Category Archives: Carpentier

Carpentier III.ix y la 9a sinfonía de Beethoven

Aquí dirige Arturo Toscanini la 9a sinfonía de Beethoven, que escucha el narrador de Los pasos perdidos en la radio al principio del capítulo III y que le recuerda la vida su padre, que tocaba el corno. Por las vicisitudes de la primera guerra mundial no había podido el padre seguir tocando para la ópera y abrió una tienda de música en Cuba. A cada tanto imitaba, sin embargo, el conductor de una orquesta imaginaria que tocaba la 9a sinfonía (el padre cantaba mientras dirigía).

El narrador escucha la radio y se deja llevar. Recuerda la cultura de su infancia y su vida de joven. Murió la madre y el padre llevó a su hijo a los EEUU. Allí no le fue mejor que en Cuba, y empezó el padre a idealizar Europa con su gran historia cultural. El hijo, nuestro narrador, se ilusiona. Juntos idealizan a los obreros inspirados que habrían escuchado la 9a sinfonía. [NOTA BENE: ES LA IDEA DEL TRABAJADOR NOBLE Y CULTO, Y EL ARTE PARA EL PUEBLO.]

Cuando el padre muere, el narrador se va a Europa y no encuentra el paraíso cultural sino las preparaciones para la segunda guerra mundial. Todo le parece falso, inauténtico. Decide volver a América pero antes visita una vieja ciudad francesa, Blois, con una catedral famosa. En otra iglesia ve la pintura de una danza macabra y relaciona la antigua idea de la vanidad de la vida en la Tierra con el momento presente. Recuerda la sinfonía, que encuentra irritante, y ve la noticia del estallo de la guerra.

Sigue pensando en la sinfonía y en los recuerdos de la infancia, y ahora de la madre, que le trae. Recuerda a Ma. del Carmen y un encuentro erótico infantil con ella. Sigue recordando la sinfonía y las varias asociaciones personales que tiene con ella. Le parece que es una “sinfonía en ruinas.” La cultura está también en ruinas y la modernidad es un “horror.” [LATER HE WOULD END UP AS A MILITARY INTERPRETER AT THE END OF THE WAR, AND WILL INTERPRET TESTIMONY ABOUT TORTURE; NOW HE THINKS THIS SYMPHONY IN RUINS WOULD BE THE PERFECT BACKGROUND MUSIC FOR A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THAT.]

Importante: se da cuenta que los torturadores en esta guerra escucharon en su vida privada esta sinfonía y otras. LA CULTURA ES INSUFICIENTE COMO REMEDIO AL MAL. Y ganar la 2a guerra mundial no fue suficiente: él, así como el sueño de la cultura, quedaron rotos. El narrador quiere ahora la verdadera autenticidad. Masca un chile. Mira la selva donde está y la ve con nuevos ojos.

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Posted by on March 25, 2008 in Carpentier


Los pasos perdidos – capítulo tercero

Hey! Don’t forget to read earlier entries on this novel – they are helpful, and contain instructions and plans – and links to additional study questions – those are good.

Notice the epigraph, from an ancient Mayan text. We went from Deuteronomy (on suffering, essentially) to Shelley (on “scenting life”), to this, about freeing oneself, getting on the road, and shedding unnecessary burdens.

viii. Argument with Mouche about going or not. She feigns illness. He ignores her. They are going backwards in time and everything has new proportions. Nature is greater than man (like in Sarmiento’s pampas). They get to a village which reminds him of El Toboso in the Quixote, i.e. in a book of early 17th century Spain, that was excerpted in one of his elementary school readers. It is the town where the hero’s lover lives. They then rescue from altitude sickness a beautiful, mixed race woman who resembles a figure in ancient Greek art (considered, in turn, to resemble a Parisian woman). She seems to communicate most immediately with him. He thinks that mixed race people may be superior. They establish themselves for the night in another village, very humble. He is feeling more and more natural, more and more as he did when he was a child. Mouche goes to bed. He runs into the beautiful woman again – Rosario. She has been on a mission of devotion – literally – on behalf of her father. She is beautiful and pure. He contemplates the fire (as ancient people did). He has not done this in a long time.

ix – xvii (brief summary – see specifics, just below). He is coming into more and more contact with himself. He thinks about life and Europe; from it, his father remembers civilization, but he remembers barbarism. Meantime they start traveling up the river. They get to where Rosario lives. Her father has died and there is an emotional funeral. But now she is, in a sense, free. The narrator is obsessed with her, and is happy that Mouche invites her to keep traveling with them. There are other interesting characters and allusions to the Odyssey – in which, as you know, Odysseus is on his tortuous way home. By the end of this section events have accumulated and he has rough sex that seals their bodies together in a sort of pact that may be “el comienzo de un nuevo modo de vivir” [sic]. The last page of section xvii reads almost like soft porn!!! Sex, we remember, hasn’t worked out too well with Mouche on this trip since she is always sick. Rosario, on the other hand, desires the narrator, and he caresses her “con mano de amo.” With this gesture he “cierra una gozosa confluencia de sangres que se encontraron.”

