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Part Ib SP5: The ‘Racial’ Other


Alejo Carpentier, El reino de este mundo (1949)

Lecture by Rod Marsh (University of Cambridge)


To begin I want you to remember that while we have placed El reino de este mundo under the heading of the thematic topic of the ‘Racial Other’ this does not necessarily mean that we have abandoned the themes discussed in previous sections. Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo actually ties into a number of the themes we were dealing with under the ‘Nation and Narration’ topic, and so if we forget the thematic divisions for a bit, I think El reino de este mundo might provide a useful link across these areas.


What Carpentier essentially ponders in this novel and in its prologue, at least for me, is precisely the status of writing in Latin America and the questions of how exactly are we to speak and write of this place that is so absolutely other to Europe.  Carpentier also ponders the dichotomy we have seen examined throughout many of the texts previously studied this term: what is ‘civilisation’, what is ‘barbarism’, what is European, and what is autochthonously American, in the space of post-conquest Latin America. Carpentier’s position could be seen as a ‘literary’ aside to the kinds of  questions asked by some of the essayists whose work you will be looking at:


·        How can we create a ‘civilised’ nation on a ‘barbarous’ continent?

·        How can we have an authentic American nation modelled on European ideals of civilisation, modernity, and progress?


Whereas essayists such as Rodó and Fernández Retamar focus on the nation, Carpentier focuses on writing, and we could interpret his writing as asking:


·        How can we represent Latin America (the barbarous) within the forms (the novel, poetry …) of a European language (in this case Spanish – the civilised)?


And therefore:


·        How can we write of the ‘truly’ American?

·        And, indeed, what is the essence of America, what is America?


If you remember our discussion of Roberto Fernández Retamar’s position in his Calibán, we might find an opening into Carpentier’s text. Remember Retamar’s comments about language, where he says that it is precisely in the languages that the nations of America express themselves,


[que] está la confusión, porque descendientes de numerosas comunidades indígenas, africanas, europeas, tenemos, para entendernos, unas pocas lenguas: las de los colonizadores […] nosotros, los latinoamericanos, seguimos con nuestros idiomas de colonizadores […] ¿de qué otra manera [podemos] hacerlo sino en una de sus lenguas, que es ya también nuestra lengua, y con tantos de sus instrumentos conceptuales, que también son ya nuestros instrumentos conceptuales?

So within Fernández Retamar’s analysis, post-colonial Latin America cannot but express itself as lack, absence and incompleteness in comparison to Europe. In a culture expressed (in the main, at least) in the language of the coloniser the Latin American nation cannot abandon Europe in order to discover its autochthonous truth. Its history and its being are articulated in the languages of Europe, and as such Europe remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of this nation and its history.  As such, even in the most dedicated Americanist hands, the search for a Latin American identity will remain somehow a mimicry of a certain modern European model and is bound to ultimately represent a sad figure of lack and failure. Now remember that to understand Fernández Retamar’s point here we must read him with the idea of language as a medium intertwined with power. Despite Latin American ‘independence’ the languages of the nation remain inextricably bound to the workings of European (and North American) power. New voices are neither liberated, nor discovered, but rather subsumed into the continuing narrative of the West.


Now you can immediately see the relevance of Fernández Retamar’s writing to our discussion of Carpentier’s project  in El reino de este mundo. Is Carpentier capable of transcending the problems raised by Fernández Retamar and providing what he claims to provide: that is a text that is both true to an autochthonous, American reality and is able to indicate exactly what this reality is? This is what I believe to be the central question when discussing El reino de este mundo and one that as you will see also allows us to discuss the issues raised by the thematic topic in which this book has been placed: the racial Other.


So I’m going to do three things in the remainder of this lecture:


FIRST: I’m going to look at Carpentier’s claims, what he sets out to do – via his prologue to El reino de este mundo.

SECOND: We’ll look at what’s happening in the text of El reino de este mundo

And THIRD and FINALLY we’ll examine the ‘success’ in a sense of Carpentier’s initial projects as expressed in El reino de este mundo, we’ll hopefully see exactly how his claims measure up to his product.


