Caribbean Enigma

Un­rav­el­ling the mys­ter­ies of Alejo Car­pen­tier

Geist - - Contents - Stephen Henighan

The Cuban writer Alejo Car­pen­tier wrote some of the clas­sics of the twentieth-cen­tury Span­ish­language novel: The King­dom of This World (1949), The Lost Steps (1953), Ex­plo­sion in a Cathe­dral (1962), Rea­sons of State (1974). In his fic­tion, crit­i­cism of Afro-cuban mu­sic, and es­says on cul­tural and racial hy­brid­ity, Car­pen­tier helped to in­vent Caribbean moder­nity. In April 2018 the Nicaraguan nov­el­ist Ser­gio Ramírez, in his ac­cep­tance speech for Spain's Cer­vantes Prize, re­ferred to Car­pen­tier as one of the founders of Caribbean lit­er­a­ture. Car­pen­tier’s con­cepts “the Caribbean baroque” and “the mar­vel­lous real” in­spired Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez’s magic re­al­ism and shaped the early works of the Mex­i­can nov­el­ist Car­los Fuentes.

Ac­cord­ing to Car­pen­tier’s book jack­ets, he was born in Ha­vana in 1904 to a French fa­ther and a Rus­sian mother. When he was eigh­teen, his fa­ther aban­doned the fam­ily and dis­ap­peared for­ever. The young man sup­ported him­self and his mother through jour­nal­ism. By the age of twenty-two, he was the youngest edi­tor-in-chief of any Latin Amer­i­can news­pa­per. At twenty-four, he left for Paris, where he lived un­til 1939. The French re­ceived Car­pen­tier as a French­man. He moved ef­fort­lessly through Parisian avant­garde cir­cles, be­friend­ing ma­jor artis­tic fig­ures by speak­ing a French so flu­ent that Parisians as­sumed he was one of them.

When World War II broke out, Car­pen­tier re­turned to Cuba. Here his sec­ond mar­riage ended and his third mar­riage, to Lilia Este­ban, a much younger neigh­bour from his ado­les­cence, be­gan. In 1945, Car­pen­tier and Este­ban moved to Cara­cas, Venezuela, where Car­pen­tier wrote three of his ma­jor nov­els. He founded a pub­lic re­la­tions firm and be­came a pros­per­ous busi­ness­man. Car­pen­tier col­lab­o­rated with Venezuela’s mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship; his po­lit­i­cal opin­ions, as ex­pressed in his jour­nal­ism, ranged from cen­trist to con­ser­va­tive.

In 1959, Cara­cas so­ci­ety was shocked when Car­pen­tier dis­solved his ex­ten­sive hold­ings and moved back to Cuba to join the rev­o­lu­tion­ary govern­ment of Fidel Cas­tro.

For the next two decades, Car­pen­tier, along with singers like Sil­vio Ro­dríguez, was one of the cul­tural faces of the Cuban Revo­lu­tion. His bril­liant, opaque nov­els, pur­port­edly nour­ished by his­tory rather than per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, were praised as ex­em­plary Marx­ist fic­tion. Car­pen­tier de­fended the Cas­tro regime tena­ciously, even in its most in­de­fen­si­ble mo­ments. In 1966, he re­turned to Paris to work as cul­tural at­taché at the Cuban em­bassy, a job he held un­til his death in 1980.

In 1991, Car­pen­tier’s sec­ond wife faxed his birth cer­tifi­cate to two prom­i­nent Cuban ex­iles. The doc­u­ment re­vealed that the author had been born Alexis Bla­goo­bra­sof in Lau­sanne, Switzer­land. Anti-cas­tro Cuban ex­iles wel­comed news of Car­pen­tier’s for­eign birth as proof that he had “be­trayed Cuba” by work­ing for Fidel Cas­tro be­cause he was not “Cuban born.”