ix. He is still sitting by the fire, contemplating it like a primitive man, after a conversation with Rosario in which she seems like a magical prehistoric woman connected with a living Nature. He hears a band play the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

xviii. They send Mouche back with the doctor. He gives the doctor almost all his money – money isn’t necessary in the jungle (where he has “become Tarzan?”). Rosario serves him as a true man deserves, and everyone sees it. She is his house, he is her dweller [sic]. The friar wants the narrator to get married; the narrator can’t say, of course, that he already is and in a “rito hereje” (not in the Catholic church). The Greek miner has a copy of the Odyssey with him and seems like a character in it – because, in part, of the ancient Mediterranean way he dresses the boar he has hunted. This section ends, once again, with a rather overdone passage on sex with Rosario. They are getting naturally better at it – they are inventing their own secret language – she calls him by his name (note that up until now he hasn’t had one, and we don’t know his name). They (and four others) are traveling now in two primitive canoes, navigating by the stars.

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Posted by on March 18, 2008 in Carpentier


Savage Minds, Lost Steps


1. Today I ran across a blog called Savage Minds which also has a Facebook group. Its title refers to the famous French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ classic book, which you should not leave this course without having at least heard of. It was written in the 1960s and it criticizes and counters the idea that the “savage mind” is essentially different from the “civilized” or modern one.

2. People who have not scheduled oral presentations should do so!

3. Spring Break reading: a) Finish Los pasos perdidos and consider it in relationship to anything in Torgovnick, but especially chapters 4-6. That is the basis of our WRITING EXERCISE, due the TUESDAY WE COME BACK. b) Get hold of THE VORTEX – it’s our next reading (see the syllabus / reading list).

In class that Tuesday, we’ll talk about the writing and I will discuss Torgovnick, chapter 9, and introduce THE VORTEX.

I will expand this post this evening/this week to include SOME NOTES on chapters 2-4 of THE LOST STEPS. Notes on chapters 5-6 will appear later in the week.


We discussed this chapter (albeit briefly) in class Thursday. In it, note:

+ the  narrator’s reaction upon arriving in the tropical city. It is anarchical: the jungle keeps growing up through the buildings, which are themselves a sort of jungle. There are signs of architecture from the time of the conquest, the colony, the Independence era, and the present day. The roots of trees keep pushing the buildings out of place. There are many signs of modernity but there is a sort of “malignant pollen” in the air which breaks things down. People explain this by referring to a semi-mythical or metaphorical “Worm.”

+ as the plane started to land, the narrator regretted the voyage, but landing and hearing Spanish spoken makes him glad to be there. Among other things, the language lets him lord it over Mouche.  

+ he is at this point still hoping to buy the musical instruments in the city. Originally the plan was to buy fake ones, but now he hopes to find real ones in a flea market. Note: he is going to get increasingly disgusted with fake things in general, and go for the real ones. They don’t find anything, but Mouche buys a trinket she finds marvelous (it “is” Rimbaud’s black seahorse, i.e. the image of an image in a decadent French poem). He, on the other hand, smells a basil bush and is reminded of a little girl he had a crush on as a child in Latin America.


+ Awake in the middle of the night. Nature and culture both seem marvelous to him and bring back memories. Mouche is taking up too much room in the bed. She had a crisis (of happiness) the night before, so they couldn’t have sex (?) and he gave her a sleeping pill. He looks at the city and thinks of art. Everything seems very alive.

+ Earlier in the evening they went to the opera, and he felt nostalgic and open instead of laughing (he had expected to find this opera ridiculous). Mouche, on the other hand, thought the performance was bad, and although it wasn’t really great, he is insulted. Then they have a marvelous walk, but Mouche says she is tired and they have to go home. Now, watching her sleep, he laughs at her, but she doesn’t wake up, so he goes out in the dawn to look for the musical instruments.

+ The city continues to be marvelous and he keeps remembering a famous Baroque Spanish poem which was quoted in the grammar book he had as a child. Then there is a revolution (of course, they always have those in South America 😉 ), although Mouche sleeps through the first part of it.

+ He investigates the revolution, asks people about it, and they are fighting very old battles. Eventually he and Mouche actually see people get shot. Mouche meets a nice Canadian woman and he goes to get a drink, to get over the sight of the cadavers. Then he and Mouche get drunk together and have sex, correctly at last, and for the first time in a long time he sleeps well without a mask or sleeping pills.