If we think about my original formulation of what I see as Carpentier’s questions, i.e.:


·        How can we write of the truly American?

·        And, indeed, what is the essence of America, what is America?


If we think about these questions with reference to Fernández Retamar you can see that we are pointed towards a vocabulary that eventually takes us clearly on to the thematic topic of the ‘Racial Other’. Taking Fernández Retamar’s understanding of America as Europe’s Other, we arrive at a new question that can be formulated as:


·        What is the place of the Other in the writing of America?


This question of the place of the Other in Carpentier’s vision of America, his vision of America as Other, and his additions to the quest for a truly American writing points perhaps towards what we could call a topographical approach to the text as a kind of heuristic technique, one to get us thinking about what Carpentier is actually doing here. That is to say, an approach that examines Carpentier’s spatial organisation, or mapping, of the terrain over which, or through which his novel is written. It is to examine the dialectic of what is ‘over here’ and ‘over there’, what is ‘self’ or ‘familiar’ and what is ‘other’ or ‘foreign’ for Carpentier and where with relation to this dialectic of ‘here’ and ‘there’, America and Europe are placed within his text. This dialectic will constantly reappear throughout Carpentier’s essays and El reino de este mundo in his attempts to provide a text capable of narrating both an authentic history of America (in this case Haiti) but also necessarily defining its relationship to this history and thus creating within this narration a place for itself, a place from which to speak, a place to call its own.


As a bit of a justification for this approach I’d just like to quickly quote from Jean de Léry’s History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil a text which despite its distance in time from Carpentier’s text —it was published in 1578 and refers to a voyage taken between 1556-8—  I think illustrates perfectly this division that I’m setting up between ‘over here’ and ‘over there’. Lery says, ‘This American land where, as I shall be deducing, everything that is seen, whether in the customs of its inhabitants, the shapes of its animals, or in general in what the earth produces, is dissimilar in respect to what we have in Europe, Asia, and Africa, might well in our eyes be called a new world.’ In this sense America is completely Other to the world known by Europeans, and indeed there exist many histories and studies of exactly what impact the discovery of America had on European thought of the time. Remember that Europe had not even the minutest suspicion that there was what we could call a fourth world, beyond the three whose existence at least was known, or rumoured to it (Asia, Europe and Africa). Of course, Europe was to encounter many other worlds, but America was at this time the first. Indeed, Léry’s great problem is how to write in the language of Europe of things that had never been seen or thought in Europe, and often in his text he gives up on language and says that he cannot describe what he has seen and the only way for his European readers to grasp it, is to travel to America themselves.


So for Léry, being European, the division between ‘over here’ and ‘over there’ is relatively simple, and indeed his account as a travel narrative moves from a definitively European ‘over here’ to an American ‘over there’ and back again, and recounts his encounter with the Other. For Carpentier, as a Latin American, especially a Latin American who had spent much of his life in Europe the question of dividing ‘here’ from ‘there’; ‘self’ from ‘other’ as we shall see is far more difficult. So let’s begin with Carpentier’s prologue to El reino de este mundo a version of which you have in front of you, which is the same as that found in the 1949 edition.


