It’s been a bit quiet around here lately – I’ve just started a new job, which I’m loving so far, but it’s been slightly crazy.
But now it is time to tell you about a little gem I found at a wonderful bookshop specialised in foreign languages* a few weeks ago: Alejo Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo.
Taking the gem allegory even further, if García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) is a big, fat, show-offy diamond, or Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) a mysterious, deep ruby, then El reino de este mundo is a small, unassuming precious stone. Tiny, but rather pretty.
It’s the story of a Latin American country that’s different from all the others, right up until today: Haiti. The first Latin American colony/country to abolish slavery and first to become independent in 1804, today it is the only country in the region that has the dubious honour of remaining a member of the club of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) rather than a middle-income one.
El reino de este mundo tells the decline and fall of French colonial rule over Haiti, and the country’s first steps as a nation. It begins with the first uprisings of the black population under the leadership of François Mackandal and ends with the mulattoes taking over leadership. Only recently liberated from slavery, people first come under the dictatorship of Henri Christophe, a black absolutist monarch, a sort of cruel Napoleon of Haiti, and then under the leadership of another minority, just that this time the ruling caste is only half-white.
The story of Haiti’s independence and early independent years is also the story of Ti Noel, who begins as a slave and dies a free man, but time and time again he has been subjugated by others. Ti Noel’s story is the red thread of El reino de este mundo, while throughout, other characters that illustrate the particular episode of Haiti’s history are introduced.
Haiti has an incredibly rich and powerful spiritual culture, blending Christianity with native African rites and beliefs to create Vodou (which, as I learned, is about more than sticking needles into dolls). El reino de este mundo is not magical-realist in the way that people can levitate or it suddenly rains for years on end, like in García Márquez’s novels. Carpentier makes clear that it is the characters who believe that people have the power to turn themselves into animals or do magic. He abstracts a little, but nevertheless doesn’t question such ideas. It’s just how things are. Carpentier himself, as he explains in the introduction to my edition (Alianza Editorial), sees his small novel well within the Latin American tradition of lo real maravilloso, and El reino de este mundo is quite influential in this respect.
El reino de este mundo is carefully historically researched, but because of the unquestioning incorporation of people’s beliefs, it is not a history book. I enjoyed it because I actually knew very little of Haitian history and it definitely whetted my appetite to find out more. Nevertheless, and I blame this on the novel’s shortness, the secondary characters remain a bit fuzzy and undefined, like Paulina Bonaparte, who was part of the French mission sent to keep Haiti (Saint-Domingue by the French name of the colony) under control. The most finely chiselled character is Ti Noel, whom I really grew to like. The other figures seemed like silouettes – the evil slave owner, the cruel dictator, and so on. I didn’t really get a feel for them.
Verdict: overall, I enjoyed El reino de este mundo. But I went into it expecting a sensual explosion similar to the one I’d had years ago when reading one of Carpentier’s later novels, Los pasos perdidos, and I didn’t get that – it’s good, but I came away just a tad disappointed.
English title: The Kingdom of this World
German title: Das Reich von dieser Welt
* Everyone who goes there should visit Buchhandlung Wetzlar in Heidelberg (address: Plöck 79). It’s the kind of cozy tiny bookshop that overwhelms you with nostalgia and suddenly makes Amazon seem like a nasty predator rather than The Really Practical Place On The Internet That Ships Books Fast.