tutorial, study guide, commentary, political background
Explosion in a Cathedral (1962) is a major novel by Alejo Carpentier that deals with the effects of the French revolution in the Caribbean. Its central character is based on a real person, Victor Hughes, a baker’s son from Marseilles, who became a leading figure in events on the colonial island of Guadeloupe.
The novel was first published in Spanish with the title El Siglo de las Luces. The English version was translated from the French edition whose title was Le Siecle des Lumiers. Carpentier spoke French but wrote in Spanish. The English translation is by John Sturrock, and its title is taken from a painting that figures in the narrative and symbolises the explosive nature of the revolution.
Explosion in a Cathedral – commentary
The political background
The subject of Carpentier’s novel is the effects of the French Revolution in the Caribbean. At that time in the late eighteenth century (The Age of Enlightenment) the islands of this region were occupied by colonising Europeans – the French, the Dutch, the English, and the Spanish – all of whom were intermittently at war with each other.
A near-neighbour was America, which had undergone its own revolution in 1776. They had defeated their colonial occupiers the British, and declared the Rights of Man (written by Englishman Thomas Paine). All of these European powers (and America) were squabbling for the material wealth created by these Caribbean colonies – wealth generated by the use of slave labour.
The novel begins in Havana, Cuba, which at that time was under Spanish rule. The action then passes on to Guadeloupe, which the French adventurer Victor Hughes seizes from the English. His companion Esteban is then despatched to Cayenne, the capital city of French Guiana, after which he returns to Havana.
The main drama of the French revolution and its decisions unfold in Paris, outside the events of the fictional narrative. The revolution itself has already taken place, and is followed by the Terror in which many of the original leaders are executed. There is then a counter-revolution which reverses many of the radical proposals of the original revolutionaries.
During this process of upheaval the revolution accepted the principles of the universal rights of man – and abolished slavery, on which French (and other) colonies were entirely dependent. This decision was later diluted then reversed, but for a short while some of these colonies became for the first time in history republics governed by former slaves. Carpentier’s earlier novel The Kingdom of this World (1949) deals with this process in Hispaniola (Haiti).
Revolution as disruption
There were three political problems affecting the entire region of the Antilles (the Caribbean). First was the rapacious conflict between European colonising powers. In the scramble for wealth, countries formed strategic alliances with their enemies, then dissolved them just as quickly and formed new ones.
Second was the ever-changing decrees promulgated by the revolutionary centre in Paris. Mandatory rules were harshly imposed, then replaced by their opposites. One moment a leading figure could be a Supreme Hero, next he could be declared an Enemy of the People – and executed. The revolution was making up these rules as it went along.
And the rules didn’t just affect Paris: they applied throughout the whole of the newly-proclaimed republic, which included mainland France and its many colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere. It is worth reflecting that Guiana, a country in Latin America almost on the equator, is still a colony of France, as is La Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean. (Ironies of history: both of these colonies are now part of the European Union.)
The third problem was the delay of up to several weeks before any new decrees arrived in the Caribbean after a sea passage across the Atlantic. Events were changing rapidly in the metropolitan centre of Paris, but they could only reach the colonies via a lengthy sea voyage. The colonial outposts were often enforcing a set of rules that had already been superseded weeks or even months previously.
There was a fourth problem – well illustrated in the figure of Victor Hughes. When new regulations reached the colony, they were not always obeyed. Victor Hughes, as a purist from the first phase of the revolution, was prepared to export the guillotine as a symbol of the revolution’s fanatical desire to eliminate its enemies. But when the counter-revolution moderated this fanaticism, he refuses to accept its revised directives.
Carpentier assumes that his readers know these principal events and the leaders of the revolution. He generally alludes to the main figures – Robespierre, Danton, and Saint-Just – without naming them, and they are certainly not foregrounded.
Apart from Hughes, the main historical character who appears in the novel is the lesser-known Billaud-Varenne. He was an important figure during the Terror, but he had been overthrown during the events of the counter-revolution (Thermidor) and he had been exiled to Cayenne in French Guiana. He is reduced almost to a figure of fun – rotting in the colony to which the revolution exported its prisoners.
