Tony's Reviews > The Chase

The Chase by Alejo Carpentier
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's review
Aug 09, 2011

bookshelves: cuban, music
Read from July 26 to 29, 2016

Those who first saw it, in 1804, the musicians who first played it, saw the name BUONAPARTE at the top of the title page and LUIGI VAN BEETHOVEN at the very bottom. By October, 1806, however, when Beethoven published his Third Symphony, Napoleon's name was gone. Instead, the dedication began:

Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festeggiare il souvvenire di un grand Uomo . . .

The Great Man is not named, but it's still Napoleon, or at least the 'memory' of Napoleon, still alive in 1806, so, rather, what Beethoven had wished Napoleon to be. The controversy over when Beethoven soured on Napoleon is unimportant for our purposes, but someone erased the Emperor's name on a copyist's score so fiercely a hole was worn in the paper.

But why talk about the Eroica in a review about an odd novella set in 1950s Cuba? Well, duh. But I'll get back to duh.

'The Chase' opens with that 1806 dedication in italics. The action begins in a concert hall, which is about to perform the Eroica. A student ticket seller is reading a biography of Beethoven, waiting for the music to begin. A fugitive runs in, throws a large banknote at the teller and runs into the theater, pursued by two men.

The student and the fugitive will be intertwined through that banknote (is it counterfeit?) and through their nocturnal visits to the prostitute Estrella. It was she who was visited, almost never visiting anyone herself.

The fugitive hides, flees, hides again, from his pursuers and his past, when torture tested his loyalty. Is he running from the police or his one-time comrades?

But the music pursues him, too. The notes are everywhere: in the concert hall, in the prostitute's room, in a garden, in a conversation. Carpentier, a musicologist as well as a revered Latin American novelist, does this as well an anyone I've read: weaving plot and music lines together.*

Which brings me back to duh. Carpentier published this in 1956. Batista was still in control in Cuba but Castro was beginning his guerilla war. Surely Carpentier had some grand Uomo in mind. Whose name was Carpentier scratching out? But we can choose too. Who was the Great Man? Sixty years later, we have memory to let us choose.

The fugitive runs from tree to tree, hiding in each shadow:

Before him the avenue, where various Presidents, with thick bronze frock coats, standing on granite pedestals, were sculpted in heroic size above the ice-cream vendors, who were ringing their viaticum bells, descended to the sea covered by clouds palpitating with distant flashes of lightning.

A cautionary tale, then, that is not confined to an island.
* The Lost Steps haunts me still.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Cautionary indeed. I have not read Carpentier yet. I have his El siglo de las luces waiting - I had begun it but for some reason put it aside, but that was years ago.

message 2: by Tony (new) - added it

Tony Kalliope wrote: "Cautionary indeed. I have not read Carpentier yet. I have his El siglo de las luces waiting - I had begun it but for some reason put it aside, but that was years ago."

I think you would be intrigued with the way the various movements of the Third Symphony weave through this book. At least I think they do. It would take more industry and knowledge of music than I have to figure it out.

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