Lausanne, Suiza, 1904 - París, Francia , 1980

Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, Alejo Carpentier grew up in Havana, Cuba, and despite his European birthplace, he strongly self-identified as Cuban throughout his life. He received an excellent musical education, what would become a determining factor in his life and public activities, as well as his literary works.He was the youngest of Cuba’s intellectual generation of 1927, belonged to the so-called Minority Group, and worked hard for the renewal of artistic languages. He was arrested for his involvement in the “communist cause” in 1927. Once released from prison, he escaped to France, where he settled in for a long stay during the controversial Surrealist movement. During this period, he published ¡Écue-Yamba-Ó! (Praised Be God) and worked as a journalist. In 1939, Carpentier returned to Cuba, where he worked in radio, served as a music teacher, gave numerous lectures, and was active in the world of culture. His cultural work would later take him to Haiti and Venezuela. His literary success would come from Europe, from the impact of translations of The Kingdom of This World and The Lost Steps. With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Carpentier moved back to the island permanently until he was designated Minister-Counsellor of Cuba in Paris in 1966. Once there, he continued to pursue his literary career with the publication of significant works of fiction: Reasons of State, Baroque Concerto and The Harp and the Shadow (1979). In 1977, he was awarded the Cervantes Prize.

  • “Alejo Carpentier transformed the Latin American novel . . . He took the language of the Spanish baroque and made it imagine a world where literature does not imitate reality but, rather, adds to reality . . . We are all his descendants.” Carlos Fuentes
  • “Carpentier is one of the great novelists of the Spanish language.” Mario Vargas Llosa
  • “Mr. Carpentier’s writing has the power and range of a cathedral organ on the eve of the Resurrection.” The New Yorker
  • "One of the early giants of modern Latin American literature, a man whose writing helped shape and define the period of 'magic realism." The New York Times

Bibliography

Novel

"An extraordinary display of historical inquisitiveness and stylistic maturity." The New York Times Book Review

Exploring the consequences of the European discovery of the Americas and challenging the myth of Columbus, Alejo Carpentier-"the father of magical realism"-studies the first meetings of the Western and American cultures and the tragic consequences of tarnished and abandoned idealism.

The well-known ballet by Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, with its themes of death and rebirth as nature's rituals, lends its title to one of Alejo Carpentier's most ambitious novels. The plot revolves around two characters: Vera, a Russian dancer who fled her country after the events of 1917 and performs in Diaghilev's company, and Enrique, a member of a wealthy Cuban family who, due to his involvement in the struggle against Gerardo Machado's dictatorship, is forced into exile in the bohemian Paris of the 1930s.

The plot of Baroque Concert is based on a historical event: the composition and premiere in Venice in 1773 of an opera by Vivaldi about Montezuma. Intrigued by the play of Baroque resources suggested by this theatrical performance, Carpentier takes us into an entertaining tale that narrates the adventures of an Indian who, accompanied by his servant, arrives in Europe to search for musical instruments. Its theme is the encounter between two continents. However, in this story, history also transfigures itself and introduces elements of the future: Scarlatti and Handel coexist with Stravinsky and Louis Armstrong.

In the early 1970s, friends Gabriel García Márquez, Augusto Roa Bastos and Alejo Carpentier reached a joint decision: they would each write a novel about the dictatorships then wreaking misery in Latin America. García Márquez went on to write The Autumn of the Patriarch and Roa Bastos I, the Supreme. The third novel in this remarkable trinity is Reasons of State, hailed as the most significant novel ever to come out of Cuba.

As with Garcia Marquez, Reasons of State is a bold story, boldly told –daring in its perceptions, rich in lush detail, inventive in prose, and deadly compelling in its suspenseful plot. It tells the tale of the dictator of an unnamed Latin American country who has been living the life of luxury in high-society Paris. When news reaches him of a coup at home, he rushes back and crushes it with brutal military force. But returning to Paris he is given a chilly welcome, and learns that photographs of the atrocities have been circulating among his well-to-do friends. Meanwhile World War I has broken out, and another rebellion forces the dictator back across the ocean. As he struggles with the Marxist forces beginning to find footing in his own country, and Europe is devastated, Carpentier constructs a masterful and biting satire of the new world order.