Esteban witnesses the same phenomenon when he (rather improbably) goes to southern France and finds the Basques resistant to new and long-delayed directives arriving from Paris. The revolutionaries re-name towns, but so far as the local people are concerned, Chauvin-Dragon remains Saint-Jean-de-Luz, just as it always has been.
Carpentier is trying to capture the sweep of grand scale historical events, and as such he does not concentrate so much on the psychology of individual characters as is common in many traditional European novels. In this he adopts a remarkably similar approach to the historical novels of the writer Victor Serge, which deal with the effects of the Russian revolution. The two writers were near-contemporaries, but there is little reason to believe that they were aware of each other.
The three principal characters in a traditional sense are the siblings Carlos and Sofia, plus their orphan cousin Esteban. Carlos plays almost no part in the story, most of which concerns Esteban’s travels and his reaction to revolutionary events.
Esteban follows Victor Hughes throughout the Caribbean (even to France at one point) and gradually becomes more sceptical about the revolution. He is uneducated, and clings to the traditional religious beliefs of his fellow countrymen. In this sense he represents the view of the average person.
He is intimately connected with the Caribbean and its land and sea. But he also has higher aspirations and goals, even if he is unable to articulate them in any meaningful manner.
Sofia, as a female representative of the historical period, is forced to take a passive, background role. She is close to her brother and her cousin, and she shares their enthusiasm for revolutionary principles. But she is unable to ‘find’ herself, even in her brief marriage to Jorge, until she leaves Havana and travels to join Victor Hughes, the man who has awakened her dormant sexuality. When he betrays his revolutionary principles, she deserts him and joins Esteban in Spain.
Many critics of Carpentier’s novels observe that he often shows revolutions that degenerate into dictatorships, which then give rise to further revolts. They conclude from this that he has a cyclic view of history – one in which ‘history repeats itself’. That is, revolutions only lead to equally bloody counter-revolutions and no real progress is made. This seems to me an over-simplified and mistaken understanding of his work.
What Carpentier does not shirk as a responsible novelist is the fact that revolutions are violent and bloody events, often involving cruelty and injustice. But he does show very clearly that revolutions are a result of economic and class conflicts. More than that, he argues quite clearly that revolutions progress from below upwards, not as a result of decisions made by ruling elites.
In the context of the Caribbean, this is illustrated perfectly well by the case of the slave revolts – in which a dispossessed lower group (almost classless) rises against its oppressors – the owners and managers of the plantations. And as Carpentier points out, the abolition of slavery was not some altruistic diktat that arose from the good will of a Parisian committee. It was the outcome of numerous historical uprisings:
Ten years later the drums were beating in Haiti; in the Cap region the Muslim Mackandal, a one-armed man to whom lycanthropic powers were attributed, began a Revolution-by-Poison … Only seven years ago, just when it seemed that White Supremacy had been re-established on the continent, another black Mohammedan, Boukman, had risen in the Bosque Caiman in San Domingo, burning houses and devastating the countryside. And it was no more than three years ago that the negroes in Jamaica had rebelled again, to avenge the condemnation of two thieves who had been tortured in Trelawney Town.
A structural oddity
It should be reasonably clear that the structure of the novel is one that centres on the three orphaned relatives – Sofia, Carlos, and Esteban – confronted by a fourth man, Victor Hughes, who will change their lives. Esteban carries the main part of narrative events. It is through his eyes that we witness the early phases of the revolution in the Caribbean.
Later, the decay of revolutionary principles is witnessed by Sofia when she leaves Havana to join Hughes in his fiefdom at Cayenne in French Guiana. She becomes disenchanted by Hughes’ lack of principles and flees to Europe.
Carlos, who has been absent since the first pages of the novel, returns in its final chapter to uncover news of Sofia and Esteban in Madrid. They have remained committed to the earliest principles of the revolution and have disappeared into the fight to preserve them.