Yet Car­pen­tier’s mys­ter­ies re­quired deeper ex­pla­na­tion. In 1997, I ar­rived in Ha­vana with a let­ter of in­tro­duc­tion to Lilia Este­ban, who was pre­sid­ing over the Alejo Car­pen­tier Foun­da­tion in Old Ha­vana. She gave me a with­er­ing look as I en­tered her of­fice: “Which of my hus­band’s nov­els have you read?” It took me an hour to con­vince her I was worth talk­ing to. I spent two days work­ing in the Foun­da­tion’s archives. Whether Car­pen­tier had been born in Ha­vana, or brought there as an in­fant, struck me as ir­rel­e­vant; yet his flaw­less French nig­gled at me. Speak­ing French to his par­ents at home in Cuba would have taught him the lan­guage, but it didn’t ex­plain na­tive-level flu­ency. I was test­ing a the­ory that he had spent his high school years in Paris. I knew he had stud­ied briefly in the French cap­i­tal around the age of ten, as part of a trip his par­ents had made to Baku, in present-day Azer­bai­jan, to visit his mother’s Rus­sian fam­ily. Had he com­pleted sec­ondary school in Paris rather than re­turn­ing to Cuba? “No,” Doña Lilia said, “my older broth­ers rode horses with him on the out­skirts of Ha­vana when they were in their teens.”

Doña Lilia wrote a let­ter that al­lowed me to pur­sue my re­search in Cuba’s na­tional archives. I was ex­hil­a­rated to get per­mis­sion to work in the archives, a priv­i­lege the se­cre­tive Cubans rarely granted to for­eign­ers. Af­ter a day, though, I re­al­ized that the ma­te­rial I or­dered was ar­riv­ing in cen­sored form. On a later trip to Ha­vana, in 2009, I found that Doña Lilia had died a few months ear­lier. The Alejo Car­pen­tier Foun­da­tion was un­der ren­o­va­tion: a new vi­sion of Car­pen­tier was about to emerge.

I didn’t think about these mys­ter­ies again un­til early 2018, when I re­ceived a padded en­ve­lope in the mail. In­side was a book, pub­lished in Span­ish in Lund, Swe­den: The Enig­mas of Alejo Car­pen­tier by Vic­tor Wahlström. It re­counted that in 1989, a suit­case of Car­pen­tier’s let­ters to his mother had been dis­cov­ered in the at­tic of a house in France. Doña Lilia rushed to France and, with the help of Cuban diplo­mats, re­claimed the suit­case, took it back to Ha­vana and kept the ma­te­rial hid­den. This cor­re­spon­dence, made avail­able by the Foun­da­tion af­ter Doña Lilia’s death, sup­ple­mented by metic­u­lous de­tec­tive work, has al­lowed Wahlström to es­tab­lish that af­ter Car­pen­tier’s birth in Lau­sanne, Switzer­land, his par­ents moved to Brus­sels, Bel­gium. Car­pen­tier’s par­ents mar­ried, sep­a­rated for two years, re­united, moved to Paris briefly as part of their trip to Baku, then em­i­grated to Cuba. By this time it was 1914 and Car­pen­tier was ten years old. His late ar­rival—which he spent his whole life hid­ing—in the re­gion whose cul­ture he came to ex­em­plify ex­plains Car­pen­tier’s na­tive flu­ency in French, the French r with which he spoke Span­ish, and even his mar­riage to Doña Lilia, who was ready to pro­vide the per­fect al­ibi, swear­ing that she knew the author had been born in Cuba be­cause their fam­i­lies had been neigh­bours.

Draw­ing on these rev­e­la­tions, Wahlström in­ter­prets Car­pen­tier’s nov­els not as ex­po­si­tions of Marx­ist the­ory, but as expressions of fam­ily trauma, haunted by ab­sent fa­thers and jeal­ous moth­ers. As Raúl Cas­tro’s re­tire­ment re­shapes Cuba’s re­la­tion­ship with the world, the coun­try is reimag­in­ing its great­est nov­el­ist as an im­mi­grant writer. The na­tivist rhetoric of the Mi­ami ex­iles, like the govern­ment’s na­tion­al­ism, are yield­ing to a vi­sion suf­fi­ciently flex­i­ble to cel­e­brate the fact that one of the defin­ing fig­ures of Caribbean cul­ture—the prophet of hy­brid­ity, the grand­fa­ther of magic re­al­ism, the pi­o­neer­ing critic of Afro-cuban mu­sic—was a Euro­pean im­mi­grant who was ten years old when he first set foot in Ha­vana.

Stephen Henighan’s most re­cent book is the short story col­lec­tion Blue River and Red Earth (Cor­morant Books). Read more of his work at geist.com and stephen­henighan.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Stephen­henighan.

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