The Lost Steps

by Joshua Potter

This Heart of Darkness for the Latin American continent both begins and ends in ways rather distinct from Conrad’s famous tale; in the course of following the narrator’s journey, Carpentier manages to make a number of salient cultural, political, and philosophical points. The writing, though verbose, is generally exquisite.

Alejo Carpentier / Cuban / 1953 / 278 Pages
Translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onís

Alejo Carpentier must have been a fascinating guy. As a classically-trained musicologist, he wrote extensively on many musical genres and was a pioneering voice in Latin American radio. He helped contribute to the Latin American literary boom and, while not as widely read in English as many of his contemporaries, a handful of his books (The Lost Steps, The Kingdom of This World, and Explosion in a Cathedral) are nonetheless well-regarded and important works. He was politically active and culturally keen; rather than following the trend and flocking to Paris as an expat intellectual, he identified strongly with his Latin American heritage and worked diligently to preserve its musical, historical, and cultural legacies in his prose. Reading a book by Carpentier is to experience all of this and more — the political revolution, the operatic overture, and the scathing social critique all assimilated under the umbrella of truly beautiful prose.

To be honest, from what I’ve been able to gather from other people while reading this book, The Lost Steps might not be the best point of entry into Carpentier’s work. The fact that the novel is so riveting, however, seems to indicate that he was a seriously talented author. Carpentier perceptively balances elaborate prose descriptions and philosophical ruminations with the right amount of forward propulsion. To that extent, his book carries the weight of Heart of Darkness, but matches this with a low-lying adventure tale of self discovery that seems somewhat more akin to The Motorcycle Diaries. His characters experience the world in all its tactile pleasure and with all its cosmic overtones, but all this gets funneled through hard-hitting experiences that prompt standard coming-of-age realizations: I didn’t know that people lived like this; I was unaware of the simpler things in life; The unstructured itinerary of a journey to another country is freeing and exciting.

The tale is simple enough. The narrator is an unnamed musical conductor living in a major American metropolis (presumably New York) who is growing increasingly frustrated with his modern postmaterialist life — his wife is an actress who leaves him for long tours with her theatrical troop, his mistress is an astrologer floozy, and his job writing simple musical scores is underwhelming. Born somewhere in Latin America and raised in Europe, the narrator is a perfect example of the geographically untethered; he has no roots, so to speak; he has no concrete connection to his surroundings. So when the curator of a musical exhibit approaches him with a fully-funded offer to travel into the South American jungle to recover ancient musical artifacts, he jumps at the opportunity. He entices his mistress to join him on what he considers to be a prepaid junket; perhaps he’ll just fashion fake artifacts from cheap wood and spend the curator’s money on a lengthy vacation in a resort instead.

But things don’t go according to plan. To begin, the narrator is confronted by a completely unexpected sense of homecoming when he returns to the land of his childhood. He experiences a naturalness in his interactions with the inhabitants that surprises him and this turns his thoughts toward the honest completion of his quest. Then, when a minor revolution explodes in the streets and he is confined with his mistress in a hotel for several days, he begins to understand that her carefree, postmodern facade is thin and ill-suited for the material and political realities of the Latin American experience. It is here that Carpentier begins to set up an elaborate (and sometimes implicit) constellation of criticisms against the continental European postmaterial bohemian mindset of the mid 1900s. When confronted by hard reality, he argues, these carefree mentalities are poor palliatives. As he eventually leaves the city and journeys deep into the jungle, he encounters more hardships and must shed successively deeper levels of his “first-world” self. There is something emancipating in this exercise. He relearns the value of physical labor, he meets (another!) woman (more earthy and pragmatic) that he takes as a lover, and he relishes the unstructured day-to-day existence of working for oneself rather than working on the clock for an employer.

Soon, however, he must return to the United States. Unbeknownst to the narrator, his actress wife has mobilized an entire team of reporters, pilots, and adventurers to search for her husband, who she presumes is lost and in need of assistance. A prop plane lands in the middle of his jungle reprieve and whisks him back to New York, where he is rudely plopped down in the middle of a mechanized landscape he was trying to avoid. He immediately takes steps to begin extricating himself from the situation (divorce, quitting the job, delivering the musical artifacts to the curator) and a few months later returns to the jungle in the hopes of reclaiming his newest woman and settling down into a simpler lifestyle. When he arrives, however, he finds the landscape changed. He cannot locate the routes he once took and his old traveling companions seem to be suspicious of his flight back to the United States. He hears secondhand from an old acquaintance that his woman has married another man and intends to have a child. Just when the narrator is able to embrace the simple existence of the jungle, it seems as if the jungle itself resoundingly issues a rejection.

In this way, Carpentier seems to turn on its head the idea that modernization comes with self-actualization, material luxury, and better living. Rather than paint an idyllic picture of the jungle’s inhabitants, he instead, I think, sells their existence as more honest and authentic, less adorned with the frivolities of a culture whose citizens don’t need to kill in order to eat. Equally fascinating in the book is the final depiction of the narrator as a hapless buffoon who can’t manage the fundamentally natural dynamics of the jungle setting. He is struck with a romanticized vision like an undergraduate student who studies in London for a semester: “London is so great and I want to spend the rest of my life there.” He returns to the South American continent with the mindset that he is making a noble sacrifice; he will grace the jungle with his presence. But he does not belong. His modern outlook has precluded his existence in a place as honest as the one he has come to idealize. In the end, we’re left with an image of a guy trying to break into a fort with a screwdriver — the task is hopeless and the preparation is pathetic.

Rating: 9 / 10

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