+ The next day they can’t leave town, as it is under siege. People in the hotel start getting worried about running out of food and water, about epidemics. The servants left last night to join the revolution, and their absence is inconvenient and scary. The manager says it is all the fault of the Worm. And, in fact, the worms seem to appear, as well as ants.

+ The narrator goes with the manager to see about provisions, and everyone decides to drink…and the jungle seems to be taking over, indeed. Civilization is breaking down quickly. Drunk, the narrator decides to look for Mouche, whom he had left hanging out with the Canadian woman, and he gets lost in a labyrinth of corridors and rooms in the top stories of the hotel. It is all very strange and yet very familiar (like a house he’s already been in long ago) … and dimensions seem to be all mixed up; he loses his sense of reality for a while.

+ He goes back to his room and falls asleep. when he wakes up Mouche is there with the Canadian. The revolution is over, but there is still a curfew. There are no flights out with seats open, and the Canadian inivites them to spend time in her house in the hills.

+ He goes out to get cigarrettes since there are none in the hotel and shooting starts again; he takes refuge in a store. In the hotel they are having a party and he is afraid Mouche will sleep with someone else. There is still fighting, but a sargeant accompanies him back to the hotel. Everything seems to him to be a sort of prelude or prefiguring of coming events.

+  In the hotel the Kappelmeister has been shot. Civilization has definitely fallen apart and Mouche is having a nervous crisis. The Canadian woman says they will all definitely go to her house in the morning.


+ They get to the hills, and the house is in a beautiful old town (note: they are moving back in time, from the modern to the colonial era). He quickly identifies fifteen charming sights. However, he does not like the Canadian woman, because Mouche does. And he and Mouche are not getting along, they are not sintonizados. Mouche can’t see anything she hasn’t read about in books. She hangs out with the Canadian woman and talks. He is jealous but cannot catch her in anything.

+ They meet these musicians, a white, an Indian, and a Black one. Mouche speaks to them of Paris, but he asks them about their own country. They are not interested in the jungle – there is no culture there. They are more interested in the city and in European things. The narrator thinks this will end up emptying them, and will keep them from doing anything original. He is more interested in the voices of nature. And they play modern music.

+ He goes down to the bar for a taste of local firewater. There he hears an indigenous harpist play. The music seems very ancient and wonderful. The dances, rhythms, and scale system all seem new and different to the narrator. But the police come to enforce the curfew.

+ Because of the revolution hard currency is worth much more than it was. There is money to go to the jungle, and in the circumstances this is the best thing to do: get honest. The narrator buys bus tickets for the voyage, and feels great because now is the first time he has felt capable of imposing his will upon Mouche.

There is a whole lot more in this chapter on impressions and values, and the narrator’s change of attitude. Throughout, his foil is Mouche. Notice that he was a more like her in his orientation when they first set out – now he has gone through a process of transformation and has moved light years away from her (so to speak). 

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Posted by on March 17, 2008 in Carpentier


Los pasos perdidos: some more study questions for the first half



Some thoughts to get you/us going (see also earlier notes and study questions):

+ Epigraphs and quotations: from what texts? What do they suggest, where do they lead us?

+ References to works of art: which works of art (and literature)? (Why so many?) What do these references suggest, where do they lead us?

+ Women, sex, death … in the PRIMITIVE LAND and in the jungle … how are these things associated (if/when they are), how and why are they important to the protagonist, his discoveries, his apparent regeneration?

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Posted by on March 12, 2008 in Carpentier


LOS PASOS PERDIDOS – continuando

FIJENSE TAMBIEN EN ESTOS APUNTES (ANTERIORES, con preguntas para el estudio y todo).


Se va el narrador al apartamento de Mouche y la espera. Ella es astróloga (lo cual quierer decir que interpreta un cielo imaginado, no el verdadero). Cree en el surrealismo y tiene objetos primitivos y arte surrealista en la casa (v. Torgovnick!). Es una persona artificial y artificiosa pero con quien el narrador a veces logra la “animalidad.”

Mouche y sus amigos llegan y presentan la película del narrador. Les encanta y quieren pasarla otra vez, y otra, pero es un film publicitario…  No es arte, no es genuino, etc.  Se puede justificar con comparaciones con obras producidas en el pasado, que eran “comerciales” y ahora se ven como arte pura, pero esto no acaba de convencerle al narrador.

Piensa el narrador en Mouche y su yoga, que supuestamente le va a ayudar a dominarse; esto tampoco no lo acaba de convencer. Toda la gente conocida busca descubrir algo profundo, o crear algo profundo, y el narrador ha pensado en estudiar sus conversaciones (para demostrar lo vertiginoso que es el proceso del pensamiento y el lenguaje).

Y es que en esta ciudad moderna hay dos tipos de hombres: los mercaderes, y estos bohemios. Al narrador le cansan ambos tipos de hombre: se necesita una tercera alternativa. Y la propuesta del Curador le resulta en este contexto atractivo.

