Review: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier

Los Pasos Perdidos CoverThe Lost Steps [1953/1989] – ★★★★1/2 

“…we let ourselves succumb to the world of wonder, eager for still greater portents. There arose beside the hearth, conjured up by Montsalvatje, the medicine men who healed the wounds with the magic incantation of Bogotá, the Amazon Queen, Cicanocohora, the amphibious men who slept at night in the bottoms of the lakes, and those whose sole nourishment was the scent of flowers” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1954/89: 144].

Los Pasos Perdidos or The Lost Steps was translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onis and represents what is believed to be one of the most important Latin American novels to come out in the twentieth century. In this story, our unnamed narrator (believed to be in New York) is sent on a mission to a jungle (believed to be in Venezuela) to discover and collect some ancient musical instruments for a museum. By accepting this request, the narrator has no idea that he is about to embark on one extraordinary journey of self-realisation and self-discovery, which will force him to rethink his previous inculcated beliefs. The Lost Steps is a complex literary work which sometimes slides into being rather metaphysical in nature, but without losing its conviction or power. Carpentier weaves his story in a beautiful, even though enigmatic, language, and the result is a book which puzzles, impresses and astonishes.

The book begins with one frustrated man, a composer, whose wife is an actress. He feels “trapped” living in New York City, sensing being “empty” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1953/89: 21] and equating his existence with a “prison”. His wife’s staged plays may contribute to him thinking of his life as artificially-constructed, and the increasing monotony pushes him to long for an escape: “[it] made me feel as though I were trapped in a locked room, exasperated at being unable to change anything in my life, always subject to the will of others” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1953/89: 16]. The narrator’s lover Mouche does little to dispel his existential crisis, and the narrator compares himself to Sisyphus who carries a stone on his shoulders, doomed to forever do purposeless, repeated work. He may be increasingly “longing for certain ways of life that man had lost forever” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1953/89: 36], and an opportunity to experience that presents itself to him on one rainy day. Similar to Norton Perina in Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees [2013], the narrator in Carpentier’s story is almost unwillingly thrust into the task of going to Latin America to collect ancient musical instruments. However, he also finds something else there, coming to realisations that no other person or book could have imparted to him.  

Upon landing in South America, the introspective narrator’s thoughts and feelings become more unusual, and he finds himself increasingly overwhelmed by the new environment presented to him. Together with his female travel companion Mouche, he first experiences a city “under revolt”, and then is taken by Los Altos, saying that this “provincial corner…[has] a charm that the museum cities, with their over-admired, over-photographed stones, had lost” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1953/89: 65]. He then travels deeper into the jungles of a South American country, being awed by the primordial beauty around him, slowly “discovering” ancient knowledge and understanding of how life could be lived. The meaning of the narrative is not always easy to capture, and the narrator makes many cultural references as he tries to convey his sensations of the “new” land. For example, he references Homer’s Odyssey, Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Schiller’s Ode to Joy to describe his inner transformation and realisation. The language used is dreamy, poetic, evasive, enigmatic, unusual and beautiful. Sometimes, it feels as though the subconscious of the narrator is breaking out in the narrative to have a say in how the narrator really feels. “The origin of everything would have to be sought in the cloud that burst into rain that afternoon with such unexpected violence that its thunderclaps seemed those of another latitude” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1953/89: 14].

It transpires that the land the narrator arrived to was once the land of his childhood (Spanish was his mother tongue), and, once there, our narrator has his senses “assaulted” by the scents and memories of his childhood. He experiences a homecoming, and the journey feels as though he is going back “to his roots”. At that point, our narrator grows distant from his lover Mouche, who does not seem to comprehend the significance of her new environment. Our narrator’s journey becomes increasingly poetic and “historic”, as he also explores the connection between two cultures and distinct identities. Reading between the lines, there is much symbolism and allegory to be found in the novel, which makes the experience of reading The Lost Steps rather refreshing and stimulating. There is almost a theme there somewhere of “a return to native ancient lands”, meaning that the journey is both physical and symbolic, a shamanic journey to get the knowledge and receive the experience of one’s ancestors.

It is interesting the way the concept of time is incorporated into the story. The journey of the narrator almost presupposes going “beyond time” so that he is revealed deeper truth. The oddities in the perception of time start in the novel when the narrator forgets to wound the watch [1953/89: 17], and, then, as he travels deeper and deeper into the South American country, he imagines going back in time. At one point, the narrator compares himself to “conquistador who head[s] out in search of the kingdom of Manoa” [1953/89: 158], and then there is a passage: “the years are subtracted, melt away, vanish, in the dizzying backward flight of time. We have not yet come to the sixteenth century. It is much earlier. We are in the Middle Ages” [1953/89: 177].

In other respects, The Lost Steps did not age that well. For example, it has an unhealthy dosage of machismo inside. Upon arriving to the jungle, the narrator gets to think that women are there to serve men, and the descriptions of some women in the novel are rather unflattering and disrespectful (for no apparent reason as well). In this aspect, it actually again reminds of the novel The People in the Trees, a novel which is also set in a jungle and where the presentation of one female character is unfair.

Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps may not be easy to read or classify. It is a journey of self-discovery and realisation filled with fanciful, highly imaginative descriptions, and meditations on the history and culture. The transformative language contributes to making the story akin to an allegory of a man who finds himself disillusioned with the modern world, searching for answers in primordial environment. The great thing about the book is that each reader may see something different and personal to them in the narrative, and despite the unusual style, the book is still rich, vivid and powerful in its expression and messages.

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