”Carpentier’s writing has the power and range of a cathedral organ on the eve of the Resurrection.” The New Yorker

“[Reasons of State] deserves consideration among the greatest novels depicting the interplay between the so-called Old World and New.” Brooklyn Paper

“A sardonic and microscopically observed jet-black comedic study… Its republication is another gift in this golden age of reprints.” Bomb

“Carpentier’s energy is gigantic and pell-mell, sweeping colossi on top of each other with ruthless, contemptuous daring.” The Yale Review

“A writer to be classed with Thomas Mann and W.H. Hudson.” San Francisco Chronicle

Reasons of State is a jocular view of imaginative idealism, repressive power and burgeoning revolution, all done with breezy panache. Once again, Carpentier has shown how canny and adept a practitioner he can be in mediating between the many realms which his own life has touched upon.”  The New York Times

A swashbuckling tale set in the Caribbean at the time of the French Revolution, Explosion in a Cathedral (El siglo de las luces) focuses on Victor Hugues, a historical figure who led the naval assault to take back the island of Guadeloupe from the English at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In Carpentier's telling, this piratical character walks into the lives of the wealthy orphans Esteban and Sofia and casts them abruptly into the midst of the immense changes sweeping the world outside their Havana mansion.

“A tour de force . . . built around the exciting and timely theme of revolutionary-turned-tyrant.” The New York Times Book Review

 “In rich prose adorned with magical flourishes, Explosion in a Cathedral . . . touch[es] on still-reverberating themes of discrimination and racism, corruption and power, and the pursuit of self-determination versus the influence of former colonial powers.” Americas Quarterly

 “The beauty of Carpentier’s prose can never be emphasized enough, and here it rises to incredible levels. . . . Explosion in a Cathedral is a novel that . . . has never finished saying what it has to say. . . . Read today, some sixty years since its original publication, at the end of a pandemic, amid wars and totalitarian governments and a radical climate crisis . . . [it] continues to accompany us, to question us, to challenge and move us, and ultimately to help us in the arduous and terrible exercise of reading the world.” Alejandro Zambra, from the Foreword of Explosion in a Cathedral

“If Carpentier is ever to get a new reading in English, it should be now. . . . West’s translations . . . reintroduce English-language readers to this giant of Latin American fiction. . . . What the reader takes away overall from West’s translation is a freshness and bite and aesthetic ambition that match Carpentier’s.” Natasha Wimmer, The New York Review of Books

 

The action of The Chase unfolds during the 46 minutes it takes for Beethoven's Heroic Symphony to be performed in a theater in Havana. Inside, a young man who has shifted from political combat to terrorism and, through torture, to betrayal has sought refuge. His former comrades, now turned into his pursuers, await him in the back rows. Alejo Carpentier recreates in this novel, through a plurality of voices – the narrator, the persecuted, and the theater ticket seller – both the political climate experienced in Cuba during the turbulent years of Gerardo Machado's dictatorship and more personal aspects of the protagonist's life (his political activism, his romantic and family relationships, his religious concerns, and the turmoil of his conscience).

“In a nameless, Havana-like city, an anonymous man flees a team of shadowy, relentless political assassins, and ultimately takes refuge in a symphony auditorium during a performance of Beethoven's Eroica. . . . This nightmarish novel does not so much tell a story as map the secret political infrastructure of cities, governments, churches, music, and bodies.” The Independent

Carpentier was one of the early giants of modern Latin American literature, a man whose writing helped shape and define the period of 'magic realism.' . . . [The Chase is] a masterpiece.” New York Times Book Review

“A taut tale of political violence and psychological suspense.” San Francisco Chronicle

Dissatisfied with his empty, Sisyphus-like existence in New York City, where he has abandoned his creative dreams for a job in corporate advertising, a highly cultured aspiring composer wants nothing more than to tear his life up from the root. He soon finds his escape hatch: a university-sponsored mission to South America to look for indigenous musical instruments in one of the few areas of the world not yet touched by civilization. Retracing the steps of time, he voyages with his lover into a land that feels outside of history, searching not just for music but ultimately for himself, and turning away from modernity toward the very heart of what makes us human.

