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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical prose and a musical theme, 2 Dec 2006
This review is from: The Lost Steps (Paperback)
Carpentier's `LS' is the story of an academic and composer who revives a long abandoned project to collect lost and forgotten musical instruments from remote corners of the world. Originally, he and his mistress, a wannabe bohemian trapped in her narrow western mindset, view the trip as little more than a jolly, and decide to fake the instruments rather than actually search for them. However, a revolution in the (unnamed) South American state they find themselves in forces them deeper into the jungle they had been trying to avoid. The composer's distance from the world he is used to awakens a dormant passion for life that forces him to decide between his old life and a new one in the jungle. `TLS' is a real `Heart of Darkness' book, except that civilisation is to be found in the jungle, and it is the cities being left behind where the savages live.

`TLS' is set apart from other similar books by the role played by music in the composer's reawakening. Music, and the composer's attitude to it, is a constant reference point and charts his development as a character. When he hears the refined classical music of Europe in conjunction with the ongoing holocaust, it causes him to doubt traditional definitions of civilisation and progress. The first victim of the coup in the South American town is European Choirmaster, who is shot while defiantly enjoying an almost colonial decadence in the midst of poverty. His shooting is an allegory for the death of the old music in the composer's mind. From then on, his music comes from more natural sources: the sounds of animals, of wind, of running water. Carpentier repeatedly describes the sounds of every new environment the composer encounters, not merely as sounds, but in terms of music. As he gains the ability to hear the music as the world sings it, rather than simply just detached and intellectualised, as it has been tamed by humans, his contempt for his wife and mistress, and for his old life as a whole, grows. This theme, of the rediscovery of natural music, is brilliantly realised by Carpentier, and expertly serves to turn traditional definitions of civilisation on their heads.

I have rarely been so completely engrossed in a novel as I was by `TLS'. The writing is as lyrical as a Malcolm Lowry, and flows beautifully on the page. The musical theme is matched by equally musical prose, and the central idea was brilliantly realised, so that I had no problem seeing what Carpentier was trying to achieve, despite its subtlety. `TLS' is world literature at its very best, and a strong recommendation from me.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Retracing the steps of humanity, 27 July 2007
Trevor Coote "Trevor Coote" (Tahiti, French Polynesia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Lost Steps (Paperback)
Unfulfilled by writing commissioned film scores and disillusioned by the pretence and vacuity of his life in New York, a composer takes up an offer to go to the Amazon jungle to look for the rudimentary musical instruments that would provide evidence of a theory about the origin of music that he had developed as a student. The original plan of taking the money and his lover and defrauding the university so that they could enjoy an extended holiday in South America goes badly wrong when they unexpectedly get caught up in a revolution there and are forced into the jungle. Travelling at first with his mistress from New York and then with a mestizzo lover taken up along the way, the book describes in wonderful Baroque prose the awesome scale and sense of time reversal that he experiences in his dark, dripping travels into a world of perpetual greenness. He senses that he is retracing the steps of humanity. Finally, deep in the jungle he is faced with having to make an almost mystical choice about his life and life work. The `simple' life is uncompromisingly portrayed in its pitiless and raw brutality and yet somehow the `noble savage' still retains the essence of humanity, a survivor in the natural world stripped of the worthless accoutrements and gadgets of modern life. This is at once adventure, allegory, love story, morality tale, and academic tract, but above all it is storytelling at its majestic best, a minor masterpiece of post-war literature.
Carpentier was the first writer to coin the phrase `magical realism' where myths, fables and religion are interwoven into narratives without faithful adherence to time or reality. The form is taken to its extreme in Garcia Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, and these two authors remain magical realism's most accomplished exponents. Although the style has influenced writers worldwide, for me it doesn't seem to work beyond Latin America.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An odyssey back to the origin, 30 Oct 2005
G. Coldham (UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The lost steps (Hardcover)
An anthropologist flees his vacuous lifestyle in New York and travels to South America. Venturing into the jungle, the unnamed protagonist immerses himself in another world and finds peace among the primal societies there.
If you like the Mexican feature film: "CABEZA DE VACA", then you'll love this novel, which is full of literary allusions.
The language is tediously over-elaborate at times.
However, this work has elements of Proust + Conrad's Heart of Darkness woven into an allegory which retraces a mystic history of Spain & la conquista back to the innocence of the pre-conquest.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Further endorsement, 7 April 2008
Sporus (Yorkshire, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Lost Steps (Paperback)
Not much to add to the two extant and excellent reviews here. This is a minor classic. The language is angular rather than baroque. Carpentier obviously foraged on architectural dictionaries. At times you think the book is about to stall, but the utterly admirable translation keeps winning through and on a re-read there are some magnificent passages here. There's not much irony to offset the slightly dated attitude towards women or the equally dated sense of the innate superiority of the intellectual. The 'revelations' about the origins of music and the didactic aesthetic pale in the light of - say - Mann's 'Dr Faustus' or Broch's 'Death of Virgil' (both of which have arthritic qualities, too). If you like your (capital 'L') literature 'over-easy' (Scott Fitzgerald, say, or Garcia Marquez) then you won't care much for TLS; Carpentier tries harder and it shows in both a good way and a bad way. But I shouldn't be carping like this: I should be fainting with damn praise...
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Lost Steps
Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier (Paperback - 15 April 2001)
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