Yet there is an unexplained peculiarity about the structure of the novel. It actually begins with a short preface which is Esteban’s first-person account describing the erection of a guillotine on board La Pique as it sails for Guadeloupe. There is never any return to this first-person mode of delivering the story, nor is there any explanation offered for how this preface relates to the rest of the novel.
The reading experience
If you have not experienced the work of Alejo Carpentier before, your first exposure to this novel might seem rather strange, or the narrative almost laboured. He was trying to create a new approach to fiction which combined the traditions of European culture with the need to reflect the world of the central Americas and their exotic substance and histories.
In Explosion in a Cathedral he is also trying to show historical and political forces at work – with the result that interest in individuals takes a secondary place in the narrative. His emphasis is on social change and the ideological forces that shape society as a whole.
What no reader can be unaware of, even in translation, is his deep feeling for the physical world in which he sets the events of his narrative, the wide range of his interests, and the spectacular technical vocabulary with which he articulates his vision of the world.
Carpentier was a student of both music and architecture, and he has written on both these subjects, which are plainly evident in the novel. But he also demonstrates a profound feeling for topics as wide-ranging as oceanography, domestic furnishing, and even the fabrics of everyday clothing and the flavours and ingredients of ethnic cuisine.
The girandoles and chandeliers, the lustrous mirrors and glass shutters of Esteban’s childhood had reappeared … In a food shop, next door to a butcher’s where turtle meat was displayed alongside a shoulder of lamb studded with cloves of garlic, Esteban once more saw wonders he had quite forgotten – bottles of porter, thick Westphalia hams, smoked eels and red mullet, anchovies pickled in capers and bay leaves, and potent Durham mustard. Along the river cruised boats with gilded prows and lamps on their poops, their negro oarsmen wearing white loin-cloths, and paddling amidst awnings and canopies of bright silks or Genoa velvet. They had reached such a pitch of refinement that the mahogany floors were rubbed every day with bitter oranges, whose juice, absorbed by the wood, gave off a delicious aromatic perfume.
Explosion in a Cathedral – study resources
Explosion in a Cathedral (1962) – Amazon UK
El siglo de las luces (1962) – Amazon UK
Explosion in a Cathedral (1962) – Amazon US
El siglo de las luces (1962) – Amazon US
Explosion in a Cathedral – plot summary
Following the death of a rich plantation owner, his son Carlos, daughter Sofia, and their orphan cousin Esteban live in the grand but neglected family home in Havana, Cuba. They explore their father’s commercial warehouse but dream of escaping to more sophisticated lands. Educational and scientific apparatus is imported, and they live an existence of nocturnal intellectual questing.
After a year’s mourning they are visited by the Frenchman Victor Hughes who regales them with tales of his commercial travels. They all play charades and he becomes a regular visitor. When Esteban has an attack of asthma Victor produces the mulatto doctor Oge who cures him by burning plants growing nearby.
Following his cure, Esteban begins visiting a prostitute. A cyclone passes over the city, Sofia is attacked by a man and she realises that she is sexually desirable. Victor takes stock inventories in the warehouse and uncovers corruption by the family’s legal executors.
When rumblings of political unrest begin, they escape to a finca on the family estate. Victor and Oge expound their revolutionary views. They travel to the south of the island and join a ship sailing for Port-au-Prince in San Domingo. In Santiago de Cuba the town is over-run with refugees fleeing the uprising in the north of the island. They escape, but find insurrection and danger wherever they land.
Esteban becomes enthused by revolutionary fervour, which he perceives as a mixture of Freemasonry and religion. Victor tells him this is counter-revolutionary, and that Jacobinism is the new morality. Esteban is tasked to foment revolutionary activity, and travels to the Basque country and southern France where he finds religious belief deeply embedded.
Esteban feels cut off from the centre of power and confused by the plethora of new regulations being issued from Paris. Hearing that Victor Hughes is in the region, he writes to him and is invited to join an expeditionary force going to Guadeloupe. The Spanish and the French are at war, and are being harassed by the British in Europe and the Antilles.
