Serendipity - The Kingdom of this World by Katy Wimhurst

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The Kingdom of this World
by Katy Wimhurst

Alejo Carpentier and Magical Realism

Alejo Carpentier (1904-80) was a Cuban writer and musicologist of French-Russian descent, who wrote a number of novels, including The Kingdom of This World in 1949. An important novel in the history of magical realism, the book reconstructed events on the island of Santo Domingo (now divided into Haiti and The Dominican Republic) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These events included the slave revolt against the French plantation owners, the short-lived black republic, the authoritarian regime of the black King Christophe Henri, formerly a chef at an exclusive restaurant on the island, and the king's later suicide to avoid a coup d'etat. Carpentier's novel was partly inspired by a visit to Haiti during which he participated in a Voodoo ceremony and visited the ruins of the Citadel of La Ferrière, a remarkable fortress built by King Christophe Henri, which Carpentier considered 'without architectural precedent, foreshadowed only by the Imaginary Prisons of [the Italian artist] Piranesi.'

The Kingdom of This World was one of the first novels to use techniques associated with magical realism, although Carpentier, in his famous Prologue to the novel, used the term 'marvellous realism' ('lo real maravilloso'). The book weaves concrete, real-world events with the mythic beliefs, rituals and magic of the African slaves. Thus one character, Macandal, a Voodoo priest and instigator of an early, unsuccessful slave rebellion, is endowed with the ability to shape-shift, changing at times into a lizard, a night moth and a gannet; and after Macandal has been caught and is being put to death at the stake, he tries to escape through supernatural means: 'howling unknown spells. . . [his] bonds fell off and the body of the Negro rose into the air, flying overhead, until it plunged into the black waves of the sea of slaves' (p.31).

Despite magical happenings and myths being treated as authentic in Carpentier's novel, he didn't approach 'magic' with the down-to-earth tone of later magical realist writers like Gabriel García Márquez (born 1927). A contrast could be drawn between marvellous realism and magical realism here. The former was an expression (or amplification) of the 'marvellous reality' claimed to be intrinsic to Latin America: 'What is the entire history of [Latin] America if not a chronicle of the marvellous real,' Carpentier stated in his Prologue. While such an attitude has been criticised for reinforcing stereotypes of Latin American culture as 'exotic', Carpentier set out to express the turbulent history of Latin America as well as the continent's cultural hybridity, the mixture of pragmatic and magical, European and non-European (African and/or Native American) cultures that actually co-existed there (Voodoo, for instance, combines Catholic liturgy with beliefs and practices from Congo, Dahomey and Guinea). Such 'marvellous realism' is somewhat different from the magical realism of Márquez, a genre of fiction which incorporates magical events into a predominantly realist, matter-of-fact narrative. In One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), for instance, a man levitating after drinking chocolate or yellow petals falling from the sky on a town are treated with no more (or less) significance than people going about their daily lives. This is not an expression of some perceived Latin American essence, but a story-telling style that treats the supernatural in an ordinary way: to use Salman Rushdie's phrase, it involves 'the co-mingling of the improbable and the mundane'.

That said, Márquez's book echoes Carpentier's in the way it passes no value judgements about the truth of the magical events described, and Márquez has stated his writing was influenced by the oral story-telling techniques of his Columbian grandmother as well as by his realisation that reality is also 'the myths of the [Latin American] people. . . their legends'. Indeed, the term 'magical realism' is open to debate and critics like Luis Leal(1967), highlighting how there is no attempt to explain strange events rationally or psychologically in magical realist writing, suggest that it is less a literary genre than an attitude to life which 'seize[s] the mystery that breathes behind things'. What is more, both Márquez and Carpentier have a similar political agenda—to write stories about people often overlooked by 'official' history. Such political engagement is shared by many writers across the globe who have adopted magical realism. The North American writer Toni Morrison, for instance, considers magical realism as 'another way of knowing things'. In her opinion, this 'other way' goes against 'authoritative' history from an European-American perspective. Her majestic novel Beloved (1987), for example, uses supernatural elements—such as a ghost, a daughter murdered by her mother to prevent her from being taken back into slavery—but treats these as common-place within African-American culture. Magical realism is deliberately used to explore the impact of slavery from an African-American viewpoint.