Carpentier begins his search for America with a journey. In the beginning of his prologue to El reino de este mundo he recounts a journey he made at the end of 1943 to Haiti and he compares the ‘reality’ he encountered there with Europe. He travels, we could say, from ‘here’, the place of his text, the space from which he writes to a space ‘over there’, Haiti, and once in Haiti he discovers a reality that he sees as completely distinct from another space, that of Europe. Remember we don’t yet know whether the space from which he writes is that of Europe, and given Fernández Retamar’s comments about writing in Latin America we’ll have to keep this in mind as we go. In Carpentier’s prologue Haitian reality is protrayed as very much Other. With its ‘advertencias mágicas’, its voodoo drums; with ‘la magia de la vegetación tropical, la desenfrenada creación de formas’ (p.14). Carpentier finds here an experience of ‘lo maravilloso’ more ‘real’ than any to be found in Europe, even in European attempts produce the marvellous through movements such as surrealism. But this Other to be found ‘over there’, is also, if we read on, really ‘over here’. The magic of tropical vegetation, for example, is part of ‘nuestra naturaleza’; its marvels opposed to the dried out trickery of European surrealism: ‘lo maravilloso, obtenido con trucos de prestidigitación, reuniéndose objetos que para nada suelen encontrarse: la vieja y embustera historia del encuentro fortuito del paraguas y de la máquina de coser sobre una mesa de disección’ (p.13). Thus he continues: ‘Esto se me hizo particularmente evidente durante mi permanencia en Haití, al hallarme en contacto cotidiano con algo que podríamos llamar lo real maravilloso. Pisaba yo una tierra donde millares de hombres ansiosos de libertad creyeron en los poderes licantrópicos [lycanthropic – lit. ability of human to transform into wolf, and by extension other animals] de Mackandal, a punto de que esa fe colectiva produjera un milagro el día de su ejecución [an historical event, a reality dealt with in the first section of the novel] Conocía ya la historia prodigiosa de Bouckman, el iniciado jamaiquino […another history dealt with in the second section of the novel …] Había respirado la atmósfera creada por Henri Christope, monarca de increíbles empeños, mucho más sorprendente que todos los reyes crueles inventados por los surrealistas […again another history dealt with in the third section of the novel …] A cada paso hallaba lo real maravilloso. Pero pensaba, además, que esa presencia y vigencia de lo real maravilloso no era privilegio único de Haití, sino patrimonio de la América entera […] Lo real maravilloso se encuentra a cada paso en las vidas de hombres que inscribieron fechas en la historia del continente y dejaron apellidos aún llevados’ (p.16).


So, as you can see, for Carpentier although the marvellous is no longer to be found in Europe, which in certain points in the prologue becomes ‘over there’ - it is to be found, in America, ‘over here’. If you read through the prologue you will see that I have hardly exhausted the comparisons he makes between a marvellous trickery of Europe, and the marvellous reality of America. To a large extent, therefore, America represents, for Carpentier, a fount of all that is already lost to Europe. He finishes his introduction stating:


Y es que, por la virginidad del paisaje, por la formación, por la ontología, por la presencia fáustica del indio y del negro, por la revelación que constituyó su reciente descubrimiento, por los fecundos mestizajes que propició América está muy lejos de haber agotado su caudal de mitologías (p.17)

and the very famous last words:


¿Pero qué es la historia de América toda sino una crónica de lo real-maravilloso? (p.18)


The novel that follows this prologue, El reino de este mundo will thus tell one of these marvellous histories. Carpentier’s writing aims to reveal that America, putatively ‘over here’ ‘the self’ in parts of his prologue, is in fact ontologically marvellous, i.e. ‘over there’, and Other. As I’ve already pointed out in my discussion of the prologue much of the novel parallels the history of the rebellions and revolutions that led to Haitian independence in 1804, and the subsequent reign of the Haitian King Henri Christophe who ruled northern Haiti from the assassination of Haiti’s first president and emperor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines in 1806 until he himself was toppled from power and died in1820. Carpentier claims that in his text, ‘se narra una sucesión de hechos extraordinarios, ocurridos en la isla de Santo Domingo, en determinada época que no alcanza el lapso de una vida humana, dejándose que lo maravilloso fluya libremente de una realidad estrictamente seguida en todos sus detalles. Porque es menester advertir que el relato que va a leerse ha sido establecido sobre una documentación extremadamente rigurosa que no solamente respeta la verdad histórica de los acontecimientos, los nombres de personajes –incluso secundarios–, de lugares y hasta de calles, sino que oculta, bajo su aparente intemporalidad, un minucioso cotejo de fechas y de cronologías’ (pp.17-18).


