Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Lost Steps - Alejo Carpentier

A nameless narrator has abandoned his creative dreams for a job in corporate New York. His wife, Ruth, is an actress with a drama troupe and is away most of the time, and the marriage is becoming predictable. He is rotting there, but a chance from his former employer in search of indigenous musical instruments deep in the jungles of South America changes his life forever. He sets out with his lover, Mouche, an astrologist, to a land which not many in the outside world know.

On his arrival, he realises that the people over there speak the language which he spoke during his childhood. He can easily converse with the people and mingle with them while he finds Mouche’s urban pretensions ridiculous. On their further journey into the deep jungles, he meets a native woman Rosario and is captivated by her simplicity and connection with nature.

In the journey, there are further characters that help and join the narrator’s quest to locate the instruments. There is a Capuchin friar whose mission is to spread the religion. Some Greek miners want to look for gold and diamonds. There is also the Pathfinder who is their guide and knows the hidden tributaries to the deep jungles. During this long trip, the narrator and Rosario fall in love and he finds that he has been lost in time. Mouche contracts malaria and is sent back while the rest of the party continues the journey. Finally, they arrive in the village that Pathfinder has established. The narrator settles down there after locating the musical instruments during the journey and has fallen in love with the place and the lack of time awareness. He wants to write music based on the Odyssey, but the lack of paper in the deep jungles poses a problem. He is also disturbed when Rosario rejects his marriage proposal, though they are still lovers and sexually involved.

There is an underlying theme of music in this novel. While the narrator finds his wife’s drama troupe’s popular music boring, he feels like he has watched the birth of music during a funeral prayer of the native Indians. He finds music in the torrential rains and the pre-historic plants and composes his masterpiece. But why write music, when it can be played - asks his lover Rosario. And while he leaves primitive classical music for the non-quality one, his life also changes from prosperity to poverty.

Alejo Carpentier’s masterpiece can be considered a work of magical realism. There is no surety of time once the story gets into deep jungles. He puts us, readers, in a dream-like state where we are also not sure of what happened because the story jumps so quickly sometimes. Some of the portrayals of the jungle and the action are poetic and magical. Maybe the whole story itself is a dream that happens between the two states of the narrator. Who knows! But hey, what is Latin American literature without a little bit of magic?

Adrian Nathan West’s translation is good and magical too. Hope he keeps up the tradition of the Rabassa and Grossman and translates many more from the Latin American world. Many thanks to Penguin Books ton commissioning a new translation of this one.

P.S. - I have been searching for this book for a long long time now. I came to know about this book at least 10 years ago. I wrote to many bookstores asking about this book.
The price in Amazon was exorbitant. I also wrote to The Bookshop, Jorbagh during the Covid days. They didn’t have it, but I bought another set of books from them. Then early this year, they said a new translation was coming and the publication is expected in May. Promptly, I set a reminder and emailed them in May. They said the publication date has been pushed to January 2024. Then out of nowhere Sonal from The Bookshop Inc. Lodhi Gardens (Jorbagh one shut down and the folks started a new one in Lodhi Gardens) emailed me and said this book and Carpentier’s Explosion In A Cathedral are available. I was in tears and jumping with joy. They remembered an email I sent in 2020 and reminded me the book was available. So good they are. This book introduction is possible because of them. Much much gratitude for them. Love you, folks! One day I am going to arrive in Delhi with empty suitcases and buy as much as I can :) You should follow them on Instagram. They make great recommendations. And yes, buy independent if you can, not from the Amazons of the world.

#alejocarpentier #theloststeps #LatinAmericanLiterature #latinamericanboom #lastbookoftheyear #books2023 #independentbookstore

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