Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier was very interested in the Haitian Revolution, a historical process that lasted from 1791 to 1804, the year Haiti finally became independent. Carpentier wrote several novels set in that era, including El reino de este mundo and El siglo de las luces, both of which had an enormous influence on later historical novels in Latin America.
Historical novels usually aim to explore the events of the past but also try to shed light on events of the present. Carpentier’s historical novels have therefore been read as commentaries not only on history, but also on Latin America in the era in which the author lived.
The short novel El reino de este mundo (published in 1949) has been one of the most influential texts in Spanish literature. In line with the “magical realism” style of his work, Carpentier paid special attention to the religious and magical beliefs of the Haitians in the period he writes about. In this way, El reino de este mundo explores not only the historical events, but also the way that men and women of that era would have understood them. For example, a character named Mackandal is executed, but in some ways his ideas and rebellion live on. The other characters in the novel do not believe that Mackandal has died, but rather that he has been transformed into various animals. From a mythical (or “magical realism”) point of view, the character is still alive. Carpentier suggests that religious beliefs affect how historical events unfold in more ways than one.
At the same time, El reino de este mundo is adamant about the need for a search for identity and for Latin American and Caribbean solutions to social and political problems. This is obvious in the case of Henri Cristophe, a slave who became the “king of Haiti,” only to enslave his compatriots. Henri Cristophe prefers to follow the mold of the European aristocracy (or of Napoleon) rather than attend to the needs of the Haitians. Thus, by using parts of Haiti’s history, Carpentier could articulate a message that is still relevant today.
El siglo de las luces (published in 1962) continues the historical exploration that Carpentier had begun decades earlier. The novel looks at the measure in which the European historical era known as the Enlightenment impacted the proclamations of independence in Latin America, such as the case of Haiti.
In the novel, Dr. Oge (a French-educated black man) believes that the uprisings of the Haitian Revolution can be explained by the ideas that flowered in Europe in the 18th century. In the course of the novel, however, Oge reaches the conclusion that the Enlightenment is in some way hypocritical, or at least that it has little to do with the political agitation in Haiti.
After his visit to Haiti in 1943, Carpentier became passionate about its history, which served as a metaphor for the conditions in the Caribbean and Latin America in general. The author could not ignore the elements of that reality that reflected his own culture. “The presence and validity of magical realism,” Carpentier wrote, “was not limited just to Haiti, but is the heritage of all of the Americas.”
Author: Alejandro Carpio
Published: December 27, 2011.
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