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Caribbean Enigma

Stephen Henighan

Unravelling the mysteries of Alejo Carpentier

The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier wrote some of the classics of the twentieth-century Spanish-language 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 218 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 194 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 avant-garde 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 198.

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 29, 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 218, 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.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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