Carpentier, Alejo. The Lost Steps. 1953. University of Minnesota P, 2001.
Summary of Work
We find the unnamed narrator in this work living in NYC and working in the advertising industry even though his talents lie in his musicology background and college degree. He is married to an actress who is part of a wildly popular yet banal play. As he is wandering the city one day, he meets an old friend, a museum curator, who talks to him about going on an expedition to find and bring back primitive musical instruments in South America. At first he refuses, but after meeting with his mistress, Mouche, and some friends and watching a film he composed the music for and finding it worthless, he determines that he will go with Mouche to South America, but go on vacation and buy forgeries to satisfy the requirement of bringing back instruments. When they arrive in a coastal city (again unnamed), he feels suddenly more at home speaking his native tongue, Spanish. As he falls in love with the culture there, Mouche starts detaching from him. Still, he searches for antiques in shops. While he is shopping a revolution breaks out, and he, Mouche, and the other hotel guests have to stay in the hotel, where they worry about food and water supply, getting shot, and getting eaten by the insects that have invaded the place. Even after the revolution ends, he is held up by snipers in the grocers. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, Mouche and the narrator leave and go to the home of a Canadian painter and friend in another town. He becomes jealous of the relationship Mouche has with the woman, and after some time spent there, he determines that he will actually take the trip to look for primitive instruments.
Mouche decides to accompany him, and they take a bus across the Andes and also take on an Indian woman who seems to embody the culture there. One evening, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio, and it brings him back to his musical heritage and European connections and his forced removal from the space by WWII. The native woman, Rosario, becomes better acquainted with them, and as they enter an oil town where prostitutes are the local entertainment, he begins to criticize Mouche for not being more like Rosario. They finally reach the City of Ruins, and when they reach Puerto Anunciacion he vehemently argues with Mouche. He also meets Adelantado, who tells him of the life of tribes in the jungle. He also witnesses the funeral of Rosario’s father and meets an herbalist who is seemingly insane but who tells of tales of El Dorado and other ancient myths. Mouche, meanwhile, tries a sexual advance on Rosario, and she beats her for it. Mouche then gets malaria, and she has to be sent back to Puerto Anunciacion for treatment. Rosario and the narrator become sexually involved. The remaining party take canoes upriver.
They head into the heart of the jungle by a hidden tributary which Adelantado finds, and they seem to start traveling back in time. The tropical atmosphere, the plant life, and the animal life in the jungle scare the narrator, and a thunderstorm nearly capsizes their canoes. However, they finally find a native village, and he is able to get some of the musical instruments he had been sent to find. He finds their customs and way of life primitive, almost Medieval, and he feels that he witnesses the birth of music while he is there watching a funereal rite. They travel further on to Santa Monica de las Venados, which is a village Adelantado settled. The narrator determines that he will live out his life there, but he is torn because he wants to write music and lacks paper, and he also has an obligation to deliver the instruments he has collected to the museum curator. He visits many primitive areas in the village, including a valley full of prehistoric plants. The rains come, and it seems they will never cease, and he comes up with a new musical composition based on The Odyssey. However, his lack of paper and ink poses problems. This whole time he stays with Rosario, and he asks her to marry him, but she refuses him. Not long after, an airplane stops in the village in search of a lost explorer, which turns out to be the narrator. Torn about going with them or staying, he finally determines that he must return to get paper and ink and deliver the instruments, and then he can come back to live in the village and with Rosario again.
When he flies back home, he is at first a celebrity, and he learns that his wife is pregnant. He sells his story, which he lies about, to a newspaper, but when Mouche sells her story, it creates a scandal, and Ruth also learns about Rosario and that he wants to leave and go back to her, but Ruth will not divorce him. NYC has lost all beauty to him and he finds it useless to him. He runs out of money while he is getting divorced, and he is forced into tiny and poor room accommodations. When he sees Mouche and spends the night with her, he is disgusted with himself about the decision. He decides to get back to writing music to earn some money, and once he sells a film score for enough money, he goes back to Puerto Anunciacion, but cannot find his way back to the tributary and the village. He meets Yannes, who was at the village, and he learns that Rosario has married Marcos, the son of Adelantado, and she is pregnant. The narrator then realizes that he can never go back and relive his previous experience.
