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EL ARPA Y LA SOMBRA by Alejo Carpentier
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EL ARPA Y LA SOMBRA (edition 1999)

by Alejo Carpentier (Author)

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1473123,001 (3.59)21
Member:hnn
Title:EL ARPA Y LA SOMBRA
Authors:Alejo Carpentier (Author)
Info:SIGLO XXI EDITORES, S. A. DE C. V. (1999), Edition: 18, 232 pages
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The Harp and the Shadow by Alejo Carpentier

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Alejo Carpentier has been one of my favorite authors since I read The Lost Steps, and this book, essentially about Christopher Columbus, does not disappoint.

The story opens in the late 19th century, with pomp and circumstance, as the pope of the era, Pius IX, is escorted to his personal chambers where he will consider signing a document that will set in motion an investigation into whether Columbus should be made a saint. (This is tricky, because usually people are beatified soon after they die, so people who knew them can testify about their miracles.) As he reflects on this, he recalls his time in Peru as a young priest (he was the first pope to have spent any time in America) and by implication the political machinations that he engaged in to set him on the road to advancement within the church.

The majority of the book is set some 400 years earlier, as Columbus lies on his deathbed. Awaiting the confessor, he recalls his life, and vows to tell all to the confessor. The reader sees through Columbus's eyes as he learns of a land to the west (which he still thinks is the Indies) and builds up a spiel to try to convince ruler after ruler to finance ships for him to explore further south than the Vikings did. Although Ferdinand and Isabella first turn him down, after they conquer Granada and drive the Muslims out of Spain, they decide to sponsor him. It is Isabella who really is in charge, and Carpentier makes Columbus and Isabella lovers. (He also vaguely impleis that Columbus has "mixed" origins, i.e., Jewish. Various "new Christians" make appearances in the novel.) Once on the seas and in America, Columbus turns out to be obsessed by gold (or GOLD), and treats the people he encounters (who he calls cannibals, although he never sees them) cruelly and shamefully. The novel presents his dramatic return to the court in Spain with "Indians" and very little gold, but he is still received very grandly. Despite his lack of loot, the rulers send Columbus on another voyage (because basically they don't want him to go to other countries and have them sponsor him), and in this one he develops the idea of enslaving the "Indians" since there isn't gold, an idea which on practical and religious grounds doesn't fly. The books skims over his two other trips. But at the end of reviewing his life, Columbus hears the step of the confessor on the stair and decides not to tell him much.

Then the scene shifts and Columbus is a spirit, the Invisible One, at the meeting reviewing the proposal to make him a saint. This is an hilarious section, as the meeting participants include the Devil's Advocate and spirits of famous people like Victor Hugo (most of the others I had to look up on Wikipedia), with comments by the Invisible One on his chances; ultimately, as we know, the committee voted against making Columbus a saint. The novel closes with Columbus encountering another Genoan, and another famous sailor, Andrea Doria.

What holds this book together is the power of Carpentier's writing. With his dazzling prose, he creates worlds.
2 vote rebeccanyc | Aug 22, 2015 |
In the latter half of the 20th century, a petition by the aristocracy of the Catholic Church for the canonization of Christopher Columbus was received by the Pope. It will be 500 years since his discovery of the Americas, and while the circumstances were extraordinary -- too long a period since the death of the concerned, the lack of certain biographical documentation necessary to attribute sainthood according to the canon -- still, it was pointed out, Columbus deserved sainthood at the very least, being the instrument of God to bring the light of Christianity to the heathens in those dark lands. His halo has been invisible all these centuries and the time has come to make it manifest. The Pope ponders the issue and, for his own reasons as well (Columbus would be both an "indigenous" saint as well as a European one, thus unique in bridging the two worlds, and the Pope himself believed in "political action inspired by the politics of God"), put his signature on the petition that would the start the wheels turning on the process that would lead Columbus to either sainthood or eternal subsidiarity to other hallowed figures in the Catholic firmament.

The scene changes -- we are in a small room in a monastery in Valladolid, five centuries back. Christopher Columbus is on his deathbed, and as he waits for the priest to arrive for his last confession, he contemplates what the world knew of him and what they did not know of what it took for him to get there. Should he tell all to the priest, hiding nothing, or should he carry his secrets to his grave? He was not sure. Instead, he recalls everything -- the almost insurmountable challenges he faced before, during, and after his so-called discoveries of new lands, his singlemindedness to reach the place where gold was to be found, and the deception (always the deception) in all forms and excepting no one, that he employed without compunction throughout. Beneath all the hero worship, the celebrity status, the strong, indomitable image, the title conqueror for king and God -- and known only to himself and to the men he took with him on his voyages, however, he is none of the above. He knew he was no saint.

Fast forward, and he is a spirit wandering among the crowds in the piazza in the Vatican, and heading to the inner rooms where his possible sainthood was being deliberated, becomes a witness to the Morality Play of his life and deeds. It is all out now, the darkest of his secrets has been laid bare. He ends at the piazza where he meets the spirit of Andrea Doria, Grand Admiral of Venice and Genoa, a real hero who fought off the Turks in the Middle Ages. Columbus is embarassed -- he never did such battle for Christ or even contemplated it. He comes to a realization, and the reader does, too, that perhaps like the dreams of treasure that he spun in the imagination of the rulers of the Old World, he, too, was ephemeral.

Alejo Carpentier wrote this novel in 1979, which was translated into English in 1990, in anticipation of the quincentenary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. It is an excellent tale, written with exemplary wit and imagination in Carpentier's baroque style, which is pure pleasure to read. This is a short novel, as most of Carpentier's works are, but it is wonderful and for literary quality packs so much more than many books several times its size can. ( )
4 vote deebee1 | Oct 18, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alejo Carpentierprimary authorall editionscalculated
Christensen, CarolTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Christensen, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Zur Harfe, wenn sie klingen soll, gehört dreierlei: die Kunst, die Hand und die Saite. Zum Menschen: der Körper, die Seele und der Schatten.

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Zurück blieben die siebenundachtzig Lampen auf dem Altar der Confessio, deren Flammen mehr als einmal an diesem Morgen aufgezuckt waren, wenn die siegreichen Töne des von den klangvollen Stimmen des päpstlichen Chors gesungenen Te Deum die Glasbehälter hatten erbeben lassen; still wurden die monumentalen Portale geschlossen, und in der Sakramentskapelle, die in Dämmerschatten zu liegen schien für alle, die aus den strahlenden Lichtern der Basilika heraustraten, stand der Tragsessel, von den Schultern auf die Hände herabgelassen, drei Handbreit über dem Boden still.
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El novelista cubano vuelve a incursionar en la historia, ahora para recrear todo ese proceso increíble que fue el intento de canonizar al Almirante de la Mar Océana, Cristóbal Colón y, a través de un monólogo alucinante, vital, las confesiones del marino genovés en el lecho de muerte. Las elucubraciones de papas y abogados del diablo prestan el contrapunto final que habrá de marcar para siempre la vida en el más allá del descubridor de América.… (more)

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