to kill them. The slave-owners come to understand this, recognize and thus attempt to regulate some of their use of fetishes. Their ability to do so is shown as being weak, understandably so given the difficulty in truly deracinating such beliefs, and they fear drums. Drums are no longer just a means for the slaves to occupy themselves following their labor in the field but are also a socializing point where songs can be sung about those fighting the slave-owners and also for communicating with distant farms so that military actions can be accomplished on a co-ordinated basis.
Judicial execution, murder and a scene presaging rape are all part of the text but Carpentier’s focus is not so much on the actual battles but the changes to Ti-Noel’s daily life following the transition to a new order. The new regime in power, one made primarily of mulattos, has certain conditions that it must require in order to sustain itself and so replicates some of the same or worse practices of the previous labor regime. Ti-Noel’s forced ejection from the ruins of his master’s house and the “rebirth of shackles” is setting for how the novel ends. Ti-Noel reflects upon these circumstances, leading him to come to believe that “Man’s greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is. In laying duties upon himself.” From this gains the power to change into animals that Macandal once had, declares war upon the class of rulers, shifts out of human form and is never seen again.