My reading over the past fortnight was confined to books that had been remaindered to my custody by bookculture
, one of which had been put on my most wanted list by another book going under the same alias, The Lost Steps
: I'd pled nolo contendere on Carpentier's sentence rendering here back in December, but having submitted to its appeal, I will reopen the case with my initial reactions from a LatAmLit bookchat
that took it up (though that discussion stutter-stepped into incoherence [despite good individual commentaries] as the participants couldn't get on to the same page):
Disorientation: Narrative shifts from stage to backstage include displacements in time. Story moves forward as subject goes backwards (and movement westward is another etymology for disorienting): this is an anti-modernist tract in modernist drag. The critic turned upon himself, the mask depicting a mask slipping to reveal a mask. The narrator's misdirections are difficult to resolve, unreliability not necessarily of motive. There's a lot to say about time, music, creativity, and how each is reflected in the unfolding of the narrative itself, but it can wait ... Aside from the malleability of time, this strikes me as apart from magic realism (2x13 ways of looking at MR
), perhaps because the perspective is from outside, unattained. The opposition to Surrealism is real enough though, and taking on the fashions and fascisms of the time is no surprise, but Nietzsche and especially Ludwig van get a bum rap (maybe it's that Ludovico thang)—I said anti-modernist already, but it's also anti-decadent, with a sort of Rousseauic flavor. Perhaps it's the anti-Heart-of-Darkness. The Lost Steps
strikes me as quite distinct from The Kingdom of this World
(the phrase occurs twice, once midway through and once near the end) primarily due to the protagonist's viewpoint. Ti Noël directly experiences what our current narrator merely mediates, the veneer of civilization running so deep in him, holding him back from what he thinks he wants. There's also an insane jealousy about him. These combined to make me wonder to what extent TLS is a specific critique upon Rousseau (ed: cf Reveries of a Solitary Walker
The anti-surreal indictment, which identified a prime suspect, was prepared by Timothy Brennan's introduction to Harriet de Onis' translation:Perhaps none of Carpentier's fiction [...] was a more decisive repudiation of the pretenses of surrealism, which had occupied him and his international circle of Parisian friends between 1928 and 1939.
The title itself is an allusion to André Breton's volume of essays,
Les pas perdus (1924), which means, significantly, both "the lost steps" and "the not lost." As if to make the most of the latter meaning, Carpentier set out to stress that Breton's book had been the sort of evasion that an intellectual from the colonies might best overcome. Breton had written contemptuously of the "ridiculous condition of existence here below" and counseled that we all remain unattached "in a state of perfect
disponibilité (availability)." We understand Carpentier when we grasp how much he hated those words, smacking as they do of a bourgeois European effeteness. Throughout the 1950s Carpentier sought to make good on his years of self-training in the study of the Americas—a training prompted by his own simmering resentments over the previous two decades as he watched politics and magic coalesce in the creative minds of the European avant-garde. Since at least the late 1930s he had been trying to make the point that without knowing it, the avant-garde was only whoring after a surrealism found fully formed in the Cuban
babalaos and the village shamans of the Latin American continent.
I don't dispute the verdict about what became of surrealism in the thirties and beyond, but the evidence from Breton's original brief now having been examined, I see Carpentier retracing the steps that Breton took away from Dada, steps that had to be taken even if later taken back. Les pas perdus
(trans Mark Polizzotti, University of Nebraska Press) is a seminal document of protoSurrealism, with all its promise intact; it prefigures the narrator's journey, and the narration, that Carpentier relates in his version. I take as a point of departure more prefactory commentary, supplied here by Mary Ann Caws and supplemented by the translator:It is against any settling at all that the essays of
The Lost Steps are assembled, the idea of wandering and meandering already expressing the state of expectation that characterizes Surrealism at its best. This work is the perfect prefiguration of the waiting state, even as it is the perfect prefiguration of a transition. The essay most nearly approximating Breton's open state of mind announces a general departure: "Leave Everything"—a phrase appropriate for train stations like Gare de Lyon, where, to use the memorable image that Breton will later offer, the train is always shaking with convulsive beauty, always just about to leave.
[MAC]Actually the title—
Les pas perdus in the original—evokes not so much loss (although this, too, is present) as aimlessness, it inevitably recalls for its French audience the locution
salle des pas perdus, the waiting room of a train station, where expectant travelers errantly pace. Like many of Breton's titles, this one acts as a billboard: the following writings, individually and as a whole, form above all a record of imminent departure.
Or perhaps immanent
But enough of hearsay. Witness the conclusion of "Leaving Everything":Leave everything.
Leave your wife, leave your mistress.
Leave your hopes and fears.
Drop your kids in the middle of nowhere.
Leave the substance for the shadow.
Leave behind, if need be, your comfortable life and promising future.
Take to the highways.
Breton also provides ample testimony implicating his co-conspirators. But it's time to move on to the parole hearing ("Words without Wrinkles"):We are beginning to distrust words; we were suddenly noticing that they had to be treated other than as the little auxiliaries for which they had always been taken. Some thought that they had become worn down from having served so much; others, that by their essence they could legitimately aspire to a condition other than the one they had—in short, we had to free them. The "alchemy of the verb" had been superseded by a veritable chemistry that first and foremost had puts its energies into disengaging the properties of these words; of these properties, only one—meaning—was specified by the dictionary. It was a matter (1) of considerinh the word in itself and (2) of examining as closely as possible the reactions words could have to each other. Only at this price could we hope to restore language's true destination, which for some (myself included) promised to take knowledge a giant leap forward, and exalt life by as much. We thereby lay ourselves open to the usual persecutions in a domain where good (good usage) consists mainly in remembering the etymologies of words, in other words, their deadest weight, and in making the sentence conform to a mediocre and utilitarian syntax, where everything is in agreement with paltry human conservatism and with a loathing of the infinite that never wastes an opportunity to show its face. Naturally such an enterprise, which is part of the poetic impulse, does not demand so much clear will from each of those who take part in it; one does not always have to formulate a need in order to satisfy it. And my intent here is only to develop an image.
It was by assigning color to vowels that for the first time, consciously and in full knowledge of the consequences, someone turned the word away from its duty to signify. That day it emerged into concrete existence, such as no one had ever suspected it might have. There is no point in debating the exactness of the phenomenon of colored audition, on which I will be sure not to rely. The important thing is that the alarm has been sounded and that from now on it seems imprudent to speculate about the innocence of words. We now know that, all in all, they have a sonority that is sometimes quite complex; moreover, they have tempted painter's brushes, and very soon we will be studying their architectural side. This is a small, intractable world over which we can float only the most insufficient surveillance balloons and in which, even so, we occasionally spot some flagrant violations. In fact, the expression of an idea depends as much on a word's aspect as on its meaning. There are words that work against the idea they are claiming to express. Indeed, even the meaning of words is not always pure, and we are nowhere near determining to what degree the figurative sense progressively acts on the literal sense, each variation in the latter supposedly entailing a variation in the former.
Modulo the rest of the remaindered reading:
Alberto Savinio, The Lives of the God
(trans James Brook & Susan Etlinger, Atlas): Doomed to be an echo of the other brother, Chirico, though their paths diverged. These Surrealist writings probably don't do him justice; curiously, like Carpentier, he had his stint as music critic as well. (more, and better
Joseph Roth, The Legend of the Holy Drinker
(trans Michael Hofmann, Granta): Last words—one for the road.