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The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier
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The Lost Steps (1953)

by Alejo Carpentier

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English (11)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  All languages (13)
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The central character, a composer, has become dissatisfied with his life in New York City. He has abandoned his artistic ambitions for a job that provides him with monetary rewards but not much personal satisfaction. His marriage has become empty with his actress wife often on the road. A museum curator friend asks him to use his three-week vacation to fly to South America to obtain examples of primitive musical instruments from the jungle. He declines the offer but mentions it later to his mistress, Mouche, who immediately latches on to the trip with the plan of spending the entire three weeks partying in the South American capital and paying a friend to forge primitive instruments to give to the museum on their return. Lacking the energy or initiative to resist her plans, the composer goes along.
Soon after the couple arrives in the city the country erupts into civil war. Trapped in the hotel whose waiters had all run off to join the revolution, it’s difficult to say whether they are more troubled by the lack of water or the shortage of tobacco. On the plus side the composer is reconnecting to the language, as well as the scents and sights of his youth in Latin America, and he begins to emerge from the ennui that plagued him in New York. Step by step they move further upcountry as the composer progressively becomes disenchanted with his mistress, who does not improve when removed from her native habitat of Manhattan, and begins to assert his own will. They also meet a native woman, Rosario, while traveling who embodies many of the qualities that Mouche so obviously lacks. Mouche serves as a stand in for the lifestyle that the composer has left behind among the intellectual dilettantes of a modern metropolis such as New York. Rosario, on the other hand, represents the simpler virtues of an earlier age.
The composer’s trip deeper into the jungle is a trip back through time. The smaller towns where they wait for a boat upriver are a throwback to the middle ages with their festivals and pomp centered on the church and village. Further on he regresses back to the Stone Age as he is welcomed into a new community founded as a utopia hidden away on an unexplored plateau. His priorities change with the settings and for a while he throws away all of the baggage of civilization to embrace this newfound Eden.
Obviously no reader expects Edens or Utopias to endure, and the composer’s place in this village is no exception. As the urge to compose returns to him he makes some decisions with fateful consequences. There is also plenty of foreshadowing that the community itself will not remain in balance regardless of which path the composer chooses.
Carpentier is a musicologist by training and is considered one of the forefathers of Latin American magical realism. Unfortunately I’m fairly musically illiterate so I could not fully appreciate the numerous musical themes throughout the book. I’m a zoologist by training and therefore was able to enjoy his writing about the natural history aspects of the jungle journey. His descriptions of the insects invading through the dry water pipes of the capital city during the revolution and the rapidly advancing decay of the rainy season in the jungle were particularly vivid.
( )
  KateVz | Jan 13, 2016 |
This novel was written in 1953 but is really timeless and not dated. It is included in the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die in 2008 edition.
Alejo Carpentier was born in Switzerland but grew up in Cuba and is identified as a Cuban author. He was also a musicologist. His writing is a fusion of literary and music themes. He is considered the first practitioner of magical realism, though is his work is more limited to that later developed by Gabriel García Márquez and was not difficult to read. What makes his writing difficult for me was the music. I am not well studied in music and therefore found that looking up a lot of the works really helped me to more fully enjoy Carpentier’s writing. I found it best to be sitting with my I Pad for quick look up of words while reading The Lost Steps. Music is present in his work, lyrical use of colloquial dialects, literary rhythms such as alliteration and assonance and the theme of music within the world of the narrative (drums, footsteps, etc.)are a few examples. The setting is never identified beyond; a large metropolis, a South American city, a South American jungle. It is a narration of a journey through space but also time. The narrator is never named. Most characters are only identified by what they do rather than names. Interestingly, the women are given names, Ruth, his wife, Mouche and Rosario. The narrator has already grown weary with the marriage and has taken a mistress. While on his journey he grows bored with his mistress and takes a native woman as lover. The native woman, Rosario refers to herself as Your Woman and her name becomes replaced with Your Woman. It is written in the style of a diary. The narrator flees mechanized society for the primordial. The narrator is torn between his heart and head. Does he live in society where he can write or stay in the nature where he is timeless, where he is creative? Carpentier references the Book of Genesis, Sisyphus, Don Quixote, Prometheus, Genevieve of Brabant and Deuteronomy. Though the story lacked something about 2/3 of the way in, the richness of the writing has much to be enjoyed. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to be well read in Latin American literature. ( )
  Kristelh | Nov 16, 2013 |
These were the days for the accumulation of humus, the rotting and decay of the fallen leaves, in keeping with the law decreeing that all generation shall take place in the neighborhood of excretion, that organs of generation shall be intertwined with those of urination, and that all that is born shall come into the world enveloped in mucus, serum, and blood--just as out of manure comes the purity of the asparagus and the green of mint. p. 229This was my first exposure to Carpentier and I was immediately struck by the quality of his sentences. He writes a dense sentence, almost wild in its serpentine way, easy to get lost in. It feels a bit like you're in a jungle and the words are vines climbing up your leg. This became especially effective in chapter four, when our protagonist actually enters the jungle... the prose achieved a sort of ultimate mirroring of its content.One felt the presence of rampant fauna, of the primeval slime, of the green fermentation beneath the dark waters, which gave off a sour reek like a mud of vinegar and carrion, over whose oily surface moved insects made to walk on the water: chinch-bugs, white fleas, high-jointed flies, tiny mosquitoes that were hardly more than shimmering dots in the green light, for the green, shot through by an occasional ray of sun, was so intense that the light as it filtered through the leaves had the color of moss dyed the hue of the swamp-bottoms as it sought the roots of the plants. p. 161Though his prose was thrilling, it was also a little exhausting because it never lets up. At times, when I was really tuned in to what he was saying, it was like crawling into the dense undergrowth and feeling completely at home. But other times, when my attention was flagging after a long day, I could hardly concentrate on the complex workings of what he was saying. I had to read sentences over and over, as if grasping for a downed limb.Because here, amidst the multitude that surrounded me and rushed madly and submissively, I saw many faces and few destinies. And this was because, behind these faces, every deep desire, every act of revolt, every impulse was hobbled by fear. Fear of rebuke, of time, of the news of the collectivity that multiplied its forms of slavery. There was fear of one's own body, of the sanctions and pointing fingers of publicity; there was fear of the womb that opens to the seed, fear of the fruits and of the water; fear of the calendar, fear of the law, fear of slogans, fear of mistakes, fear of the sealed envelope, fear of what might happen.The adventure story itself was exciting, but as you probably know by now, plot alone doesn't do it for me. So what else interested me? First: the narrator, aside from the immense prose he writes, is also psychologically a very interesting dude. To me, he lies somewhere in between the unreliable narrator and the reliable one. You can see his pitfalls miles before they come, and perhaps he can too, but he is so good at convincing himself and you, piling illusion atop illusion. But these aren't crazy illusions, they are common ones, about civilization, nature, modernity vs. primitivity, art etc.

