EXPLOSION IN A CATHEDRAL by Alejo Carpentier
In the best historical fictions, an historical figure, sometimes minor, is used as the basis to relate the history of an age. That personage is most likely surrounded by a cast of fictional characters, perhaps amalgams of real people. The history, the factual history is anchored to the historical person. The social and philosophical story of an era often feels more profound, more meaningful when wrapped around the lives of fictional characters.
So it is with Alejo Carpentier’s novel, which relates the vicissitudes of the French Revolution: the ever shifting political correctness of the tidal wave, especially as it relates to the colonies in the Caribbean.
Brother and sister Carlos and Sofia, along with their previously orphaned cousin Esteban are all left orphaned in Havana when their father suddenly dies. They are not left penniless by any means (their father had a lucrative trading business), but they are left unsupervised and for awhile exist in chaos.The metaphor for this is the recurring motif of a modern abstract painting (“Explosion in a Cathedral”) that Esteban is especially fond of.
Esteban had a taste for the imaginative and fantastic, and would day-dream for hours in front of pictures by modern artists representing monsters, spectral horses, or impossible scenes – a tree-man with fingers sprouting from him, a cupboard-man with empty drawers coming out of his stomach. But his favorite painting was huge canvas by an unknown Neapolitan master which confounded all the laws of plastic art by representing the apocalyptic immobilization of a catastrophe. It was called “Explosion in a Cathedral”, this vision of a great colonnade shattering into fragments in mid-air – pausing a moment as its lines broke, floating as if to fall better – before it dashed its tons of stone down on the terrified people beneath.
A vision of the chaos and upheavals of the times, the quest for freedom and equality, both religious and social, is often knackered up against the political realities and vicissitudes of the hour. Carpentier’s novel is an often painful and cautionary parable of master and slave, freedom and servitude, hypocrisy and political expediency.
The three are rescued from their stasis by the historical figure around which the novel is woven – one Victor Hugues. Hugues drifts in and out of their lives throughout the book, but it is Esteban who makes up the major part of the story. Originally dabbling in free-masonry, Victor rejects it as the streets of Paris are filled with barricades. He pulls in Esteban under his sphere of influence: “Free-masonry is counter-revolutionary…The only morality now is Jacobin morality.” After their apprenticeship in France and Spain, they set sail for the New World, ready to proclaim the abolition of slavery in the colonial islands. The slaves shall be freed. Liberty is to be declared for all mankind. But ominously and symbolically, at the head of the ship as their vessel crashes through the waves is the first guillotine to arrive in the New World.
Along with his mastery of history, Carpentier can be a wonderful nature writer as well, especially as it concerns the sea. Esteban forgets the times, the upheavals. Political events can leave one at the mercy of events beyond our control. Not so with nature, where
…he felt himself master of everything; the snail-shells were his, and their music at hight tide; so were the turtles in their topaz armour, hiding their eggs in holes which they then filled in and brushed over with their scaly flippers; and the dazzling blue stones, sparkling on a shoal of virgin sand, never trodden by human feet. His too were the pelicans, who had little fear of man because they knew too little about him; they would fly in the lap of waves with pouched cheeks, then suddenly rise and drop almost vertically, their beaks driven by the whole weight of their bodies, their wings folded to accelerate their fall. Then the bird would lift its head with triumphant pride, the body of its prey would pass down its throat, and their would be a joyful shaking of the caudal feathers as a token of satisfaction, an act of thanksgiving...
As part of Carpentier’s historical acumen, he casts a keen eye toward what moves men to causes. What makes some men reject one authority and others to embrace it:
Distance had its martyrs, who would never understand those who were martyred for being too close. Men who had never looked on a Throne conceived of it as monumental and flawless. Those who had seen one with their own eyes knew how fissured and tarnished it was.
And as Carpentier intimates over and over, the same can be said of Revolutions. One martyr of the Revolution, a victim of the whims of change, dies an ignominious death and ends
up half buried in a shallow grave for too shallow for the cracked and dilapidated coffin. As the former slaves are celebrating the long forbidden Carnivale, several pigs show up of the
lead-colored, hairless, long-eared…variety which have pointed snouts and are always hungry. Inserting their noses into the grave, they found some good meat behind the wood, which had already collapsed under the weight of earth. And the abominable rout began to stir, prod and poke at the body in their greed. One of them carried off a hand, and devoured it with a sound like the crunching of acorns. Others vented their fury on the face, the neck and the loins. The vultures, already waiting, perched on the mud walls of the cemetery, would take care of the rest. Thus the story of Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois ended, beneath the Guianese sun.
Carpentier can produce beautiful, as well as horrific (as above) images. He also has a pen for satirical, perhaps even historical, ironical jabs. Here, a snapshot of an unrepentant Revolutionary:
…if History were to take a leap backwards and set him down once more face to face with the contingencies he had lived through, he would act as before. True, he raised parrots and cockatoos, but that was so that he could say sarcastically that his birds, like nations, repeated everything you felt inclined to teach them.
Carpentier is capable of haunting passages as well. Long banned, Esteban is taken aback to see an image of the Resurrection, as he roams around a hospital. In a narrow room, containing a huge crucifix across from a window, the contrast is startling:
Between four white-washed walls…the dialogue between the Ocean and the Figure took on a sustained, everlasting pathos, outside of time or place. Everything that could be said about Man and his World, all that might be contained in the notions of Light, Birth, and Darkness, was said – for all eternity – in what passed between the stark geometry of the black wood and the fluid immensity of the universal womb, through that intermediary body at the crucial hour of his death and rebirth.
This is only a moderately sized novel (less than 350 pages in the Little-Brown translation which I read), so it’s astounding that so much of the history of revolutionary movements in the Caribbean – and a sense of the arc of the French Revolution as well, so important as it pertained to the colonies – are ground covered here. I’m still deciding – days after finishing – how I felt about the ending. But whatever I ultimately decide, this remains a major historical fiction for the understanding of the region – still our American playground, our port of call. Poverty and sumptuousness side by side.