Carpentier divides his text into four sections. The first deals  with the rebellion of Mackandal, a slave brought to Haiti from West Africa who after being permanently maimed in a farm accident (he loses an arm) is assigned duties tending cattle. Mackandal escapes and becomes a leader of fugitive slaves (the ‘maroons’) while retaining contact with the bonded slave population. He instigates a particularly successful attempt to poison the white population, is hunted down, captured and executed by burning in 1758. The second section deals with a subsequent slave rebellion, this one both inspired by Mackandal and led by a slave called Bouckman. Carpentier describes the meeting of the rebel leaders following accounts of histories of the period. The rebel slaves met in a forest in the North of Haiti in the middle of a tropical storm, after a voodoo ceremony in which a pig is slaughtered the plan for the rebellion is formulated, this rebellion begins 1791. Carpentier also deals in this section with the arrival of French troops – and especially the sensual and ultimately terrifying experience of the tropics of the wife of the expeditionary General Leclerc, Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Bonaparte. The third section deals with the reign of the former cook Henri Christophe, the building, which was never completed, of his fortress Sans Souci, and his eventual deposing and death. The final section deals with the establishment of the Haiti Republic under the leadership of parts of the island’s mulatto population. These four sections appear to chronicle a direct movement from 1751 to perhaps the hurricane and tidal wave which strike the port of Les Cayes in 1831 – the novel ends with the destructive force of a hurricane. However, critics point to the way in which the novel really takes a cyclical form, with events in each section in effect prefiguring the next. This argument is supported by Carpentier’s highly selective choice of events based it would appear on their potential for repetition. For example, in the first section Mackandal’s revolt fails, while it converts Mackandal into a legendary figure for the slave population, the social order it attempted to overthrow remains intact. Bouckman’s rebellion in section two finally succeeds in expelling the French but it too fails to provide a liberatory social structure leading as it does to the repressive regime of Henri Christophe. By the final section Henri Christophe has himself been overthrown and the country is now lead by yet another repressive government who it is hinted also need to be overthrown. The link between each of these sections, beside the numerous repetitions is the presence of an observer, the slave Ti Noël. It is in fact the ageing of Ti Noël that provides the only form of chronological movement in the novel. But summaries aside what are we to make of this ‘history’? The taking up of a history of black rebellions?


A number of critics point to the way in which such a history returns us to the centre of the dilemma of what it is to write of the Other in America, that is to say the essential problem of what constitutes American history and how is it to be narrated when it does not simply deal with the activities of Europeans. Roberto González Echevarría, for example claims that for Carpentier, the importance of this particular history is the way in which it demonstrates both how blacks are part of the history of the New World and especially the Caribbean , but also, and perhaps more importantly how their presence undermines mainstream political thought and, in so doing, reveals the very problematic nature of any understanding of American history. This process of subverting the tenets of any conventional history of the Americas occurs in Carpentier not only in his demonstration of the ultimate political impact of Haiti’s black population during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but perhaps more ambitiously by making of the presence of blacks in the New World an irruption of the Other, of that marvellous Otherness that Carpentier claims as the autochthonous truth of America. While the region’s black population is of course not indigenous they become, for Carpentier, part of a wider proclamation of a truly American poetics whose energy is found in subversion of European notions of history and politics in the new world by an oppressed non-European population.


The black subversion is not simply a repetition of that earlier one of the America’s indigenous peoples; it is a subversion in whose repetition the essence of American history and more broadly of American reality is defined as marvellous, outside and Other to Europe. In El reino de este mundo the slave rebellions that lead to the Haitian Revolutoin can be seen as part of a rewriting of history, and indeed of reality by forces alien to Europe. In Carpentier’s writing Mackandal, Boukman, and Henri Christophe ally themselves with natural powers that assist in the destruction of the European presence. Carpentier transforms those forces into hypostases of African deities who come to the aid of the slaves, turning the tide of European domination. In El reino European history is not given priority; it is marginalised to the point of appearing inauthentic in relation to the New World. European reality has only the decadence of the slave owners and Pauline Bonaparte, who surrender to sloth and sensuality in the tropical heat in a sense becoming American, while the American reality is represented by the various African Gods who are incarnated in the black revolutionaries, and their metamorphoses.


So what are we to make of this attempt to refigure a Latin American history and reality? Returning to Fernández Retamar, we could ask how El reino de este mundo sits in comparison with his definitions of the authentically American. Firstly some parallels:


·        Fernández Retamar quotes the famous liberator of Latin America, Simón Bolívar: ‘nuestro pueblo no es el europeo, ni el americano del norte, que más bien es un compuesto de África y de América que una emanación de Europa’(p.10). This ideal of a Latin American reality certainly seems to be brought out in Carpentier’s novel.