Victor Hughes becomes more authoritarian, and makes excuses for ‘unfortunate’ revolutionary excesses. He has a guillotine erected on board the ship, even though he is going to announce the abolition of slavery.
Guadeloupe and St. Lucia have been occupied by the British, but Victor Hughes orders an attack, which is successful at first. But Pointe-a-Pitre is put under siege. After four weeks Hughes drives out the aggressors and seizes control of half the island.
When an edict arrives from Paris he restores belief in the Supreme Being. Then the guillotine is erected and public executions begin, introducing a reign of Terror. When news of the fall of Robespierre reaches Guadeloupe, Hughes decides to continue as if nothing had changed. He puts Esteban on board as ship’s clerk on a voyage that is supposed to promote the revolution in the Antilles.
Esteban is reunited with the aquatic world. The flotilla sails through the Antilles acting like pirates. They are joined by a boat carrying escaped slaves. The female passengers are raped, and the captain takes the whole group to a Dutch-controlled island where they can be sold. All bounty is returned to Victor Hughes in Guadeloupe.
As time goes on, there is a peace treaty between France and Spain – but Hughes ignores it and continues privateering and building up his business empire at Pointe-a-Pitre.
Guadeloupe grows ever more prosperous, but Hughes wishes to declare war against America because of their support of the British against the French. There is an opera performance given by the passengers of a captured ship, after which America declares war on France. Hughes realises he is about to be replaced by a directive from Paris. He gives Esteban letters of safe conduct for French Guiana.
Esteban finds the capital Cayenne run down and under-developed. He feels that the revolution has failed because it does not have convincing Gods to replace those of Christianity that have been overthrown.
He takes money and provisions to Billaud-Varenne, the exiled revolutionary. Former commanders of the Terror are rotting in the prison-colony. Esteban transfers to nearby Paramarimbo in Dutch Suriname then, finally realising that there is no Heaven on Earth, he sails back home to Havana.
Esteban is disappointed to find that Sofia is now married. He recounts his adventures, believing that the cost of the revolution has been too high. His cousins disagree: they cling to their original Jacobin beliefs. At Christmas they go to the elaborate finca of Sofia’s husband’s family. Esteban desires Sofia, but she rejects him.
As the Age of Enlightenment draws to a close, Sofia’s husband Jorge is afflicted with a virulent fever. Captain Dexter visits with news that Hughes has been re-established in Cayenne. Jorge dies, and Esteban secretly hopes that everything will return to normal.
But it is revealed that Sofia is in love with Victor Hughes and wishes to join him in Cayenne. Esteban tries to stop her but fails. When the police search the house for evidence of support for the revolution, Esteban delivers a long ‘confession’ giving her time to escape on Dexter’s ship the Arrow.
Sophia is en route via Venezuela to join Hughes in order to promote the principles of the revolution in the Americas, since it seems to have failed in Europe. On arrival in Cayenne she is taken to Hughes’ private hacienda. Her relationship with Hughes is a success: she comes to life physically and still believes that she is destined for some sort of significant life experience.
Suddenly a new decree reintroduces slavery, and Hughes applies it just as ruthlessly as he did its abolition. He tries to create cultivated European gardens in what is essentially a wilderness. When the slaves suddenly revolt and escape into the jungle he organises troops to track them down – much to Sofia’s disgust. The expedition is a failure, and they return defeated and infected with fever.
The fever affects the entire town, and Hughes almost goes blind. When it lifts and he eventually recovers, Sofia leaves him and sets sail for Europe.
Carlos turns up at a house in Madrid and pieces together from gossip the story of Sofia and Esteban’s last days there. They threw themselves into a revolt against the French and were never heard of again.
Explosion in a Cathedral – characters
|an orphan, originally asthmatic, follower of Hughes
|spirited and intelligent, in love with Hughes
|a French adventurer, businessman, and former Jacobin revolutionary
|a negro servant
|American captain of the Arrow
|captain of L’Ami du Peuple
|Sofia’s husband who dies
© Roy Johnson 2018
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