Analysis of Alejo Carpentier’s The Harp and the Shadow

The Harp and the Shadow (1979) is the fifth novel by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (1904–80). Carpentier, a master of the modern Latin American novel, is credited with coining the term magic realism. As implied by its title, the novel explores the darkness that often resides beneath a glorious and beautiful facade. Carpentier identifies this duality in the figure of Christopher Columbus, who reveals his sinister side in a deathbed monologue. Through integrating historical, mythic, and fictional material, Carpentier’s narrative moves from a valorous and altruistic depiction of Columbus (“the Harp”) to an egotistical and duplicitous one (“the Shadow”). Written during a time when cancer was spreading throughout Carpentier’s body, The Harp and the Shadow is a poignant examination of the distortions to which worldly works are subject after the death of their creator.

The novel takes as its starting point the prospect of Christopher Columbus’s saintly canonization. In the opening chapter, Pius XI reflects upon his long-standing conviction that “the perfect way to join together the Christian faithful of the old and new worlds . . . was to find a saint whose fame was unlimited, incontrovertible, a saint of planetary wingspan, a saint so enormous, even larger than the Colossus of Rhodes.” The pope is also compelled by the political advantages that signing such a decree would bring to his papacy. But while Columbus’s achievements seem to symbolize Catholicism’s global reach and resonance, the explorer’s less laudable acts (allegedly including adultery, enslavement, and fraud) would seem to contraindicate sainthood. These qualities begin to emerge in the second chapter of the novel, where a dying Columbus recalls his voyages to the Americas. He confesses to profound greed, referring to a section in his diaries where the word gold appears more than 200 times, while God is mentioned only 14 times. Columbus speaks at length about his sexual conquests, his unbridled lust for glory, and the “deceptions and intrigues [he] practiced for years and years, trying to gain the favor of the princes of the earth, hiding the real truth behind feigned truths, citing authority for my claims with allusions expertly selected from the Writings.” Columbus admits that when his professed treasures failed to materialize in the New World, he “requested license for the slave trade.” At the end of the novel, the ghost of Columbus witnesses the investigation into his canonization, at which the Catholic ministers find him to be unworthy of sainthood. With the canonization rejected, Columbus’s ghost is left to wander the earth aimlessly, repeatedly lamenting, “They screwed me.”

Historical accuracy in The Harp and the Shadow is subordinated to the demands of characterization and the development of the novel’s larger themes—namely, the deceptiveness of veneers and the addictive nature of fame. In his reconstruction of Columbus’s undertakings, Carpentier often swerves from the historical record. The explorer’s affair with Queen Isabella, for example, is unsubstantiated in the historical literature; the queen’s apparent sexual motivation for funding Columbus’s voyages is particularly suspect. Although in itself a probable embellishment, the erotic element introduced by Carpentier may be read as a metaphor for Columbus’s general drive to conquer territory at whatever cost—financial, ethical, or otherwise. “I penetrated them all,” boasts Columbus after cataloguing his lovers, but the statement could equally be applied to the lands and cultures he invaded. Furthermore, Carpentier’s distortion of the truth emulates Columbus’s own fabrications; the explorer admits: “I speak of gold mines where I know of none. I speak of pearls, many pearls, merely because I see some mussels that ‘signal their presence.’ ” When arguing for enslavement, Columbus insists that the Indians are docile and obedient, but when required to explain his severe disciplinary methods, Columbus describes the slaves as ferocious cannibals. Indeed, Columbus claims different things depending upon his objectives—and Carpentier, in his historiography, exercises similar liberties.

Carpentier’s blend of fact and fiction refl ects a (quintessentially postmodern) suspicion of historical “truths.” This suspicion is implied in The Harp and the Shadow when Pius XI unwisely attributes infallibility to one biographer’s account of Columbus; he thinks, “Count Roselly of Lorgues could not have been mistaken. He was a scrupulous, dedicated historian, completely trustworthy; and he had maintained that the great mariner had lived his entire life with an invisible halo over his head.” But as literary critic Hayden White has argued, “To historicize is to mythologize. History is never history of, it is always history for. It is not only history for in the sense of being written with some ideological aim in view, but also history for in the sense of being written for a specific social group or public.” By drawing from sources that are generally excluded from officially sanctioned representations of the past—such as folklore, fable, autobiography and psychological speculation—Carpentier casts historical scholarship as but one of many lenses through which the past can be studied.

In The Conquest of America, Tvzetan Torodov asserts, “We are all direct descendants of Columbus.” Although the explorer’s cultural and geographical legacies are profound, the figure of Columbus also exemplifies the ambitious drives to which all people are, to varying degrees, susceptible. It is this aspect—Columbus as monomaniacal “wielder of illusions”—that renders the man particularly evocative as a literary subject. In The Harp and the Shadow, Carpentier describes Columbus “pursuing a country never found that fades away like a castle of enchantments . . . [following] vapors, seeing things that never become intelligible, comparable, explicable, in the language of the Odyssey or in the language of Genesis.” Though on an epic scale, Columbus’s struggles and self-deceptions are universal ones, encoded again in the “mystical vision” that the young Pius XI contemplates while crossing the Chilean plains; he recalls “an allegory in which a man is placed in a corridor without beginning or end and spends years trying, through science and learning, to push back the enclosing walls that limit his vision; gradually he succeeds, gradually he makes them recede, but no matter how far he pushes them, he can never manage to destroy them.”

Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto. Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Harvey, Sally. Carpentier’s Proustian Fiction: The Infl uence of Marcel Proust on Alejo Carpentier. London: Tamesis, 1994.
Pancrazio, James J. The Logic of Fetishism: Alejo Carpentier and the Cuban Tradition. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2004.
Shaw, Donald Leslie. Alejo Carpentier. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.
Tulsay, Bobs M. Alejo Carpentier: A Comprehensive Study. Vaencia and Chapel Hill, N.C.: Albatros Hispanófi la, 1982.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: