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26 Jun 12 | Re: Searing historical novella

Revisiting some of the authors I read for my degree, I’ve just read The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier. It’s a little masterpiece that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone reading this. Look - here it is for two pounds! Or why not order it from your local library? Or I could lend it to you if you come round to my house in a Web 1.5 kind of style.

It’s a novella about the Haitian slaves’ struggle for independence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Given its scope it’s quite astonishingly brief: the edition I have is well under 200 pages, in massive type, with generous margins, including an introduction. But it’s all in there. If you are interested in the nature of power and revolution, or the psychology of oppression, or religion, or the sparks that fly when cultures grind on each other, or myth, or the relationship between history and myth, then there is something in this book for you. There’s also a magic one-armed shape-shifting witch doctor and a fortress built out of the blood of thousands of slaughtered bulls - at least one of which ACTUALLY EXISTED, apparently. You can visit it if you go to Haiti.

If that’s not enough, this is one of the novels that helped kick off the whole Latin American magical realism trend. Pedro Paramo has a strong claim as well, but you can certainly see the origin of the kind of writing that eventually gave the world One Hundred Years of Solitude, Catch-22 and the rest. (Yes, Catch-22 is magic realist.)

That said, to my mind this work is part of a broader literary tradition than the magic realism category might allow. Here’s that passage I like to quote from 2666:

the way the stories followed one another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbours, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely.

The Kingdom of This World is cauldron literature at its most violently boiling. Any plot is secondary to the ideas and the images. The former crystallise vague notions you’ve been reaching for for years; the latter stay seared into your mind’s eye for, well, a couple of weeks so far in my case.

Also in the cauldron literature category I would put Wuthering Heights, King Lear, 2666 itself obviously, A Hundred Years of Solitude and various other (but not all, perhaps not most) magical realist cousins, among others. These are works set in wild, remote environments where people are dwarfed by their conditions; where no explanation can be ruled out for any event; where struggle counts, but only delays the moment when the waters close over one’s head. They are at their best when things are unexplained and the reader is left to puzzle bleakly over the omens set before him (or her). If you’ve seen Andrea Arnold’s recent adaptation of Wuthering Heights then you might know what I’m getting at. I’m amazed that The Kingdom of This World seems never to have been filmed, and I think Andrea Arnold would be the person to do it.

Posted by DOCTOR PERALTA at 13:23

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