Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps

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.[1]

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.

[1] 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.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf P, 2014.

Summary of Work
Citizen is a work of poetry about what it means to be black in America. Claudia Rankine starts her work by remembering experiences in her past—from the white girl in Catholic school who cheated off of her and thanked her by saying that she wasn’t very dark or didn’t look very black for a black girl to having her partner complain about having to hire a person of color as the fiction writer at the university—and how white people have made her invisible through their words and actions. When she went to walk into a board room for a meeting and overheard white people saying that when black people spoke to each other it was like listening to a different language, she thought about waiting a good while to go in the room. When a white friend used the term “hoe” to refer to her when she was late, she called her friend out on it by asking, “What did you say?” and her friend was too ashamed or embarrassed to repeat it. When she has called others out for using the N word to describe black teenagers or people, white people have been angry at her for calling them out or for taking offense at their use of language.

She actively discusses how language has power precisely because it makes racism hyper visible: the features that others despise about black people are brought to center stage. She discusses this at length by bringing up the competition history of Serena Williams. She talks about the outright racism that Serena has faced in her career, a black tennis player in an almost all-white sport. The racism got so bad that new tech was invented to prevent it, and commentators even outright had to admit the bias. And she discusses how well Serena has dealt with most of the hatred she’s received on and off the court. Yet when she has outbursts because of the built up resentment over racist actions that have damaged her career and person, the media sees her as insane.

Rankine also discusses how there is a man on youtube who has stated that in order for black artists to be successful they have to commercialize and channel their rage and anger. It cannot be real anger, but must be a kind that white people can consume in entertainment and feel like they can understand. And yet, Rankine knows there are other types of anger, and she states that every black person has had moments where they would like to beat down every white person they see because of that rage. And yet they cannot, because their bodies are rendered dangerous if they don’t present as white people want.

She presents a series of scripts about a variety of injustices black people have faced: murders by the hands of the police, lynching and beating and murder at the hands of white people, and police profiling as they strip search black people who do not even meet the description of the perpetrator they are looking for. She has a list of names that read “In Memory of . . .” that list all the black people who have died at the hands of the police at the time of the book’s publication. The “In Memory of” fades from the page as it continues, emphasizing that the names will continue to be added and cannot be numbered.

Using the FIFA World Cup event where the Algerian team member head butted another player in rage, she discusses how people of color are always expected to be better than everyone else in their behavior and are held to a higher standard than those perpetrating racism and hatred. As the Algerian is labeled a terrible person, terrorist, and a “typical Muslim” for his action, everything that led up to the moment is lost. She also discusses how the race riot in London over a black man’s death was dealt with so much differently than the Rodney King riots, and people in London focused on the looting and rioting so much that it seemed the cause of the rioting was nearly forgotten. When she asks her journalist friend if he will write about the issue, he tells her no, and she realizes that these are issues that white people can just set aside, while black people must live with the reality every day.

The book is filled with illustrations and photographs: from the video clip reels showing the Algerian head butting the other player to a white opposing player of Serena’s stuffing towels in her shirt chest and pants butt to imitate Serena Williams, ultimately performing the blackness that white people want from her. There are also paintings and archival photos that go along with the various topics that Rankine explores in her poetry.

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
The poem itself feels like a very free form verse. It reads more like prose than like poetry, with the poem itself being broken into paragraphs and seven sections. There are points throughout the work with a lot of white space, sometimes pages of it. The images are often placed under paragraphs or given their own page entirely, sometimes spanning two pages.

Brief Note on Themes
The whole of this work looks at what it is like to be black in America. Largely, it explores how racism takes many forms and has many affects on black people, both visible and invisible. Rankine tries to tell people what it is like to be embodied as a black person, and that their blackness is most often felt when in a room or space full of white people, where white people become aware of their racist language as they are using it in front of people of color. The power of language to determine embodiment is a large theme throughout the book; what are we saying that determines how we see people or expect them to behave? Language as an apparatus of power to uphold white superstructures of racism plays a large part, but so do the images. How do the images of blackness, some of which are provided in the book itself, shape what it means to be a black person in America? And how do those race relations and images extend out from America to other countries? Racism has perhaps one of the largest effects in the justice system, where countless innocent black people are stopped, frisked, arrested, and murdered by white police officers because of fear and images of racism that govern their understanding of black people.