What I really found attractive about him was that he was so... malleable, but also so strong inside. At times he seemed normal, not like a typical 'crazy' unreliable narrator with unpredictable moodswings. He is actually quite consistent and sane, but open to being changed by the world, and always struggling to reach a place of well-being, though often in vain. He can be despicable at times, and selfish and unfair, and though he doesn't see these aspects in himself, I think the author intended for them to be apparent to the reader. I don't think Carpentier was painting the narrator to be an example to be followed above judgement, but rather as an example of the futility of our condition in the world--how we can't go back to a simpler state, and how we cannot stay here either in the time of the 'galley master'.The thought invariably struck me that the only difference between my previous birthday and this one was the extra candle on the cake, which tasted like the last one... But to evade this, in the world that was my lot, was as impossible as trying to revive today certain epics of heroes or saints. We had fallen upon the era of the Wasp-Man, the No-Man, when souls were no longer sold to the Devil, but to the Bookkeeper or the Galley Master. p. 9The second thing about this story is that, even though it's straight forward, it is full of asides, tangents, and opportunities for our narrator to muse about this topic or that. These I found highly entertaining and often insightful, and always perfectly phrased. I wouldn't have enjoyed the direct route as much as the one provided here, with all the views and vistas of his mind.Overhead, into the thinning mist, rose the peaks of the city: the patinaless spires of the Christian churches, the dome of the Green Orthodox church, the large hospital where White Eminences officiated beneath classical entablatures designed by those architects who, early in the century, sought to lose their way in an increase of verticality. p. 10 ( )
  JimmyChanga | Sep 11, 2013 |
14/03/13 1 of 19 books for $10
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
This is a fascinating, multilayered novel that I discovered when it was recommended for the Reading Globally theme read on Journeys. The outline of the story is simple: an educated and cultured musician, originally of European parentage but living in New York shortly after the second world war, has been reduced to working in advertising to support his wife, an actress whom he almost never sees because of their different schedules, and himself; he also has a mistress who is devoted to astrology and various poorly thought out bohemian ideas. Frustrated, dissatisfied with his life, he accidentally encounters someone from his past, a museum curator who decides to send him on an expedition to the South American jungle to find some primitive musical instruments. The core of the novel is the narrator's journey up a nameless river, through the jungles, to a hidden village; his somewhat unwilling return to New York, and then a failed attempt to return to the hidden village.