Mouche quiere ir a la selva con el narrador y buscar FALSOS instrumentos musicales, usando el dinero del viaje para divertirse en la gran ciudad tropical. Esto le choca al narrador por la falta de autenticidad. Quiere hacer el viaje, pero hacerlo en serio.

Al otro día va a la Universidad y firma el contrato. Ve reproducciones de obras de arte y piensa en los museos que ha visitado, con cuadros de la vida de edades anteriores. Piensa en selvas profundas, tierras sin caminos, en las culturas primeras.


Study question: compare the epigraph of chapter I (Deuteronomy) and chapter II (Shelley) – what has changed? 

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Posted by on March 10, 2008 in Carpentier


LOS PASOS PERDIDOS 1.1-2: apuntes

Fíjense también en las preguntas para el estudio de esta novela ya colgadas en este sitio.


Abre el capítulo con la descripción del escenario donde Ruth, esposa del narrador, está presa desde hace casi 5 años por su contrato con una compañía teatral. La obra sobre la Guerra Civil estadounidense que hubiera sido la entrada de Ruth al mundo del teatro se ha convertido para ella en un tipo de esclavitud.

Sic simper tyrannis – la creatividad se ha convertido en repetición. La carrera le parece cada vez más inalcanzable, y el narrador también se estanca en su trabajo. Hasta el sexo en la pareja se ha vuelto repetitivo, y en general las malas situaciones de trabajo han destruído la relación. Irónicamente él ha aceptado el trabajo que tiene para que ella pudiera ejercer su interés en el teatro; el resultado es que los dos están presos en trabajos sin interés.

El narrador está en el camerino de su mujer porque su compañía se va de viaje. Nos damos cuenta de que tiene él una amante, por la lejanía que hay en su pareja, y de que como acaba de terminar una película le tocan vacaciones al narrador.

Vuelve a casa y se siente solo; se da cuenta de que no ha vivido sin mediación (y sin comercialismo) en los últimos años. Todo es dinero, y el único alivio son diversiones sin contenido y excesos para hacer olvidar (e.g. la bebida).

Ahora los perfumes de Ruth huelen más bien a acetona. Piensa y piensa, las cosas decaen, se da cuenta de que debería ir a una piscine o un bosque, respirar aire puro, no quedarse solo. En la calle se detiene ante el museo, donde hay una exposición de arte abstracto. Casi entra, casi va al Planetario, acaba caminando simlpemente. Hay tantas posibilidades … podría, por ejemplo, leer algo en lengua castellana (la suya, pero que casi no habla ya).

También le atrae el Prometheus Unbound de Shelley. Y no sabe qué hacer, y está enojado por el desvanecimiento de su matrimonio.

Siente ganas de ir donde haya árboles, y en eso empieza a caer una lluvia torrencial cuyas primeras goats recuerda el narrador como la advertencia primera de un encuentro.

Debemos buscar el comienzo de todo, de seguro, en la nube que reventó en lluvia aquella tarde, con tan inesperada violencia que sus truenos parecían truenos de otra latitud.


Llueve. Entra el narrador a un salon de conciertos. Medita sobre la música como forma de ordenar el tiempo. Normalmente no va a conciertos porque el trabajo como compositor commercial quita el gusto de la música. Brota la 9a sinfonía de Brahms y se va el narrador, porque no aguanta la música “sublime.” Busca un bar, y se encuentra con el Curador que dice tenerle un regalo.

La casa del Curador es como un anacronismo, dice el narrador. Se da cuenta el narrador que no ha dado cuerda a su reloj. Está irritado con todo el narrador hasta que la sirvienta encuentra su regalo: un disco con el sonido de una flauta primitiva que imita el sonido de los pájaros, y que comprobaría la teoría del narrador sobre el vínculo entre música y magia.

Anteriormente el narrador había empezado una cantata sobre el Prometheus Unbound. Lo abandonó y se dirigió a casa del Curador, donde había empezado a elaborar esa teoría sobre el origen de la música. Ahora el Curador, tras de escucharle al narrador insistir en lo vacío que está, arregla fondos para un viaje al lugar de origen de dicha flauta.

OJO: Este viaje hacia lo primitivo va a presentarse como solución posible del enajenamiento del hombre en la vida moderna.


Posted by on March 9, 2008 in Carpentier


Los pasos perdidos – apuntes y preguntas para el estudio

Fíjense en estas preguntas sobre el comienzo de la novela, que son buenas. Aquí hay más preguntas del mismo profesor, excelentes. Y hay una tercera hoja.

Con estas hojas, y el resumen del rincón del vago (yes, that’s a cheating site for Spanish high school students, I do believe, but we can turn it to good use) será más fácil la lectura.

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Posted by on March 3, 2008 in Carpentier