“An erudite yet absorbing adventure story. A book full of riches—stylistic, sensory, visual.” The New York Times Book Review 

“Extraordinary.” The New Yorker 

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

Alejo Carpentier's work is brilliant and timeless.” Jorge Luis Borges 

“Beautiful and stirring . . . One of [Carpentier’s] finest works . . . which for many readers is the most alluring of his novels.” Leonardo Padura, from the Introduction to The Lost Steps

“If Carpentier is ever to get a new reading in English, it should be now...” Natasha Wimmer, The New York Review of Books

A few years after its liberation from the brutality of French colonial rule in 1803, Haiti endured a period of even greater brutality under the reign of King Henri-Christophe, who was born a slave in Grenada but rose to become the first black king in the Western Hemisphere. In prose of often dreamlike coloration and intensity, Alejo Carpentier records the destruction of the black regime built on the same corruption and contempt for human life that brought down the French while embodying the same hollow grandeur of false elegance, attained only through slave labor in an orgy of voodoo, race hatred, madness, and erotomania. 

¡Écue-Yamba-ó! is Alejo Carpentier's first novel, narrating the life of the Cuban Menegildo Cue in the early years of the 20th century. Although it has often been categorized as part of the broader genre known as "Afro-Cuban novel," the truth is that this work is one of the most influential within its genre and highly revealing in Carpentier's production. With an essentially folkloric content, it is brimming with symbols and rituals related to the mysteries of Afro-Cuban religious beliefs.

It is a fundamental work for understanding the Cuban reality of the beginning of the past century, Carpentier himself, and a cornerstone within Hispanic-American literature.

Short stories and novellas

 

Includes the three short stories Journey Back to the Source (Viaje a la semilla), The Santiago Way (El camino de Santiago), Like The Night (Semejante a la noche) and the novel The Chase (El acoso).

Non-fiction

The author of The City of Columns uncovers the unusual features of the heterogeneous urban conglomerate in numerous comments intended for the press. The publication of his Havana Chronicles pays tribute to the half-millennium of the founding of the capital of Cuba.

Photographs by Julio Larramendi.

In 1947, Carpentier embarked on a journey through the Great Savannah of America, which would prove decisive for his personal and artistic development. Without this journey, it is difficult to conceive several of the Latin American essence texts gathered in this volume, which is, above all, a unique travel chronicle, the astonished testimony of a genius who discovers his American identity in places like the Andean paramo, the Venezuelan jungles, pre-Columbian ruins, or the shores of the Caribbean. With dazzling prose, Carpentier recreates the initiatory experience through chronicles, talks, speeches, and articles written over thirty years in the embrace of the great America.

This selection of nearly eighty articles, essays, letters, and chronicles on various aspects of Cuban music provides a comprehensive overview of music in Cuba and is grouped into four categories: texts in which Carpentier discusses musicological and historical topics related to specific aspects of Cuban music; contributions to the magazine Carteles in which Carpentier reviews the presence of Cuban musicians in Europe; writings about concerts, and finally, writings about Cuban musicians.

This collection spans two volumes and includes many of the lectures delivered by Alejo Carpentier. The first volume, titled Carpentier Talks, covers topics such as cinematographic documentaries, surrealism, Cuban music, Havana (1912-1930), his novels, and includes lectures like A Half-Century of Progress and Four Centuries of Cuban Culture. It also features a lecture-debate on El arpa y la sombra (The Harp and the Shadow).

The second volume, titled Conferences, Essays, Prologues, and Speeches, includes essays and lectures on Latin America, observations of Havana as seen by a Cuban tourist, discussions on contemporary universal music, reflections on Wilfredo Lam's painting, and thoughts on the relevance of Tolstoy in Latin America. It contains prologues to various works, speeches, a report to the Congress, and discussions on topics ranging from literature and journalism to sports and culture.

Throughout Alejo Carpentier's work, a comprehensive theory of what the Latin American novel should be in the current stage of its evolution is formulated, and simultaneously, a body of fiction is created that entirely aligns with that theoretical formulation.

This short essay is a sincere and heartfelt homage by Alejo Carpentier to Havana, a city ahead of the most revolutionary urban concepts. The blend of architectural styles, a product of its cultural diversity, is perhaps one of its main characteristics. The writer's architectural journey is complemented by 75 photographs that showcase the unique beauty of one of the most striking cities in the New World.

The City of Columns is the most desperate declaration of love for Havana made by Alejo Carpentier." El Cultural. El Mundo

This collection gathers a selection of essays, articles, lectures, and other works by Alejo Carpentier. Through these pages, Carpentier reviews an entire cultural and political era and portrays international figures such as Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Debussy, Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla, Chirico, and Le Corbusier, among others. It includes: Tientos and differencesReason for BeingThe Latin American Novel on the Eve of a New Century, and other essays.

Originally published in 1946, Music in Cuba is not only the best and most extensive study of Cuban musical history, it is a work of literature. 

