The Lost Steps
By Alejo Carpentier
Translator: Harriet de Onis
Version: Univ. of Minnesota Press (March 2001)
Also reviewed at: Occasional Review
“The Lost Steps” is a 1953 novel by Cuban-born novelist and musicologist Alejo Carpentier. The story begins with a reluctant composer/academic in New York City who spends most of his time avoiding his stage-actress wife, gallavanting around with his mistress Mouche, and pondering everything but work. In this way, the novel is strikingly similar to other 20th Century classics, focusing as it does on an over-educated slacker looking for fulfillment at the bottom of a glass or in the company of new women. The hero’s theory — that music is descended from primitive humans’ attempts to imitate the sounds of animals, and that there might somewhere out there be instruments to prove it — leads to an unsolicited grant allowing him to travel with Mouche to South America in search of these instruments. From there, we follow the story as the pair encounters the outbreak of war, a town in the countryside with a decidedly provincial feel, a lengthy trip to a river outpost on the edge of the wilderness, and finally, the wilderness itself.
The novel touches on the many prisms of romantic interest and the search for meaning in the wanderer’s life, with keen insight. There are also fantastically detailed passages about passers-by and briefly seen sites that show Carpentier’s well-developed mastery of setting and characterization. Carpentier spent much of his twenties and thirties in Paris, Switzerland, and elsewhere, having fled the despotic Cuban government in 1928 after being imprisoned for his democratic ideals. He developed a broad base of musical knowledge, and wrote original compositions, as well as on the subject of music, extensively. These experiences are clearly emphasized in the story as well. Naturally, music plays an important role in the book. An ever-increasing awareness of and respect for the natural world also guides the protagonist’s journey. The deeper understanding of nature that the “savages” in the remote areas to which he travels clash with his expectations. The symbiosis between the natives and the natural world provides a familiar backdrop for the second-half of the story.
The central theme of the book is the main characters’ fascination with the other. A common literary device, in this case the other is used on both the individual and societal levels. The main character’s amorous pursuits lead him from his wife to Mouche to a native woman he comes upon during his trip toward the wilderness. The struggles normally associated with such behavior are replaced here by a smooth and comfortable shift of attention from one to the next. Indeed, the narrator’s chief concern is usually sorting through the mechanics of a quick and easy change from one to the next, rather than any lingering emotions, angst, or indecision. Such treatment of women is certainly not uncommon, though perhaps oversimplified in this case. With little to no idea of what it is he’d want from a fulfilling relationship, Carpentier’s hero is unburdened by what he’s giving up to get what he becomes fixated on. Of course, such detachment doesn’t prevent the narrator from feeling intense jealousy when Mouche develops a close friendship with a travelling companion, or to quickly fall into a pattern of expectations regarding traditional divisions of labor with the native woman. His fascination with the other, in his day to day interactions with women does not appear to extend to the creation of unique relationships with these women once-acquired.
The larger examination of the other comes is revealed through the narrator’s quest for the ancient instruments. In explaining his theory, and his hopes for the trip, the narrator makes clear that he believes the jungles will provide not only the instruments, but a window to the past in the form of the primitive people he believes reside in the jungle. Essentially, he enters the trip with the idea that the degree to which people are civilized, evolved, and advanced can be directly correlated to the distance those people are from major cities. Following this logic, people who live in the undeveloped jungles and woods of South America must be less-advanced on the natural path of evolution. This framework is pushed, twisted, torn, and ultimately obliterated through the experiences he has on his journey of discovery. Each encounter brings a new appreciation for the similarities shared by all people, as well as the permutations in human development and experience that are the strengths of a diverse array of cultures.
Unlike the reader at OccasionalReview, I find the under-development of peripheral characters both intentional and effective. In this way, Carpentier shows his protagonist in a realistic and believable light, taking only from people what he has the patience for, and leaving the rest aside. Ultimately, the narrator’s discovery of the realities of life among the others leads to a fairly predictable set of decisions, spurred by a fairly straightforward change of heart. Given the malleability of his views, one leaves “The Lost Steps” with the distinct impression that another change of heart is just around the corner. Indeed, Carpentier sets the stage in the final pages by finally bringing to bear the consequences of his behavior onto the narrator.
With the many parallels between Carpentier and the narrator (including the time spent in Europe, the fascination with music, and attempts at repatriation) the essay preceding the book surmises that the struggles of the narrator are Carpentiers way of speculating about how his life might have turned out had he not learned some valuable life lessons along the way. Given the clarity with which Carpentier presents the dilemmas facing the narrator, this theory is probably fairly meritorious. As a reader, though, my curiosity is this: what might have been lost in experience if the narrator’s fascination with the other hadn’t held such a strong pull for him? Through this fascination, and the steps he takes to pursue it, he is exposed to a whole new universe that alters his thinking, his beliefs, and ultimately, his desires. Was he better off not having these experiences, or was he just supposed to learn when to stop looking? The universality of this question, and the way in which each person goes about answering it, is what makes this novel such a fascinating conversation-starter. Carpentier’s construction of the narrator’s world, and the way in which he moves through it, makes the book both memorable and enjoyable.