Discussion of Work
This work could be considered a work of magical realism, in particular because of the unsurety of time and the magical regression from modernity to primitive life. The winding back of time is an important part of the novel, as it helps to display the tension between European and Latino cultures: the modernity of NYC and European culture evident there as valuable is called into question as the narrator finds his identity, culture, and home in the more “primitive” space of the village of Santa Monica de las Venados. Unlike the European image of primitive cultures, the culture of these villages is sophisticated and engaging and valuable, particularly because of how they live in harmony with the environment. That harmony is particularly tied together through music, moving from the poorly written but popular musical his wife stars in to the beauty of Beethoven, to finally the origins and harmonies of music in its usefulness for everyday life.
Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps puts readers in what feels like a dream state, leaving them to wonder if they read passages on previous pages correctly because the story jumps through six weeks so quickly. The main guidance tool readers have to navigate through the book are the musical performances, which cue readers to coming change and new settings for its main character. The surrealism in the novel, then, is in part created by the magical expectations that the music creates for the readers, as it guides the main character from city to jungle in search of not only music, but of himself.
We first become aware of music’s pull on the main character as he struggles to find any object that does not remind him of some musical composition he has neglected, and any music that does not remind him of pieces of his life he would rather stay buried and forgotten, and this is particularly true of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It drives him to disgust and out into the rainy weather, where he runs into an old friend, the organology curator of a museum. Forced to deal with his past and ashamed at his current state, which is much less than he had hoped it would be as a composer, the main character accepts the Curator’s job offer to obtain specific musical artifacts in the jungles of South America.
It is music, then, which sends the main character out into the unnamed, dreamlike land in the jungles of South America, where he stays in Puerto Anunciación until, at the cue of poorly played music, a revolution breaks out, and he moves on into the jungle in search of the musical artifacts he initially did not intend to find for the Curator. And as he is sitting in an inn in the jungle, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over the radio again, this time succumbing to a dream state, remembering his past experience with his parents, and that music’s particular effect upon his father. His whole life is inherently tied to music and this symphony, ever guiding him back to song each time he comes across the composition. We see that music is inherently tied to his life and is leading his destiny, although we, as readers, are unsure of what that destiny is or how much reality is portrayed in such a fast-paced narrative, a narrative that from the second playing of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onward feels as if it moves backward in time.
The music played becomes improvised, not written down, and then even more primitive, used for religious and funereal rites rather than for pure enjoyment or artistic, aesthetic ideals. As he moves back into what he feels could pass for the Middle Ages and primitive lifestyles, the narrator discovers that he believes every Westerner has misunderstood the origins of music: music is not imitation of animal calls, as he had previously believed, but instead a connection to life and death, created for practical purposes rather than aesthetic ones. The realization drives the narrator to abandon the Western lifestyle.
But he cannot stay away from it. Becoming obsessive over composing for the first time in years, he starts a musical rendition of portions of The Odyssey, feverishly composing through the rainy season and causing his woman, Rosario, and other villagers he lives with to worry about his sanity. For them, there was no reason to write down music when it could be played. He realizes that if he wants his music to be heard, he will have to find a way to connect to the Western world to have the work performed, which leads to the beginning of the end of the dream cycle in the South American jungle. If it were not for the hysteria in New York City over his disappearance and discovery in the jungle, readers would question if the experience had been real or if he had simply slept all day in his apartment and dreamt up the experience.
And as the primitive music fades, no quality music reenters the narrator’s life, signaling the downturn from prosperity to poverty for our narrator. His composition from the jungle, Threnody, left with his love Rosario, he has no muse and no piece to work on even when he makes his way back to South America, unable to find Santa Mónica de los Venados and unable to find the motivation to work on previous compositions.
By the end of the novel, the narrator’s life destroyed and hopes of reuniting with his love Rosario dashed, both the readers and the narrator believe that for these characters, there is no free will, but rather destiny that fate will bring to pass regardless of personal desires: for our narrator, this destiny is to compose music, whether or not anyone will hear it and whether or not he will find success as a composer of classical music. Individuals, then, should strive to be more aware of the external forces that drive them and to learn to ride the wave of those forces or risk being swallowed and destroyed by them.
 It is even arguable that we wonder if this entire story is a dream, including the stay in New York City, given that both times the narrator is living there, the scenes pass in a dreamlike blur.