How and when did the unmistakable Cuban sound emerge? Why did a small island become such a fertile, flourishing musical paradise? In 1939 Alejo Carpentier, one of the foremost Latin American writers and also a musicologist, was commissioned to write a first treatise on the history of Cuban music. 

The result is a fascinating journey through Africa, Europe and America that traces the history of classical and popular music from the sixteenth century to the 1940s, the time when the guaracha, the mambo, the bolero and other rhythms brought the whole world out on to the dance floor. 

Carpentier composes a masterful score that resonates with the rhythms and melodies that have forged the true spirit of Cuba. 

Biography / Memoirs

This was written between the stages of creating The Lost Steps and Explosion in a Cathedral, and Alejo Carpentier crafted it amidst his daily work in radio, advertising, and other professional endeavors. It reveals the diversity of his readings, the time he also dedicates to music amid his daily activities, as well as numerous anecdotes and connections with figures in culture and cherished friends. Among countless observations about his own literary work, confessions like this one appear:

"Yesterday and today, I work on the definitive version (definitive?) of The Lost Steps. When the idea for this novel struck me, in a lightning moment, one noon as I was taking a rental car back home, I imagined it would be a seven-chapter tale that I would write in twenty days. Starting it on December 7, 1949, I counted on having it finished by January. The book has grown to 40 chapters, and soon it will be two years (...)."

Journalistic Work

Carpentier reflexiona, en estas crónicas publicadas en la revista Carteles en 1941, acerca de las posibles causas de de la caída de Europa al comienzo de la Segunda Guerra Mundial y en sus consecuencias futuras; esa derrota sin paliativos sufrida por el país que había sido faro y guía de la cultura occidental se constituirá en prueba definitiva del declive del Viejo Continente y sus valores.

El ocaso de Europa plasma la mirada de un observador, situado a un océano de distancia, del comienzo de la Segunda Guerra Mundial y la caída y Ocupación de París, pero que vive como un drama íntimo el espectáculo de una Europa en ruinas, devastada por la vileza y el horror extremos.

Crónicas caribeñas, contiene los artículos sobre el Caribe publicados por Alejo Carpentier desde 1922 hasta 1980, junto a otros artículos y textos inéditos. Recopilación y prólogo de Emilio Jorge Rodríguez.

 

This book compiles writings that Alejo Carpentier wrote about cinema, showing the develop of this art along the XX century.

Este libro recoge un buen número de artículos publicados por Alejo Carpentier en revistas cubanas como Carteles relacionado con sus frecuentes viajes a España desde la cercana Francia donde entonces vivía. Compilación realizada por Julio Rodríguez Puértola.

Artículos y crónicas que Alejo Carpentier publicó entre 1940 y 1941 en el periódico Tiempo.

En muchas de las novelas de Alejo Carpentier – Los pasos perdidos, El arpa y la sombra, Concierto barroco, El acoso…–, literatura y música están a menudo fuertemente imbricadas, y es que, amigo de grandes intérpretes y compositores de nuestro siglo, el autor cubano no sólo fue un excepcional escritor, sino también un apasionado y competente melómano. 

Ese músico que llevo dentro ordena en seis apartados –«Sobre compositores», «Intérpretes», «Musicología», «La música en el teatro», «Reflexiones en torno a la música» y «Ensayos»– los artículos más sobresalientes que relacionados con esta arte publicó a lo largo de su vida en periódicos y revistas.

Letters

Cartas a Toutouche, incluye un total de 138 documentos entre cartas, tarjetas postales, cables y telegramas que cubren casi una década de la correspondencia enviada por Alejo Carpentier a su madre durante su estancia en París, de 1928 hasta 1937. En esa vasta documentación se reflejan múltiples aspectos de la vida de Carpentier en sus años parisinos: su vinculación con los intelectuales franceses en general y con el grupo surrealista en particular, sus relaciones con numerosos intelectuales cubanos y de otros países de Latinoamérica, el proceso de gestación de muchas de sus crónicas, la culminación de su primera novela, su participación en las más importantes publicaciones francesas, así como otros aspectos de carácter más personal. 

Textos introductorios y notas de Graziella Pogolotti y Rafael Rodríguez Beltrán.

Prizes

  • 1979 - Premio Médicis
  • 1977 - Premio Cervantes
  • 1975 - Premio Cino del Duca
  • 1975 - Premio Internacional Alfonso Reyes