·        Fernández Retamar realises that America’s ‘authenticity’ is to be found in the act of rebellion and resistance: ‘Con los oprimidos había que hacer causa común, para afianzar el sistema opuesto a los intereses y hábitos de los opresores.’ America’s authenticity consists in turning the colonisers’ languages against them, and in learning like Caliban, to curse. Again Carpentier seems to have succeeded his fiction is indeed a history of the oppressed and it also sees the ways in which the languages of the colonisers are turned against them.


But despite these correspondences there are also a number of problems that a reading from Fernández Retamar raises. They all centre around a point that I hinted at earlier in my discussion of the prologue to El reino de este mundo: where is Carpentier writing from? Although at certain sections of the prologue he identifies with the space of America as ‘here’ – when he speaks of ‘nuestra naturaleza’ for example – but most of the prologue is tied to his claims of the ‘marvellousness’ or the Otherness of America. And if you think about it America can only have such a reality for someone writing from Europe. It is ONLY from a European perspective that America can be marvellously Other, ‘over there’, it is, of course, only from the other side that alterity and difference can be discerned — the ‘same’, or over here, the space of the self is normality not marvellousness. Indeed, Carpentier’s very search for the ‘magic’ of Latin America defines his perspective as European, specifically the European perspective of modernity:


According to Paul de Man, Modernity ‘exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.’ For Carpentier, this very European desire is actualised in the denial of Western tradition and the desire to found an autonomous and autochthonous American tradition — the very modern search for new beginnings. As such, his literature has no claim, and interestingly makes no claim to a direct descendance from autochthonous, pre-Columbian literary traditions; he rather rejects Europe in a European style already established in Europe. Rather than providing the radical, ontological distinction in his writing, he instead provides a perverse and exaggerated similarity that upholds the difference, the Otherness, the ‘over there’-ness of Latin America as seen from Europe. Carpentier’s desires are those of the Surrealists he criticises, and indeed if from this perspective we return to the prologue it can easily be seen as a criticism of the inadequacy of their method rather than the search itself – he simply finds in America the perfect means of subverting the dominance of Western reason. In the prologue he states, and I’ve already quoted this but we’ll go back to it that the marvellous is ‘patrimonio de la América entera […] Lo real maravilloso se encuentra a cada paso en las vidas de hombres que inscribieron fechas en la historia del continente y dejaron apellidos aún llevados: desde los buscadores de la fuente de la eterna juventud.’ As you can see from this the marvellous is hardly an autochthonous tradition but one inscribed by Europeans during their destruction of most of the indigenous traditions of America. If we return to the novel with this understanding we can see that the reading I provided earlier has another side. Understood as part of modernity’s fascinations with new beginnings, and with primitivism. The marvellousness of Carpentier’s black subversion of the history of the West can be situated within the European dialectic we saw earlier of Jean de Léry – that America, even when you are there, is never, ‘here’, it always occupies the space of the other, the ‘over there’. The atemporality of the story, is not so much a ‘subversion’ of the West, but an expression of one of its fantasies of the barbaric other; the primitive who doesn’t understand a time structured around the strictures and chronologies of reason. In the same way while the first two sections of the novel celebrate the ‘otherness’ of the slave rebellions, they really celebrate nothing more than European fantasies of otherness, of the communion found in the ritual process denied to Europeans, the connection to the magical and the spiritual. But this connection to reason’s other remains tied for Carpentier to faith, to belief – ‘la sensación de lo maravilloso presupone una fe’ (p.15) – and as such LOSES its validity when compared to the universal truths of Western reason. The scene in El reino de este mundo of the execution of Mackandal is a perfect example of this, while we the readers and the Europeans know that the execution has been successful, the slaves believe otherwise:


Sus ataduras cayeron, y el cuerpo del negro [Mackandal] se espigó en el aire, volando por sobre las cabezas, antes de hundirse en las ondas negras de la masa de esclavos. Un  solo grito llenó la plaza. —Mackandal sauvé— Y fue la confusión y el estruendo […] muy pocos vieron que Mackandal, agarrado por diez soldados, era metido en el fuego, y que una llama crecida por el pelo encendido ahogaba su último grito […] Aquella tarde los esclavos regresaron a sus haciendas riendo por todo el camino. Mackandal había cumplido su promesa, permaneciendo en el reino de este mundo. (p.42)


In the same way, in the last two sections after the rout of the Europeans the reign of the Black king Henri Christophe, or that of the mulatto Republicans are ‘marvellous’ because of their repetition and displacement of a European history, they are a poor copy of Europe which nevertheless parade the falsity of the original. In these repetitions of Europe the ‘marvellous’ becomes the derisory vision of black slaves dressed up in the finery of a European court, or Ti Noël in his age and senility naked except for a green coat with salmon lace cuffs and an old straw hat folded in the pretence of the three-cornered hat of Europe. The ending of the novel is just as barbarically marvellous, Ti Noël is enveloped in a moment of communion with the past, with the earth, with others, a communion desired by the European authors of modernity, but always denied, and a hurricane envelops the island in ‘un gran viento verde, surgido del Océano’, destroying everything.


Thus what we can see in Carpentier’s forceful mobilisation of his desire for the other is a highly problematic aestheticisation of Europe’s ‘New World’, ‘over there’? Carpentier reverses the value of America in Europe’s eyes and values what it had previously derided, but he retains the same oppositions. But Carpentier is writing, or attempting to write as an American, not a European, he is writing about a space ‘over here’, of the self, that is simultaneously ‘over there’ and other. He is writing about America in a language infected with the marvellous fantasies of Europe. The effects that the narrative produces can be represented as an oscillation between here and there, an attempt to bring the otherness of ‘over there’ back into the space of the same, to capture it in the space of the text, ‘over here’ while somehow preserving its authenticity as other. He attempts to substitute a dazzling representation for a disturbing alterity and bring this alterity back to a place defined by a configuration of Western knowledge, but in this case a Western knowledge ruptured by the contradictory and divided space of America. ‘Over there’ is made to at once no longer coincide with alterity, yet embody it completely. A part of the world which appeared to be entirely other is brought back home by a displacement that throws uncanniness out of skew in order to turn it into an exteriority behind which an interiority, the unique definition of American man, who in a sense becomes universal, can be recognised. This operation will be repeated throughout Carpentier’s works. We can read this movement in his staging of the primitive world, as a division between Nature, whose uncanniness is exeriority,] and civil society, in which a truth of man is always legible. The break between over there and over here is transformed into a living rift between nature and culture within American society.


But these dilemmas, the contradiction between ‘over here’ and ‘over there’, are not only to be found in Carpentier. In essence this problematic of Carpentier’s is that of modern Latin American literature. As the Cuban disciple of Martí, Juan Marinello has put it, ‘We are through a language that is our own while being foreign.’ The language in which the modern Latin American quest for identity is cast is the origin of the problem itself. Carpentier faces the same dilemmas around which many other Latin American authors will weave their stories: writing in a language alien to the realities portrayed; being unable to find a place, neither here nor there, as an author, unsure of your own situation as transcriber, torn between languages that are your only source of identity but that also betray you. In this doubled sense of otherness, of being other to oneself, both here and there, in a way that is not the simple interiority of say Rimbaud, but an otherness that divides every aspect of social and political life, an otherness that is the lived reality of the colonised, it is in this context that Carpentier’s work finds its place both as part of the question of the racial other in Latin America, but also part of the overall question of what it is to write in the ‘New World’.



Carpentier, Alejo. El reino de este mundo. In Obras completas Vol. II. México: Siglo XXI, 1983 (1949).

Fernández Retamar, Roberto. Calibán: apuntes sobre la cultura en nuestra América. México: Diógenes, 1971.

González Echevarría, R. Alejo Carpentier: the pilgrim at home. Ithaca, 1977.

Shaw, Donald L. Alejo Carpentier. Boston: Twayne, c1985.

Webb, Barbara J. Myth and history in Caribbean fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.



© Rod Marsh, 1998