Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier is a book that comes alive on several simultaneous levels. Ostensibly, it’s a novel about eighteenth century adventurers. Carlos, Sofia and Estaban emerge from the kind of familial challenges that beset most lives at some stage in any lifetime lived in that age. They are from Havana, a Spanish colony offering necessary and essential loyalty to a King, a King removed from local reality in both space and experience. But there is revolution in the air. France is blazing a trail towards a new, modern era, where birthright and privilege can be challenged, and the rational, alongside the just can be championed.
Our youngsters, orphaned and making their own way in life, come across a Frenchman called Victor Hughes. He travels around the Caribbean doing business, trading, dealing. He becomes a fundamental actor in the export of France’s new revolutionary values and Carlos, Sofia and Esteban witness much of what he attempts. In some places this is nothing less than the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of slaves and a recognition of their status as real human beings. Such is the metal of revolution.
And so, through the eyes of these young, idealistic travellers, we witness the introduction of Madame Guillotine to the colonies, her role presumably to impose the obvious rationality of the process. The travellers live through an albeit temporary experiment in emancipation for those previously regarded as sub-human. They encounter discussions on democracy, rights, human worth, justice and science. Thus Alejo Carpentier’s novel blends politics, history, philosophy and morality to examine how just some of the people of this era dealt with the challenges that the global change emanating from France was posing.
On another level, Explosion in a Cathedral, or A Century of Lights in its literal translation from the original Spanish title, is a novel about existence, itself. We are placed in an era when things now taken for granted, such as reaching maturity, marriage, childbirth or even influenza presented major hurdles, challenges to be negotiated and overcome. Nothing could be taken for granted, least of all, perhaps, any assumption of finding an adequate and regular supply of daily bread. And whatever life threw up, it was grasped, consumed, experienced, for there was no time to wait around, no presumption of second chance.
But perhaps the greatest achievement of this masterpiece is the magical realism of the descriptive writing. Even in translation, the experience is beyond vivid, the reality truly surreal in both its imagination and its immediacy. It is simultaneously completely real and yet also pure fiction, thus blending experience with imagination in a thoroughly memorable way. As the characters sail the Caribbean with their revolutionary message, the reader can feel the wind and spray, suffer the heat, share the coolness of the sea, taste the fish. The prose is exquisitely evocative, even in translation, and thus Alejo Carpentier’s descriptive writing alone provides adequate reason for reading the book. It’s like being alive in a painting that moves around you as you look at it.
Ultimately, the book addresses how ideals can be compromised by necessity, how enthusiasm, like the human beings that are driven by it, can mellow with age, can run out of the will to pursue a dream. It examines how assertion can easily become capitulation, how idealism can be exploited by the pragmatic.
Often time dulls what writers achieve. But in the case of Carpentier’s Explosion in a Cathedral, the book’s significance has perhaps even grown over the decades since its publication. It is worth noting that this text itself grew out of Cuba’s own revolutionary era, Cuba’s own attempt to remake a social order. And, in the light of subsequent events, of which Alejo Carpentier may have only speculated, the book seems to offer both prescience and comment. It remains a truly gigantic achievement.