Thursday, May 7, 2009

Paul West on Alejo Carpentier

More from Mutual Impressions: Writers from the Americas Reading One Another:
Not quite deadpan, he stares from the jacket with forebearing suavity. His cleft chin droops like a wattle and his left hand, advanced along his thigh to span its girth between thumb and forefinger, looks draped, vegetal, and, because so near the camera, oversized. Thus Jean-Pierre Couderc's photograph of Alejo Carpentier, as of a haughtier or exasperated Herbert Marshall: but what comes through most subtly of all in this extraordinary portrait is the fastidious, high-level canniness of a mind as much attuned to ephemera as to cyclical time, as much aware of time that is seasonal as of time that is mere chronicity. This is Cuba's UNESCO man in Paris (the very concept gives one pause), but also, and perhaps more than any novelist since Proust, Our Man in Continuum, whose chosen emblems—Haitian history; a voyage up the Orinoco; the Machado dictatorship; conquered Guadaloupe; time reversed seen as an exercise in optional thinking—have always more than a topical resonance and pluck at the mind's underside with irresistible energy, scotchig roles and eras and taxonomies in the interests of a profuse contingency, a flux we never quite see whole or get accustomed to but temporarily endure while trying to relish it as the only thing that consciousness is offered. In a word, Carpentier implies an All. Imply means to infold, and that he does non-stop, with tough finesse.

What a spacious, noble view of fiction he has, proposing not chemisms, the darkling plain, the long arm of coincidence, the involutnary memory, the absurd, an E. M. Forsterian small platoon, or an "analogical consciousness" out of "Morelli" by Cortázar, but a vision of the horn of plenty forever exploding, forever settling in bits that belong together more than they don't because there is nothing else for them to do. In Carpentier the All and the One remain unknown, and suspect even, but the aggregator of the Many, gorgeous and higgledy-piggledy, does duty for them, never construable but always lapped up.

This is unusual, a far cri de coeur from the doting, philatelical chosisme of Robbe-Grillet, say, or the infuriated listing (in both senses) of Goytisolo's Count Julian, or the voluptuous tactilities of Yukio Mishima. It's akin to the optical illusions Claude Simon practices in Conducting Bodies, but altogether more voluminous, zestful, and more fun. A wild and whirling head has developed a flair for appetizing specificities, and Carpentier is a master of both detail and mass, of both fixity and flux. With none of Beckett's reductive extremism, little of Joyce's word-smelting multiplicity, he sometimes seems the only senior novelist today possessed of the view from a long way off: as if, during a sojourn on some noetic planet circling Barnard's star, he had seen mankind plain, and all our thinking, our births and deaths, our myths and structures and dreams, all our bittersweet velleities, rammed up against the anonymous doings of nature. Unlike Robert Graves, who once claimed that by holding a Roman coin in his hand he could transport himself back to Roman times, Carpentier uses astute vicariousness to guess what the coin would be like. He is one of the few writers of whom you can say: If we didn't exist, he would be able to imagine us (assuming he was the only human). In other words, he can not only describe; he can describe what no-one has seen; and, best, he seems to have the hypothetical gift of suggesting, as he describes that his description—a text woven from words—is experience newly reified, made more available, more dependable, and more reassuring, than daily bread or daily trash.
Unfortunately, the photograph above is not the one referred to in the text; I can't find that one or one that matches its description, but I hope the above gives you some idea.

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