By Ted Gioia

In the preface to this work, Alejo Carpentier
employs the phrase
lo real maravilloso—which
translates as "the marvelous real"—delineating
a literary attitude that would pervade Latin
American fiction over the next half century. In
the hands of other, better known writers, this
approach would gain legitimacy under the label
"magical realism," but
many commentators would
later trace the origins of this
influential movement in
Spanish language literature
back to Carpentier's 1949
novel.

But
The Kingdom of This World
could just as easily fit into
other literary pigeonholes—
post-colonial fiction, the his-
torical novel, fabulism, social
realism, the political novel and
other categories come to mind.  
Some will delight in the elements of myth and
folktale that often come to the fore in this
book, whereas others will be tempted to draw
on grand theories of the clash of civilizations or
the vanity of human wishes.  Carpenter takes a
kaleidoscopic approach to his subject—so much
so, that the key characters, settings and themes
change periodically during the course of the
work, and a wide swathe of real-life history and
biography are incorporated in its pages, as well
as a thick cultural soup of traditions, Hispanic
and African, European and American.   

Yet this description might make
The Kingdom
of This World
seem unwieldy or unfocused.  
Such allegations could hardly be more
unwarranted.  Perhaps the most salient
qualities of Carpentier's novel are its tautness
and concision. Events that, in the hands of
other authors, might span several volumes—
the 1791 Haitian slave rebellion, the nation's
independence from France, the presidency (and
later monarchy) of Henri Christophe, the
aftermath of Christophe’s suicide—are deftly
treated here in stirring interludes
in which a few emblematic historical episodes
underpin both the realistic and fanciful
elements of Carpentier's fiction.  

Other sections of the book follow key
characters in their travels to Cuba or Europe,
where our author shows his deep grasp of the
peculiarities that result when radically different
cultures intermingle.  Carpentier understands
the complexities of these interactions, in which
friction and xenophobia are often balanced by
curiosity and the almost hypnotic appeal of the
exotic.  In an odd way, he is a counter-
part of Henry James, that master of stories in
which Old World and New World destinies
clash and cooperate by turn—but instead of
Boston Brahmins and Harvard chitchat as his
starting-point, Carpentier latches on to
sugarcane plantations and voodoo rites.   And
for him, the formula has become even more
intricate—an Africa-Americas-Europe triangle in
place of James's dyad—and certainly more
piquant.  

The key character in
The Kingdom of This
World
, Ti Noel, is mostly a bystander at
tumultuous events, albeit one who is
sometimes too close for comfort when
calamities transpire. At the start of the novel,
Ti Noel is a slave on the estate of M.  
Lenormand de Mézy, where he falls under the
influence of Macandal, a charismatic fellow
slave and singer of tales. Macandal speaks "of
the great migrations of tribes, of age-long wars,
or epic battles in which the animals had been
the allies of men. He knew the story of
Adonhueso, of the King of Angola, of King Da,
the incarnation of the Serpent, which is the
eternal beginning, never ending, who took his
pleasure mystically with a queen who was the
Rainbow, patroness of the Waters and of all
Bringing Forth."  

This volatile mixture of history, myth and
group cultural identity sets the stage for a
major slave rebellion. This conflict, which
culminated in the establishment of the Haitian
republic, stands out as the only slave revolt in
the Americas that led to the founding of a new
political regime. But here too Old World and
New World tendencies play off each other.  The
Haitian revolution took place only two years
after the French revolution, espoused the
same principles, and brought about results that
were, in some instances, eerily similar.

Carpentier presents a cornucopia of characters,
contexts, cultures and conflicts in his novel.  
Yet the epigraph to the book could very well be
"the more things change, the more they stay
the same." The identity and background of Ti
Noel’s oppressors may shift over time, but the
nature of the oppression is sadly
undifferentiated. He is forced into servitude
by King Henry, the black monarch, just as he
was enslaved by a French landowner, or the
Cuban plantation master who won him in a
card game, or the mulattoes who eventually fill
the power void left by the various sociopolitical
upheavals.  

Ti Noel's escape eventually comes through
mysticism rather than rebellion. He learns the
art of transforming himself into other
creatures—a bird, a horse, an ant, a wasp. This
shift from fact-based realism to mythical
extravagance must have shocked Carpentier's
first readers, especially given the prominence
of historical materialism and other pieties of
class conflict that were on the rise in Latin
American intellectual circles at the time he
wrote.  

But with the benefit of hindsight, we can taste
the distinctive flavor of magical realism in
these pages, a tone that would emerge as the
single most influential current in Latin
American fiction over the next several decades.  
And just a few short years after the publication
of
The Kingdom of this World, Claude Lévi-
Strauss would draw on his own Latin American
research in asserting the primacy of myth in
the annals of storytelling, and showing—much
as did Carpentier—that the borderline between
mythology and history is not as sharply
delineated as many long believe.

Yet even without this later validation,
Carpentier's choices here seem quite fitting. In
a book so aligned with the tragic mutability of
human conditions, the further leap into a
modern-day equivalent of Ovid's
Metamorphoses, that ultimate literary
celebration of changeability, feels right and
proper.   In a work that delves into both the
force and futility of change, Carpentier both
delights and instructs by bringing into play the
most powerful change agents—magic, politics,
wealth, and brute force—and teaching us how
much they have in common.

Certainly other writers before Carpentier drew
on the phantasmagorical, and any claim that
this novelist invented 'magical realism' must be
treated with a degree of skepticism. (By the
way, I'd go back
another thousand years in
locating the origins of the magical realism
novel.)  Yet Carpentier's unwillingness to
escape into the beguiling charms of fantasy or
even highlight its strangeness when it appears
in these pages would prove especially
influential. In this regard, he anticipates the
distinctive tone of later classic works by
Gabriel
García Márquez, Günter Grass, Salman
Rushdie and others.  The title says it best:  
Carpentier focuses on the kingdom of
this
world, not some other one—no Middle-Earth or
Narnia for him. And Carpentier's ability to
forge fantasy without escapism stands out as
his defining achievement, and one that the
current-day literary community (and, even
more, the publishing industry) could still
benefit from emulating.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular
culture. His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
The Kingdom of This World
by Alejo Carpentier
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the course
of 2012,  I will explore an important
work of fiction that incorporates
elements of magic, fantasy or the
surreal.  My choices will cross
conventional boundary lines of genre,
style and historical period—indeed,
one of my intentions in this project is
to show how the conventional labels
applied to these works have become
constraining, deadening and
misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only in
recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These labels
are not without their value, but too
often they have blinded us to the rich
and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very few
retain into adulthood this sense of the
kind of enchantment possible only
through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in our
imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and
Pantagruel by François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia
Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John
Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni
Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim
Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


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