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ALEJO CARPENTIER: ONE OF THE GREAT 20th CENTURY FIGURES

Posted January 14, 2005 by Dana Garrett in Cuba Culture.
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By Roberto Fernandez Retamar | Cubanow.net

Very few authors established such close relationships in their work as writer Alejo Carpentier did between journalism and fiction.

Certainly, there’s a great tradition in our country; in the 19 th Century it’s difficult to find a Cuban writer who hadn’t also been a journalist. We have Jose Marti’s supreme example, who really practiced journalism in a sublime way, but something similar can be said in the 20 th Century. Our writers in that century kept very close ties between journalism and fiction or poetry works.

I’m thinking, for instance, that Nicolas Guillen wasn’t just the great poet we all know he was, but also a great journalist. Moreover, the articles written for journals by Nicolas Guillen have been compiled in many volumes. Outside of Cuba , I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In Alejo’s case, I got to know him as a journalist by reading in Carteles magazine the chronicles of his travels along the Orinoco River in Venezuela ; he would later write his experiences there in his novel Los pasos perdidos.

I also got to know Alejo for a very unusual reason which has to do with that relationship he had between what he wrote to be published in the mass media and what he wrote to be read, let’s say, slowly. The thing is that as a young boy, I heard some really lively adventures on radio that dealt with World War II. I was born in 1930, so when the war broke out in 1939, I was nine years old, and as the war progressed, Alejo Carpentier wrote those very vivid episodes. I didn’t have a very clear idea about who Carpentier was. I was a boy, but I loved the episodes Alejo wrote for the radio.

So I knew him as a writer for newspapers and magazines; as a reporter; a scriptwriter for radio; and later I also started to become familiar with him as a poet: although he said he wasn’t one, he wrote very important poems that would be later called “black” or “mulatto” poetry, among the first of that nature to which music was generally put by great Cuban and non-Cuban musicians. Amadeo Roldan and Alejandro Garcia Caturla, and the French Marius Francois Gaillard put music to texts by Alejo Carpentier.

So, when I finally became his friend, for me, he was almost a legendary figure. I met him in 1954 �and I haven’t forgotten it because he had gone to visit Fina Garcia Marruz Cintio Vitier’s wife- the great writer who had just had a child, Jose Maria Vitier, in the hospital then called Quinta. And, when Alejo went with Lilia to see Fina, my wife Adelaida and I found Carpentier there.

Actually, we established a very deep relationship after 1959 when, on the occasion of the triumph of the Revolution and leaving behind a very comfortable position he had in Caracas , he returned to the island. One of the people he was close to gave him a blank check so he could write out the amount he wished, but nothing made him stay in Venezuela �neither he nor Lilia, who is really, as I’ve said many times, Alejo Carpentier’s other half.

When they moved to Cuba , Alejo saw his childhood dreams come true. We must remember that he was a very close friend of Ruben Martinez Villena; he greatly admired (Julio Antonio) Mella; and even in El recurso del metodo he creates a character called The Student, who is very much like Mella and Villena. The Cuban Revolution revived all of his revolutionary youth, in which political and artistic struggles were very united. In fact, in 1928, he ended up in jail, accused of communist activities. That’s where he wrote the first draft of his initial novel: Ecue Yamba O. He left the country, went to France and stayed many years in that country. To return to Cuba in 1959 was an extraordinary cultural and moral event: one of the greatest writers in the world, of which we were proud that he had been born in Cuba , came to join his destiny with an uncertain revolution �as all revolutions are in their beginnings- so he was fully aware of the risks he had ahead.

I was very lucky because, since I’m a journalist too �and I like to remember that-, an intermittent journalist, in 1959 I wrote a page titled Joy Over Alejo Carpentier’s Return which was published in Revolucion daily. And, we became great friends. I’ve written about this many times; I remember an article called Alejo, always on Sundays, where I told about how we always got together on Sunday nights.

I think Alejo is an example for journalists, for fiction writers, a moral and political example; and a great privilege for our country that he was ours, although he belonged to the whole world. The French are convinced that he’s French; wherever people read him, they say he’s theirs, and they have reason to do so. But they also consider him a Venezuelan because he lived in that country for 14 years; that’s where he won maturity as a novelist, that’s where he wrote El reino de este mundo �his great novel on Haiti which was an inaugurating novel. There, he wrote Los pasos perdidos, El siglo de las luces�although it took some time to be published, but he had already written it. I know because, when he returned to Cuba , he brought the originals of El siglo� and he gave them to me to read. I was then the director of Nueva Revista Cubana and he put the text in front of me so that I could choose some chapters and publish them.

He would have been very happy with a homage by journalists like this one because Alejo Carpentier considered himself a journalist since he was very young and until the end of his days. He undertook works in journalism for over half a century and he always saw those tasks as a fundamental school for the general work he carried out, which was very broad. There weren’t just novels, stories, chronicles, essays; I’ve also remembered other forms of journalism: his work for radio, because he made a contribution to its renovation in Cuba .

He is someone we can only compare with great 19 th Century figures like Jose Marti �absolutely essential- and he’s a supreme figure in the Cuban 20 th Century. In Casa de las Americas , when the Congress was held, we named it Alejo Carpentier’s Century, not only because it refers to the title of one of his novels but because in that century figures like Carpentier �one of the great ones that symbolizes the 20 th Century are incarnated.

Member Comments

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On January 14, 2005, jesusp wrote:

Besides his greatness as a writer Alejo was, more than anything else, 100% Cuban and Cuba was his greatest love.
Once again Dana I salute you for posting such interesting articles.