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Retracing the steps of humanity
, 27 July 2007
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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