Racism as it pertains to interracial relationships also plays a part in this work. From the times that Rankine forgives or stays quiet about racist trespasses her partner or friends make regularly against her to the casual encounters in a bar or on the street, Rankine reveals that people of color are genuinely working harder than white people to mold to the systems that exist and to not make white people feel too uncomfortable when there is a person of color in their presence. This was highlighted perfectly in the scene where she is listening to someone discuss how comedy comes from context, and how things are funny until a black person can hear what you’re saying about them.

The weight of the work that is being asked of black people, socially, personally, publicly, privately, is so much that it is crushing them to some extent, and yet they have no way out of the situation. They must still be careful to not end up dead like those in the news, and to not lose their jobs or offend their majority-white coworkers, and to maintain proper decorum no matter how terrible the words white people sling at them in racist hatred. Rankine shares her memories of what it means to be a black person in the US as a lesson for all who read about what people of color in the US and elsewhere face, and how it is handled, and she leaves us with that knowledge, almost as a call that we do something with it.

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. 1955. Beacon P, 1957.

Summary of Work
Baldwin’s memoirs detail what it means to be black in America, and outside of it, and how black people form their identities, particularly how American black people form their identities in a space that has denied them access to their past. Further, he discusses how black-white relations work in America, and how they are based off of a mythos that is largely theological: blackness is associated with the devil or evil in Christianity, and the Christian image of goodness is all clothed in white; we know if a person is good and has made it to heaven if they are robed in white upon their appearance in our vision. In a theology of whiteness, black people are forced to either find a different identity, or far more likely and as we see has happened, forced to believe that they are sub-human or non-human because of their blackness, and they accept that role, even if unwillingly, in American white society. This identity and struggle to be recognized as a human being is documented in American protest literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Baldwin asserts is a terrible novel inasmuch as it should be a pamphlet for the type of material it uses, and that Gone With the Wind and other such novels capitalize on this idea of the beauties and tragedies of slave labor—all of which surround black bodies and their identities, which have mostly and largely been forced upon them as objects to be pitied, liberated by well-meaning white people. Of course, this liberation is good, but it still does not rid white people of their understanding that black people are somehow subhuman or lower than they are.

This mythology, woven throughout the American history books and fiction works, extends into film and other mediums of artistic representation, indicative of the underpinning moral beliefs of American society regarding race relations. We can see this in Richard Wright’s famous work Native Son, which gives people a picture of black rage because of this lack of identity, certainly, but also gives us the expected social redemption of Bigger Thomas, something that in Baldwin’s view, robs the novel of much of its power, regardless of its successes. And when all of this history and culture and moral belief is brought by black people over to France and other parts of Europe, they try to deny the identity, because it is just as uncomfortable in Europe as in America. But in Europe, they feel for a time they can escape it. The outright racism and hatred of black people is missing in Europe. However, they quickly come to understand that the derision they experience in America exists in Europe, just in different places, and that they cannot escape their identity as black Americans. The space itself requires them to recognize their unique situation: they are free from the outright racism of Jim Crow, but they cannot identify with the cultures of Europe, and Europeans simply have no understanding of what it means to be black in America or to have experienced that type of race relation. The uniqueness of American life is that black and white races are tied together to learn how to live with each other, and regardless of the white supremacy and the racism, that learning to live with each other, however rife with turmoil, is unique to the whole of the world. Other white countries colonized and left black people in their own country; America brought them in. Knowing that the identity of America, both black and white, rests on this identity and history, should be a step to recognizing a path forward, and to recognizing that the ideal of no racism is simply a dream, but not one that should be discarded.

Brief Note on Themes
The themes of racism, racial identity, and white-black relations run throughout this work. Understanding the mythologies and morals that created racial identity in America is also a huge theme, even when Baldwin is discussing his time in France and Switzerland. Coming to understand what it means to be black in America, and outside of it as a black American, is central to Baldwin’s memoir.