Analysis of Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World

The Kingdom of This World, the second novel by Cuban author Alejo Carpentier (1904–80), deals with the events surrounding the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). The novel is divided into four sections, each of which chronicles an important stage in the country’s independence movement. In the first section, Mackandal, a one-armed insurgent slave, uses ancient magic in an attempt to poison the French; though they bring about tremendous carnage, Mackandal’s machinations ultimately fail, and he is put to death. The second part of the novel describes a rebel outbreak led by Jamaican-born Dutty Boukman; although Boukman is executed, by 1803 the insurgents are sufficiently galvanized to overthrow the colonialists. The third section concerns the postrevolution reign of Henri Christophe, a former slave and selfdesignated king who lords over his minions with even greater cruelty than his French predecessors. The final chapter of the novel is set during the mulatto Boyer’s rule, which constitutes yet another phase of tyranny in Haitian history.

Although there is no traditional plot as such, the novel is unified by Ti Noel, who appears in each of the four sections and is depicted by turns as a slave, a squatting farmer, a disillusioned voodoo practitioner, and an advocate for humanity. Noel’s subjective interpretation of events functions to augment the novel’s historical material, which, sourced from a handful of records and documents, is necessarily limited in scope. When, for example, Noel is forced to partake in the construction of Christophe’s sumptuous palace, Sans Souci, he notes that this postrevolution regime is simply another version of the one implemented by the French colonialists: “Walking, walking, up and down, down and up, the Negro began to think that the chamber-music orchestras of Sans Souci, the splendor of the uniforms, and the statues of naked white women soaking up the sun on their scrolled pedestals among the sculptured boxwood hedging the fl ower beds were all the product of a slavery as abominable as that he had known on the plantation of M. Leonormand de Mezy.” Noel is mortified to see that the legacy of slavery has gone full circle—that his fellow black men are oppressed by an autocrat who is himself black.

Alejo Carpentier / UPF

Imbued with notions of human corruptibility and the insidious lure of dominance, Noel’s observations allow Carpentier not only to supplement and “humanize” the historical record but also to move beyond the novel’s particular context to produce a more general critique of power. Noel’s final transformation—he decides that voodoo is best applied toward the betterment of humankind—is likewise a moment of prescriptive commentary. Dwelling within the turbulence of the Haitian revolution and emerging enlightened, Noel comes to represent the possibility of conscience for a human species that is too often vicious, self-serving, and ignorant.

The Kingdom of This World, as with several of Carpentier’s other novels, both adheres to and deviates from the historical literature. In several key respects, Carpentier’s rendering of actual figures and events is accurate: The Haitian movement for independence unfolded much as the novel suggests; Mackandal, Boukman, Christophe, the French general Leclerc, and Paulina Bonaparte are characters drawn from history, and the ruins of Sans Souci are still visible in Haiti. These verisimilar elements work to advance Carpentier’s condemnation of surrealism, which, in the prologue to The Kingdom of This World, he deems fantastic to the point of being socially irrelevant. Furthermore, Carpentier’s efforts to “return to the real” produce a rich and rare account of revolutionary Haiti.

Although the Haitian Revolution was, in fact, the only successful slave revolution in the history of the Americas, it is largely absent from historical literature. In Tropics of Discourse, Hayden White states that “Our explanations of historical structures and processes are determined more by what we leave out of our representations than by what we put in”—and indeed the relative dearth of information about Carpentier’s topic speaks to the greater political forces of colonialism triumphing over the Occidental. Even during the Haitian Revolution, the reality of black slaves overthrowing the white French alarmed other colonial regimes, who were fearful of similar uprisings in their own states. As a consequence, alternate reasons (such as epidemic or white vs. white conflict) were commonly used to explain French deaths in Haiti during the revolutionary period. But as Michel-Rolph Troullot writes in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, “The silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within a narrative of global domination.” Thus, in addition to restoring a pivotal event to Latin America’s historical record, Carpentier’s novel works to expand cultural awareness of politically motivated historical omissions.

As well as making audible previously “silenced” historical episodes, Carpentier redefines what constitutes historical material per se by stressing the cultural significance of magic. In the prologue to The Kingdom of This World, the author muses, “For what is the history of Latin America but a chronicle of magical realism?” Magical realism, Fredric Jameson submits, “is not a realism to be transfigured by the supplement of a magical perspective, but a reality which is already in and of itself magical or fantastic.” Latin American culture, according to Carpentier, cannot be realistically represented without invoking supernatural and marvelous phenomena because these things form part of that culture’s conception of the real.

Carpentier is often credited with coining the term magic realism. In his essay “On the Marvelous Real in America,” Carpentier explains: “The marvelous begins to be unmistakably marvelous when it arises from an unexpected alteration of reality (the miracle), from a privileged revelation of reality an unaccustomed insight that is singularly favored by the unexpected richness of reality or an amplification of the scale and categories of reality perceived with particular intensity by virtue of an exaltation of the spirit that leads it to a kind of extreme state. To begin with, the phenomenon of the marvelous presupposes faith.” The real consequences of this “faith” are evinced in The Kingdom of This World when Mackandal is executed: Witnesses believe that he has escaped death by transforming into an insect; Noel, who is later believed to have similar powers, decides to employ magic toward improving the lives of his fellow people and not merely in service of his own needs and desires. The emancipation of slaves and the construction of a durable and civilized Haitian culture are thus aided by a magical worldview—a worldview that Carpentier scrupulously depicts in his fiction.

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, 1985.
Tulsay, Bobs M. Alejo Carpentier: A Comprehensive Study. Vaencia; Chapel Hill, N.C.: Albatros Hispanófila, 1982

Categories: Cuban Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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