I was really looking forward to "The Century of Light" (which colloquially translates to 'The Age of Enlightenment') or, in English, "An Explosion in a Cathedral". The title sounded exciting in English, and since I knew it was about Cuba during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Era, I was looking forward to an exciting swash-buckling novel along the lines of the Aristide novels by Perez-Duarte.
I should have known better. Alejo Carpentier, the author, is sometimes called the father of magic realism--has even been accused--well, no that's my term--of having coined the term--and since I have mixed feelings about that genre I should have thought out my choice more carefully. It's not that I actually hate novels of that sort, but too often I feel that loftily defining one's novel as magic realism gets the writer off the hook of writing a work that stands up to the scrutiny of the real world. So you want to write a novel where three wealthy orphans are alone in the house in 18th century Havana and not one extended family member comes in to check in on them? Just wave your hand and airily declare it's all due to magic realism! A mysterious stranger sweeps in and takes them off--including the teenage girl--on a voyage? Magic realism again! Nothing that happens--truncated voyages to other islands--a foray to France and Spain--setting up a guillotine in on the island of Guadalupe--really makes any sense. It's a pity since the story of the French Revolution in the Caribbean--how the British and the French fought each other, how slavery was revoked and then re-instated-could have made for a compelling read. The main character, Victor Hugues, who really did exist--could have been a fascinating character study. Instead, he is reduced to a straw figure who mouths whatever sentiments Carpentier feels like writing.
Actually, the entire work feels like theatrical scenes revealed by curtains that the author open and closes at random. . Carpentier is actually wonderful about writing about the thinginess of things, and the mud splashes on velvet, the dust on a crystal glass, the smell of the foodstuffs rotting away in the store holds of the business that the orphaned cousins are too lazy to sort and inventory--give a vivid feeling to Havana as a stage set. The prettily described puppets open and close their mouths, and then are whisked off to another set. The narrative seems both too close-in--trained on the little dolls--and simultaneously too far away--as Carpentier remotely describes the grand machinery of the revolution. None of the characters--Victor Hugues, Enrique, or Sophia, have any life to them. I have read a preposterous thesis on this book that proclaimed Sophia to be the most perfectly "built" feminine character in Cuban literature. Please. And as to her being wise, as her name seemingly suggests, I can only say that the annoying arm-candy girl comes to a ridiculous end. Indeed, there is an undercurrent of misogyny that I can't quite put my finger on, but I can feel it, and it disturbs me profoundly. Even the title in English ended up disappointing me, as there was no thrilling Dumas-like let's blow up the cathedral adventure; instead it referred to a damaged canvas of a cathedral hanging in the orphans' mansion. Of course
I had hoped to read this book all the way through in both English and Spanish. I disliked it more and more the farther I got into what passed for a plot, so I ended up reading the second half only in English, just so that I could free myself of the novel. Carpentier does have a wonderful texture to his writing style, and the translator John Sturrock, did an admirable job. I understand that, but I don't get why this book is so revered in Cuba. Instead of feeling enlightened by the book (ironically due to its title) I felt alienated by the contents, by the pretentiousness, and the misogyny. Instead of the book forming a bridge to another culture, it ending up deepening the chasm.