Carpentier's emphasis on the 'marvellous' showed his debt to Surrealism, a movement that tried to subvert mainstream European values and conceits. Surrealist artists and writers invoked 'the marvellous' in their work—through an appeal to dreams and myths, or through the juxtaposition of unusual elements—to suggest that humans and their reality were more complex and strange than rationalist philosophy and realism (in literature and art) would acknowledge. Although Carpentier was raised mainly in Cuba (with a short period of his adolescent in Paris), he spent the years 1929-38 in Europe and fraternised with Surrealism during that time, but eventually broke with the movement. The acrimony he felt towards Surrealism was apparent in the Prologue, where he contrasted the 'tedious literary ruses' of European Surrealists with the living traditions of the marvellous he perceived in Latin American history, geography, architecture and culture.

The Kingdom of This World is full of startling imagery and baroque detail which attest to Carpentier's vision of 'the marvellous in the real'. At the end of the novel, Ti Noel, an African slave who has suffered under both the French rulers and the black King Henri Christophe, finds temporary sanctuary in the roofless ruin of a French plantation mansion he himself had helped to destroy. The ageing Ti Noel is depicted amidst the tumble-down walls of the mansion, strangely attired in a (looted) European-style green-silk dress-coat with lace ruffles, and a crushed straw hat. Ti Noel uses a pile of encyclopaedia as a seat whilst chewing on sugar cane and chattering away, mainly to himself. Accompanying these images, which carry both irony and pathos, Carpentier offers a sober meditation on the abuse of political power and the tyranny of all ethnic elites in Santo Domingo. When the (mixed-race) mulattoes now in control of the island begin intimidating the black population yet again into forced labour, Ti Noel feels he has lost heart 'in this endless return to chains, this rebirth of shackles, this proliferation of suffering'(p.108).

Carpentier, who was keen to engender Latin American art forms distinct from those of Europe, was one precursor to the Latin American 'boom writers' of the 1960s, whose most famous alumni include Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), and Gabriel García Márquez (Columbia). Responding partly to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which created a wave of idealism across Latin America, the boom writers set out to create new literary forms which, while acknowledging European modernist influences like Joyce and Sartre, were distinctly Latin American in style and content. Many boom writers conflated the boundary between fantasy and reality, but Márquez was the one most closely associated with magical realism. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), arguably the finest work of the era, helped put Latin American writing firmly on the international literary map. Although boom writers claim no real literary 'fathers', Márquez has acknowledged his debt to Carpentier. For instance, he is said to have discarded the first draft of One Hundred Years of Solitude and rewritten it after reading Carpentier's work, especially Explosion in the Cathedral (1962).

A novel of only 113 pages, The Kingdom of This World is well worth reading, not just for its place in the history of magical realism as a genre, but also for its richly poetic, even baroque prose, for its reconstruction of events from a country and era largely overlooked by the west, and for its literary style which intimates that 'realism' is inadequate for comprehending the complex cultural forms, the magic, the myths, the savagery, the vice, the idealism, the hope, the revolt, and, ultimately, the despair of late 18th and early 19th century Santo Domingo.

Further Reading

Bowers, Maggie Ann (2004) Magical Realism, London: Routledge.

Carpentier, Alejo. (1949) 'Prologue' (to A Kingdom of this World), reprinted in Zamora, L.P. and Faris, W.B. (1995) Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Duke University Press.

Flores, Angel (1955) 'Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction', reprinted in Zamora, L.P. and Faris, W.B. (1995) Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Duke University Press.

Leal, Luis (1967) 'Magical Realism in Latin America', reprinted in Zamora, L.P. and Faris, W.B. (1995) Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Duke University Press.

Story Copyright © 2008 by Katy Wimhurst. All rights reserved.
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About the author

Katy Wimhurst, who lives in Essex, UK, originally trained as a social anthropologist, but somehow ended up doing a PhD on Mexican Surrealism. She has a soft spot for magic, myth and mud. In a past life, she might have been Salvador Dali's moustache, and she'd like to be reincarnated as one of Russell Hoban's dreams. She writes fiction and non-ficion and has had stuff published in various magazines and online publications, including Guardian (Unlimited).

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