Jimmy's Reviews > The Lost Steps

The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier
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it was amazing
bookshelves: cuba, male, novel, year-1950s

These were the days for the accumulation of humus, the rotting and decay of the fallen leaves, in keeping with the law decreeing that all generation shall take place in the neighborhood of excretion, that organs of generation shall be intertwined with those of urination, and that all that is born shall come into the world enveloped in mucus, serum, and blood--just as out of manure comes the purity of the asparagus and the green of mint. p. 229
This was my first exposure to Carpentier and I was immediately struck by the quality of his sentences. He writes a dense sentence, almost wild in its serpentine way, easy to get lost in. It feels a bit like you're in a jungle and the words are vines climbing up your leg. This became especially effective in chapter four, when our protagonist actually enters the jungle... the prose achieved a sort of ultimate mirroring of its content.
One felt the presence of rampant fauna, of the primeval slime, of the green fermentation beneath the dark waters, which gave off a sour reek like a mud of vinegar and carrion, over whose oily surface moved insects made to walk on the water: chinch-bugs, white fleas, high-jointed flies, tiny mosquitoes that were hardly more than shimmering dots in the green light, for the green, shot through by an occasional ray of sun, was so intense that the light as it filtered through the leaves had the color of moss dyed the hue of the swamp-bottoms as it sought the roots of the plants. p. 161
Though his prose was thrilling, it was also a little exhausting because it never lets up. At times, when I was really tuned in to what he was saying, it was like crawling into the dense undergrowth and feeling completely at home. But other times, when my attention was flagging after a long day, I could hardly concentrate on the complex workings of what he was saying. I had to read sentences over and over, as if grasping for a downed limb.
Because here, amidst the multitude that surrounded me and rushed madly and submissively, I saw many faces and few destinies. And this was because, behind these faces, every deep desire, every act of revolt, every impulse was hobbled by fear. Fear of rebuke, of time, of the news of the collectivity that multiplied its forms of slavery. There was fear of one's own body, of the sanctions and pointing fingers of publicity; there was fear of the womb that opens to the seed, fear of the fruits and of the water; fear of the calendar, fear of the law, fear of slogans, fear of mistakes, fear of the sealed envelope, fear of what might happen.
The adventure story itself was exciting, but as you probably know by now, plot alone doesn't do it for me. So what else interested me? First: the narrator, aside from the immense prose he writes, is also psychologically a very interesting dude. To me, he lies somewhere in between the unreliable narrator and the reliable one. You can see his pitfalls miles before they come, and perhaps he can too, but he is so good at convincing himself and you, piling illusion atop illusion. But these aren't crazy illusions, they are common ones, about civilization, nature, modernity vs. primitivity, art etc.

What I really found attractive about him was that he was so... malleable, but also so strong inside. At times he seemed normal, not like a typical 'crazy' unreliable narrator with unpredictable moodswings. He is actually quite consistent and sane, but open to being changed by the world, and always struggling to reach a place of well-being, though often in vain. He can be despicable at times, and selfish and unfair, and though he doesn't see these aspects in himself, I think the author intended for them to be apparent to the reader. I don't think Carpentier was painting the narrator to be an example to be followed above judgement, but rather as an example of the futility of our condition in the world--how we can't go back to a simpler state, and how we cannot stay here either in the time of the 'galley master'.
The thought invariably struck me that the only difference between my previous birthday and this one was the extra candle on the cake, which tasted like the last one... But to evade this, in the world that was my lot, was as impossible as trying to revive today certain epics of heroes or saints. We had fallen upon the era of the Wasp-Man, the No-Man, when souls were no longer sold to the Devil, but to the Bookkeeper or the Galley Master. p. 9
The second thing about this story is that, even though it's straight forward, it is full of asides, tangents, and opportunities for our narrator to muse about this topic or that. These I found highly entertaining and often insightful, and always perfectly phrased. I wouldn't have enjoyed the direct route as much as the one provided here, with all the views and vistas of his mind.
Overhead, into the thinning mist, rose the peaks of the city: the patinaless spires of the Christian churches, the dome of the Green Orthodox church, the large hospital where White Eminences officiated beneath classical entablatures designed by those architects who, early in the century, sought to lose their way in an increase of verticality. p. 10
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Reading Progress

October 20, 2011 – Shelved
January 25, 2012 – Started Reading
February 11, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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Jimmy It is pretty great!

Jimmy Barry, I just finished this last night (I only now put it on Goodreads, but I started reading this like several weeks ago, so it's not like speed reading or anything).

I'm ready to start Sleepwalkers whenever you give me the signal. :)

Jimmy That's as good a signal as any! I'll start today.

message 4: by PGR (new) - rated it 5 stars

PGR Nair Excellent review Jimmy...I too remember his dense and beautiful prose. My book was full of markings:))

Barbara I enjoyed your review. And loved the book. As soon as I started it, I realized right away I was reading something great.

Jimmy Same here, Barbara. His prose sings.

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