But that is only the outline. The real journey is one of time, time both in the sense of going back through history to earlier eras, because there are people in South America still living as people did centuries and millennia earlier, and in the musical sense. Music, myth, and a stunning, rich, almost hypnotic, use of of language dominate this book; I needed to look up a lot of words and terminology. Carpentier's depiction of the jungle is dramatic and beautiful, based partly on a trip he actually took up the Orinoco.

As the narrator goes up the river and back in time, he recovers a sense of who he really is, independent of the trappings of modern "civilization," and falls in love with a woman who is at once both primitive and modern. He even begins to compose again, and believes he wants to spend the rest of his life there. But first his former life intervenes, in the form of rescuers sent by his wife, and then later, when he returns to South America, he discovers that the people of the remote village always saw him as an outsider. The introduction to the edition I read, by Timothy Brennan, makes clear, as does Carpentier's writing itself, that Carpentier did not believe in romantic notions of the "noble savage" but rather that people must live as best they can in their own world and time period.

This book is one of those books that, when I finished reading it, I felt I should start again at the beginning, because I understood much more of what it was about at the end. I really enjoyed it.
17 vote rebeccanyc | Feb 27, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alejo Carpentierprimary authorall editionscalculated
Đorđević, MilaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Botond, AnnelieseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brennan, TimothyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
de Onis, HarrietTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Durand, René L. F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hodoušek, EduardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
İşık, NeclaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jahn, Jan HeinzTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kelo, MarjaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
László, ScholzTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miklavc, FerdinandTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Molino, AngeloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ni︠e︡gin, I︠u︡riĭTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Norum, TryggveTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rijkmans, J. G.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Santos, AntónioTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shamʻūn, SālimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sinjansko, L.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sjögren, JanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sokolovsʹkyi, PetroTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tejn, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ushijima, NobuakiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wojciechowska, KalinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Hacía cuatro años y nueve meses que no había vuelto a ver la casa de columnas blancas...

Four years and seven months had passed since I had seen the white-pillared house, with the austere pediment that gave it the severity of a courthouse; now, among the furniture and decorations, whose positions never varied, I had the distressing sensation that time had turned back.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0816638071, Paperback)

Fiction

Introduction by Timothy Brennan

Translated into twenty languages and published in more than fourteen Spanish editions, The Lost Steps, originally published in 1953, is Alejo Carpentier's most heralded novel.

A composer, fleeing an empty existence in New York City, takes a journey with his mistress to one of the few remaining areas of the world not yet touched by civilization-the upper reaches of a great South American river. The Lost Steps describes his search, his adventures, and the remarkable decision he makes in a village that seems to be truly outside history.

"An erudite yet absorbing adventure story. . . A book full of riches-stylistic, sensory, visual." New York Times Book Review

"The greatest novel to have appeared in Latin America in our time." Le Figaro Littéraire

"Extraordinary." The New Yorker

Perhaps Cuba's most important intellectual figure of the twentieth century, Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) was a novelist, a classically trained pianist and musicologist, a producer of avant-garde radio programming, and an influential theorist of politics and literature. Best known for his novels, Carpentier also collaborated with such luminaries as Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Georges Bataille, and Antonin Artaud. Born in Havana, he lived for many years in France and Venezuela but returned to Cuba after the 1959 revolution.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:49 -0400)

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"A composer, fleeing an empty existence in New York City, takes a journey with his mistress to one of the few remaining areas of the world not yet touched by civilization the upper reaches of a great South American river."--Page 4 of cover.

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