The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Though it competes with Borges and Rulfo in Latin America, and Kafka and Woolf in Europe, Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s 1949 novel is often said to be the inaugural work of magical realism, especially since its author named “the marvelous real” as the essence of New World history in general and Haitian history in particular. The Kingdom of This World narrates, if this is the word for its fragmentary phantasmagoria, several decades in Haiti’s history. It begins before the Revolution, with a French planter class overseeing a slave society, and then progresses to the Revolution itself, beginning with the famous rite in the forest where Boukman urged revolt. Then it advances to the reign of the first black king, Henri Christophe, and the eventual overthrow of his authoritarian and Europeanized court; it concludes during the rule of the mulatto elite established after the king’s deposition.
These historical events are seen from below through the eyes of the novel’s intermittent protagonist and viewpoint character, Ti Noël, who is worked, beaten, and scorned as a slave by white and black masters throughout his long life, amid shifting tides of power that topple one authority after another without ever displacing hierarchy itself, the dominance of a laboring class by an exploitative ruling order. Despite its generic designation as a historical novel and the vast and complex history it covers, however, Kingdom is a brief, lyrical novel comprised of short chapters organized around striking central images, often surreal or fantastical, such as the animal transformations of the Mandigue revolutionary Macandal or the brick-by-brick construction by enslaved labor of Henri Christophe’s Piranesian mountain redoubt. Ti Noël recurs as the central character, but Carpentier pursues other figures for long passages, such as the historical Pauline Bonaparte—younger sister of Napoleon—and her black attendant, Soliman.
Carpentier is interested not in characterization or straightforward narrative or dramatic conflict—the novel is almost entirely without dialogue—but rather in creating a profusely animated vision of Haiti in teeming revolt. A self-conscious heir to the Baroque, Carpentier uses an ornate and multi-lingual vocabulary to ornament sentences (in Harriet De Onís’s eloquent translation) whose many clauses both advance and immobilize the action as a sequence of ornate tableaux vivants. Such a strange style, poised at midcentury between modernist Symbolism and Surrealism and postmodernist, postcolonial pluralism, is ideal for Carpentier’s goal of reanimating the occulted West Africa and Caribbean spiritual world, Voodoo above all. In the first chapter, Ti Noël, still enslaved by a French planter, muses on the integral spiritual authority of African kings as opposed to effete European monarchs, and behind him we might hear Carpentier contrasting the possibilities of a rising New World literature with the exsanguination of the European avant-garde:
In Africa the king was warrior, hunter, judge, and priest; 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 any trumpery friar. And when it came to a question of virility, the best he could do was engender some puling prince who could not bring down a deer without the help of stalkers, and who, with unconscious irony, bore the name of as harmless and silly a fish as the dolphin. Whereas Back There there were princes as hard as anvils, and princes who were leopards, and princes who knew the language of the forest, and princes who ruled the four points of the compass, lords of the clouds, of the seed, of bronze, of fire.
Carpentier is fascinated by African animism, by the way Haitian revolutionaries like Macandal collaborated with the plant and animal worlds to advance their common cause again European exploiters, by the aesthetic possibilities of a reality where everything is alive, rather than the inert, man-governed nature posited by the Christian worldview and its philosophical heirs. Subsequent black rulers of Haiti succumb to authoritarianism, in Carpentier’s telling, when they adopt this transcendent rather than immanent perspective, as Ti Noël thinks when he sees Henri Christophe’s palace, Sans Souci:
Walking, walking, up and down, down and up, the Negro began to think that the chamber-music orchestras of Sans Souci, the splendor of the uniforms, and the statues of naked white women soaking up the sun on their scrolled pedestals among the sculptured boxwood hedging the flowerbeds were all the product of a slavery as abominable as that he had known on the plantation of M. Lenormand de Mézy. Even worse, for there was a limitless affront in being beaten by a Negro as black as oneself, as thick-lipped and wooly-headed, as flat-nosed; as low-born; perhaps branded, too. It was as though, in the same family, the children were to beat the parents, the grandson the grandmother, the daughters-in-law the mother who cooked for them.
In Carpentier’s famous manifesto “On the Marvelous Real in America,” part of which originally appeared as the preface to The Kingdom of This World, he contrasts the strange and astonishing realities of Latin American history and culture (“the presence and vitality of this marvelous real was not the unique privilege of Haiti but the heritage of all of America, where we have not yet begun to establish an inventory of our cosmogonies”) with the merely exoticist inventions of the European avant-garde, which he traces back though Surrealism to the French Decadents and the English Gothic novel. His judgment against European experimentalism echoes the novel’s fear that revolutions are doomed to install new masters: “The result of willing the marvelous or any other trance is that the dream technicians become bureaucrats.” Instead, with his essay’s canvas of the many foreign civilizations he’s visited without quite understanding—China, the Islamic world, Eastern Europe—he proposes authentic yet occluded non-western traditions as sources and inspirations for the inventive modern artist rather than, for example, “that old deceitful story of the fortuitous encounter of the the umbrella and the sewing machine on the dissecting table” or “the horrifying machinery of the English Gothic novel,” the latter also satirized in Kingdom as the reading material of Henri Christophe’s Europeanized daughters once they escape Haiti and make their way to Italy.
