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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Lost Steps

Alejo Carpentier

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To purchase The Lost Steps

Title: The Lost Steps
Author: Alejo Carpentier
Genre: Novel
Written: 1953 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 242 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Lost Steps - US
Los pasos perdidos - US
The Lost Steps - UK
The Lost Steps - Canada
Le partage des eaux - France
Die verlorenen Spuren - Deutschland
I passi perduti - Italia
Los pasos perdidos - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Spanish title: Los pasos perdidos
  • Translated and with A Note on the Translation by Adrian Nathan West
  • Previously translated by Harriet de Onís (1956)
  • With an Introduction by Leonardo Padura
  • The University of Minnesota Press' edition of Harriet de Onís' translation has an Introduction by Timothy Brennan

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Our Assessment:

A : a wonderful work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation* D 12/1/1957 John Farrelly
The NY Rev. of Books . 22/2/2024 Natasha Wimmer
The NY Times Book Rev.* B 14/10/1956 Selden Rodman
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction* . Summer/2001 Christy Post
Time* . 22/10/1956 .
The Times* . 22/11/1956 .
Wall St. Journal . 14/12/2023 Sam Sacks

(* review of an earlier translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "This novel, a translation from the Spanish, has gathered inexplicable acclaim in France and England. (...) But even apart from the portentous prose and the oversimplification of its primitive vs. civilized thesis the book’s failure is inherent in the device, as here employed, of first-person narrator. (...) No doubt its admirers will enshrine it in that dubious category, the “novel of ideas.”" - John Farrelly, The Nation

  • "The weight of culture oppresses him at every turn, transforming ordinary moments into tortured reckonings with the whole of Western civilization. The mannered intensity of Carpentier’s language -- maintained at fever pitch by West -- propels the reader into the same overwrought state. (...) (W)here Carpentier fluctuates between past and present tenses, Onís converts all to the past tense, which strips the prose of some of its diaristic urgency. West deftly restores the shifting tenses and reverts to the original long blocks of text." - Natasha Wimmer, The New York Review of Books

  • "The plot is suspensefully unfolded. The dialogue and the descriptions are brilliantly poetic. Still —— Well, it doesn't quite come off. Perhaps it is because the hero is so very, very much the intellectual that it is difficult, despite the breathlessness with which three women abandon themselves to him, to be convinced that he is also a man. (...) All in all, it's a book full of riches — stylistic, sensory, visual — but as a novel it's just a little cheap." - Selden Rodman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Author Carpentier, who is equipped with an elegance of perception and distinction of style that W. H. Hudson might envy, offers no final judgment. But he proves himself, even on the way to final indecision, a more rewarding guide than many a more decisive pundit." - Time

  • "The impact of this strange book is in its poetic quality and rich allusion, in the personality of the narrator, and in the curious nature of his voyage backward through time, by way of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages right back to the Stone Age." - The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Lost Steps is a depressed, disillusioned soul. He hates his nine-to-five, his actress-wife's different schedule leaves little overlap to their lives, and he feels beaten down by his fate:

Now I'm back outside looking for a bar. If I walk too long to find a glass of liquor, that long familiar depression wil invade me, making me feel like a prisoner with no exit in sight, despairing at my inability to change one single thing about my existence, overruled by the will of others who barely leave me the freedom to choose which meat or grain I will have for breakfast each morning.
       As he also admits: "I had been around, I was jaded". He's in such a state that even when he actually finds himself with time to himself -- three weeks off from work, and his wife away on tour -- he can't really enjoy it: "Nothing plagued me, and for that very reason I felt myself subject to a nebulous menace".
       Maybe his instincts aren't all wrong ..... In any case, he runs into an old acquaintance, the Curator of a university-affiliated Organographical Museum, who makes him an offer he ultimately can't refuse -- though it certainly again looks like another case where he finds himself: "overruled by the will of others". Still, an all-expenses paid trip to travel to Latin America -- accompanied by mistress Mouche -- is hard for him to resist, and in its first stages it looks like just the thing:
the change of altitude, the clean air, the interruption of my habits, the rediscovery of the language of my childhood were contributing to a still inchoate feeling of return, the restoration of a long-lost equilibrium
       Ah, but can we ever go home again, recapture the past again ? The question looms over the novel -- not least later on, after the narrator is immersed not so much in his own but a much greater past.
       The Curator's commission for the narrator is to collect some primitive instruments, for which the narrator has to travel deep into the forbidding backlands of some unidentified South American country. (A note by the author identifies some of the locales and suggests the inspiration for others -- "The storm occurs in an area that might be the Raudal de la Muerte", etc.). The voyage is far from an easy one, beginning with a civil war of sorts that breaks out when the narrator is in the capital, where: "I tried to get some sense of the beliefs and demands of the warring parties, but still, nothing was clear". Still, as they move into the interior, the narrator begins to blossom some:
Our travels from the capital to Los Altos had permitted me to step back in time to the years of my childhood -- to return to the morning adolescence -- finding again ways of living, flavors, words, things, that had marked me deeper than I might have believed.
       Since he had gone off track early in life -- "I'd been uprooted as a teenager, inflamed by false notions, convinced to study an art that fed none but the worst hawkers on Tin Pan Alley, shuffled across a world in ruins for months as a military interpreter" -- here seems a second chance, a different path .....
       'Civilization' had disappointed him. A previous travels in-search-of voyage had gone terribly wrong, the narrator having gone to study in 1930s (Nazi) Germany, where:
I had looked for Erasmus's smile, the Discourse on Method, the spirit of humanism, Faustian yearnings and the Apollonian soul; I had found auto-da-fé, Inquisition courts, political trials that reenacted the ordeals of the Middle Ages.
I saw a metaphysician from Heidelberg play drum major to a gang of young philosophers who marched -- rather, strode -- to vote for men who scorned any and all things one might call intellectual.
       His voyage now, going soon deep into the most forbidding jungles, takes him far away from everything that is now considered civilized, to a 'primitive' world that is also an idyll and ideal. (Along the way, he also replaces mistress Mouche with the local Rosario ("whose depths elude me").)
       He takes to this new Eden -- and imagines a future for himself there:
I will elude the fate of Sisyphus that the world I've fled imposed on me, escaping sterile occupations that are like the endless hastening of a trapped squirrel in a wire drum, escaping time regulated and labor performed in the shadows.
       Always bookish, he here is able to experience, and revels in the immediacy of it:
What I saw confirms the theses of those who claim a magical origin for music. but they arrived at their conclusion through books, psychological treatises, venturing uncertain hypotheses about remote magical practices that persisted in ancient tragedy, whereas I saw the world departing toward song, which it didn't yet reach; saw the birth of a kind of rhythm in the repetition of a monosyllable; saw the interplay of real and feigned voices and the enchanter alternating between the two tones; saw a musical theme develop form an extramusical rite.
       He is also inspired, to return to creating art himself, the musical composition he had thought he could once dedicate himself to: "faithful to an old project from my adolescence, I wanted to work on Shelley's Prometheus Unbound". He envisions a threnody (in its: "original conception [...] a magical chant intended to bring the dead back to life"):
It doesn't matter that the Threnody will never be performed. I must write it and I will, even if just to show myself that I am not empty, thoroughly empty
       Ironically, he needs paper to write on, and it is in short supply there. Despite how comfortable he feels in this environment and society cut off from everything modern, well ... : "Again, the lack of writing paper distresses me. Again I recall the idea of books, the need for certain books"
       Only when it is too late will he recall Rosario and: "the strange look she used to give me when I spent days writing feverishly in a place where all writing was superfluous" .....
       It's a modern world, however, and even if the narrator has found his paradise, 'civilization' is hard to keep at bay; amusingly, it turns out he has been anything but forgotten in his mysterious absence. 'Civilization' comes to the rescue, and a torn narrator thinks that he can have it both ways, and, boy, does he learn: you can't go home again, as both the modern and the 'primitive' one are ultimately lost to him.
       Yes, The Lost Steps is a bit obvious in its lessons, but it's still beautifully done -- not least thanks to Carpentier's lush writing and descriptions; as often noted, there's something Baroque to it and its ornamentation. there is much physical description here -- in particular, the voyage into the hinterlands -- and it is vivid and very nicely done: The Lost Steps is an intellectual novel, but Carpentier does the visceral well as well.
       Adrian Nathan West's is a new translation, and in his introductory A Note on the Translation West explains some of his approach, and the differences to Harriet de Onís' earlier version. The most obvious difference is that, whereas Onís broke up Carpentier's long sentences and paragraphs, West tries to:
present readers with a Carpentier who is more Carpentier than the one they might have encountered before. I have left intact the ornateness of his vocabulary, have sought, when reasonable, not to dismember his complex sentences, with their long chains of subordinate clauses, and have respected the text's original layout. In a broader sense, I've tried to restore the books lushness, and approximate its narrator's ecstatic, abstruse lyricism.
       West is quite successful in this -- though Onís' translation does manage some fine ornateness as well. An example that sticks out is early on, where the narrator mentions that he has (an unlikely-in-the-US ...) three weeks off work, finding himself:
liberado, por tres semanas, de la empresa nutricia que me había comprado ya varios años de vida
       West has it as:
I was free for three weeks from the business that fed me in exchange for several years of my life
       Meanwhile, Onís had it as:
manumitted for three weeks from the enterprise that in return for feeding me had already bought several years of my life
       Hard not to admire that 'manumitted' .....
       In any case -- and, honestly, either translation -- The Lost Steps is a wonderful and well-worthwhile novel. Carpentier's style -- especially now as rendered in West's translation -- might take readers some getting used to, but it works particularly well here, given what the narrator relates (and his own personality). Sure, aspects of it are a bit obvious, and hammered home, but it's a good story, too, on several levels, from the action to the abstract-intellectual; The Lost Steps is absolutely deserving of 'classic'-status.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 March 2024

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The Lost Steps: Reviews (* review of an earlier translation): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Cuban author Alejo Carpentier lived 1904 to 1980.

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© 2024 the complete review

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