Portrait of a dictator

By J. Michael Dash

Reasons of State, by Alejo Carpentier, trans. Frances Partridge, with an introduction by Stanley Crouch
(Melville House, ISBN 9781612196, 373 pp)

Detail of relief on the Arc de Triomphe

Detail of La Marseillaise by sculptor François Rude, a relief on the Arc de Triomphe, Paris. From a photograph by Richard Mortel, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

The narrator in Julian Barnes’s memorably comical novel Flaubert’s Parrot plays the game of critic as dictator. In one of his various edicts, Barnes’s narrator proposes a “quota system . . . on fiction set in South America. The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony . . . Novels set in the Arctic and the Antarctic will receive a development grant.” Alejo Carpentier’s fiction can not only be accused of being baroque, but even gets close to the cliché of the opera house overgrown by the jungle, which is the literary stock-in-trade of “package-tour baroque.” Mercifully, there is no such quota, and the reprinting of the English translation of Reasons of State, which was first published in 1976, is a welcome event.

Carpentier is by no means unfamiliar to readers of Caribbean fiction. He is known for his historical fiction about mainly the French Caribbean. His novel about the Haitian Revolution, The Kingdom of this World (1949), is widely read and always in print, and the expression “magical realism,” coined in the original prologue to this novel, is now part of standard critical terminology. His other Caribbean novel, Explosion in a Cathedral (1962), is a less familiar epic treatment of Guadeloupe in revolutionary times. However, despite the fact that it can also be considered a historical novel, Reasons of State is likely to be new to Anglophone readers. Perhaps this is why the publishers felt the need to include an introduction by the well-known jazz critic Stanley Crouch. Crouch’s essay, however, is so flagrantly self-indulgent as to be ultimately of little use as an introduction to the novel.

If Carpentier’s “dictator novel” has been somewhat forgotten, it may be because it has been upstaged by Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, a similar work about an eccentric tyrant. The dictator novel has not been very successful in the Caribbean. For instance, the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti has produced only one memorable work, and it is The Comedians, by the English novelist Graham Greene. Also Reasons of State is one of Carpentier’s later works, which are in general more ludic and difficult to pin down. His dictator is not just the incarnation of evil, as is the case in novels of this genre. His world is one which has lost its bearings, and become “a huge conjuring display, where all values were upset, ideas inverted, appearances changed . . . and disguise and metamorphosis created a perpetual state of illusion.” We ultimately feel some measure of sympathy for the dictator’s brutally clumsy and misguided efforts to create order out of disorder.

Whereas Carpentier’s earlier novels envisaged the New World as replacing an aging decadent Europe and proposed an essentialist reading of Latin American culture based on the mythical and the magical, the later novels are more disturbingly parodic. The original Spanish title of Reasons of State — El recurso del método — suggests the ponderous erudition that the narrative sets out to mock. Even though there are copious historical references to actual events in Caribbean and world history, such as the Haitian Occupation and the Battle of the Marne, Reasons of State’s real purpose is to invert Descartes’s Discourse on Method. While the French philosopher rigorously argued that the first principle of philosophy was the rational self, in Carpentier’s novel this self has become a voluble erotomane given over to language which is “luxuriant, sonorous, baroque, Ciceronian, original in imagery, implacable in epithets, sweeping in its crescendos,” taking frequent swigs of Santa Inés rum while lying in his hammock in his Parisian townhouse.

The novel covers the years 1913 to 1927, and tells the story of the downfall of the unnamed dictator of a Caribbean republic who loves vacationing in Paris. He does return home from time to time to unenthusiastically crush revolts by his various generals, but he despises those dictators like Cuba’s Gerardo Machado who were uncultured — that is, not Francophile. He weeps when his name is not included in the Petit Larousse, and it is only when reports of the atrocities he has committed follow him to Paris and he is shunned by his posh friends that he realises he may have gone too far.

Mercifully, the First World War intervenes, and his ruthlessness is soon dwarfed by the massacres that reveal the barbarism of Europe. There is some hope for political change at home, in the character of “The Student,” who is seen at the end of the book in the company of Jawaharlal Nehru at the “First World Conference on Colonial and Imperialist Politics.” Not surprisingly, the United States also figures in this tale. The dictator is not fond of the US, but he must make concessions to the United Fruit Company to stay in office. He loses power after the Americans decide to support the opposition and the US Marines intervene. He takes refuge in the US consulate before escaping to France. Carpentier’s portrait of the consul is striking: he is from New Orleans, a grand nephew of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and can quote Saint-John Perse. He is as cynically complicit in Washington’s political manoeuverings as he is aware that the dictator has become a political liability.

Carpentier seems less interested in politics than in the dictator’s inability to distinguish between reality and illusion. This dilemma is already present in The Kingdom of this World, when Henri Christophe shoots himself in the Hall of Mirrors at Sans Souci, as his image is multiplied against flames that are both reflected and real. Confusion between real and fake also makes for wry humour in Reasons of State. Early in the novel, the dictator has sex with a nun from the Society of St Vincent de Paul, who is really a prostitute in disguise. Later, however, nearing the end of his life, he is attended to by a genuine St Vincent de Paul nun. At the end, in the marble receptacle which was meant to bear “a little of the Earth of the sacred Soil of the Homeland,” his daughter, who does not care much for the “Homeland,” simply places soil collected from a flowerbed in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Carpentier’s protagonist is ultimately a phony Cartesian caught between worlds: between over here and over there, Paris and Nueva Córdoba, mind and body. As the novel begins, he opens the brocade bedroom curtains of his Paris residence to reveal not the volcano of his native land but the Arc de Triomphe. He revels in the spectacle of architectural order in the Place de l’Étoile and its famous arch, which not only opens and closes the story but is a recurrent motif. The dictator is particularly fascinated by the neoclassical haut-relief of La Marseillaise on this monument “to the genius of Cartesian France.” But he is as drawn to its neoclassical aesthetic as he is to the figure of the “boy hero with his little balls exposed,” and the dictator’s passing is reflected in “the little balls of the boy hero . . . turning gold in the sun.” This sculpture with the classical dress and the exposed genitals epitomises the conflict between the rational and the carnal, mind and body, that is at the heart of the text. Each chapter of the novel is solemnly introduced with a Cartesian epigraph that then leads to spectacularly ridiculous events, as the dictator methodically rationalises his extravagances and atrocities.

In Reasons of State, Carpentier has not only satirised the most ludicrous traits of the Latin American strongman, he has created a tragicomic clown who, surrounded by fawning academics and artists, is trapped in some high-minded idea of European — more precisely, French — culture. He ultimately divests himself of this mannered artificial world to become pure body, when banished to Paris. The ex-dictator gives up his throne for his hammock and, hairy and unshaven, gorges on a meal “as if in some low restaurant in the tropics.” Even his snobbish daughter succumbs, screaming, “To hell with Brillat-Savarin.” The now deposed head of state in his own excessively theatrical way reverts to pure physicality. As the end approaches, he visits the museum in the Trocadéro where an Egyptian mummy, discovered in an early military campaign, is displayed. The remains of this “king, judge, priest, or general” look like “some gigantic fleshless foetus that had gone through all the stages of growth, maturity, decrepitude, and death.” They are now in a museum a few paces from the haut-relief of La Marseillaise whose importance has now dwindled. The mummy appears to look angrily at the banished dictator who has violated his tomb. The dictator retorts, “Don’t complain, you bastard, because I took you out of your mud and turned you into a person.” This is precisely what Carpentier has done in bringing his dictator to life.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2016

J. Michael Dash is professor of French and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and the author of Culture and Customs of Haiti, among other books.