Yet how exactly is Carpentier’s Caribbean Gothic an obvious improvement on Radcliffe’s English Gothic, except that the Cuban novelist seems to sympathize with the returning repressed, in his case, the West African gods preserved in Voodoo practices, whereas Radcliffe claims to reprehend the superannuated Catholic Latinity that afflicts her Enlightened heroine? Overt sympathy or antipathy matter less in such cases than the mere fact that an author relies on the vanquished and primordial to create a spectacle. Harold Bloom, who extolled Carpentier as a genius, somewhere says he was surprised to learn the novelist was white; on the basis of Kingdom, I am surprised that he was surprised, but even so, “black” or “white” isn’t exactly the issue. To take another Caribbean example of a universal problem—the problem of the universal—Derek Walcott’s obeah woman in Omeros gives me similar misgivings.
European history, no less filled with marvels and old gods than anyone else’s history, shows in its modern phase—Pound, Yeats, Lawrence, Heidegger—the danger of summoning bloodthirsty elder deities back to the public square. Carpentier is well aware of the political danger, but as an artist is he any less a tourist strolling with parasol and Baedeker through the brutal pageant of a foreign past he experiences not only as edifying but also enlivening, not unlike his own Pauline Bonaparte, if not Lucy Honeychurch? For my part, I was surprised to learn Carpentier was a committed leftist, and not only because Kingdom broods on the problem of revolution as circle rather than line, what political science calls “circulation of elites,” or English pop vernacular’s ironic injunction, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”:
The old man [Ti Noël] began to lose heart at this endless return of chains, this rebirth of shackles, this proliferation of suffering, which the more resigned began to accept as proof of the uselessness of all revolt.
Ti Noël eventually affirms leftism’s most basic premise—that humanity is a world-making, self-transcending animal capable of creating whatever is possible of heaven on earth—
But man’s greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is. In laying duties upon himself. In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur to be won, inasmuch as there all is an established hierarchy, the unknown is revealed, existence is infinite, there is no possibility of sacrifice, all is rest and joy. For this reason, bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World.
—though how this humanism, given its transcendent rational subject of history, accords with the animism elsewhere exalted in the novel, for which man is on a collaborative continuum with all other life, is not at all clear to me. The novel’s form, too, works against its humanism. Carpentier’s contemporary and fellow communist, Georg Lukács, complained in The Historical Novel that historical fiction’s transit from the organic narrative continuity favored by Scott and Balzac to the violent, decadent pageantry of Flaubert or Pater implies historical stasis rather than progress and exoticism rather than universalism. He might have had Kingdom in mind, and, whatever Carpentier’s extra-textual political commitments, the novel’s voluptuous aestheticism is more “Masque of the Red Death” than Discours sur le colonialisme:
At that moment the fire lighted up the mirrors of the Palace, the crystal goblets, the crystal of the lamps, glasses, windows, the mother-of-pearl inlay of the console tables—the flames were everywhere, and it was impossible to tell which were flames and which reflections. All the mirrors of Sans Souci were simultaneously ablaze. The whole building disappeared under this chill fire, which reached out into the night, making each wall a cistern of twisted flames.
Carpentier hardly helps his political case when, in the “marvelous real” essay, he compares necrophilic rape to the sterile inventions of the avant-garde, by contrast with the nascent magical realist’s ravishments of a living and authentic culture:
There are still too many “adolescents who find pleasure in raping the fresh cadavers of beautiful, dead women” (Lautréamont), who do not take into account that it would be more marvelous to rape them alive.
These lines recall the several rapes committed by Ti Noël in the novel, blandly reported by a narrator capable of understated outrage against the exploitation of the poor by the rich, but less attentive, except to mock the white and black bourgeoise, to female experience.
From these beginnings, inauspicious to my eyes, it’s no surprise that magical realism decayed quickly into mannerism, just another of the global literary novel’s house styles, despite its deep roots in the literary tradition. What are Homer and the Bible but magical realist novels? Yet their authors made no special claims about the merits of cultural authenticity; their authenticity is simply that of their narrative power. Carpentier, luckily, also has so seductive a style and so overwhelming a vision that these critical objections can’t dispel the mesmeric intensity of The Kingdom of This World.