About halfway through this novel I came to the conclusion that the narrator (the main character) is one of those people you would have met in New York City during the 1980’s and would have regaled you with their adventures into the primitive wilderness sometime during the 1960’s and of which they’ve been spending the past 4-5 years re-acclimating themselves to ‘The Modern World’ for whatever excuse.
Ok, that is a very specific generalization I’m making, but it fits the stereotype of all those hippies who wandered off into the Amazon, or along the Ganges, or across the mountains of Pakistan, during the 60’s and 70’s and then came back in the 80’s to tell everyone that their Modern Life was a lie but that they had to come back for “grumble, grumble, wave hands, make some excuse”. Better yet, think of ‘My Dinner With Andre” and of the people Andre is telling his stories about; about his time in the forest with the Germans, of being buried alive during a ritual – all these people searching for something because, for whatever reason, they were dissatisfied with ‘The Modern World’.
And these people always fit the type, they act as if they are above the society they were born from and that only they have some magical insight into how life should be led – primitive, free, unencumbered with rules. And these people are always tiresome. They are arrogant to the point of starting a collection to raise enough money for their one-way ticket back to whatever jungle they can’t stop telling everyone else should go live in.
This is what I don’t get about so much modern literature; everyone hates where they live and think everything in ‘the modern world’ is a sham, a lie, a farce, and they have to go around all day long trying to point that out to everyone. These books (and the people in real life whom the authors have modeled their ‘heroes’ on) are full of half-baked juxtapositions between some modern ritual and its ancient precedent. We’re beaten over the head with how ignorant we (and all Modern Society) are and that even the most educated people are just fooling themselves, that the real knowledge comes from picking up a spade and digging into some South American dirt.
Yet why is this such a trend that refuses to go away? This book was written in 1956, but it could have easily been a first draft to the novel (and film) ‘Fight Club’ with how dissatisfied everyone is with our modern world. Maybe it’s that age-old nostalgia for a simpler time, that cognitive dissonance we all suffer from when thinking of the past and how much better we all were ‘Back Then’. And maybe this book could be excused as part of a movement in post-war art that was coming to terms with a civilization that could destroy the entire planet in an afternoon. That feeling of ‘we’ve gone too far’ is a legitimate concern and perhaps this book is a reflection of that sentiment.
But it’s still nonsense. In fact the book is picking some pretty low hanging fruit. ‘Our Modern Society’ is easy picking to find fault with and it takes very little effort to go on for a few hundred pages about how terrible everything is. And here, at least, this novel recognizes a few key things that have escaped more recent authors : our main character is a juvenile, arrogant, jerk, and he suffers for his arrogance at the hands of the very society he wanted to turn his back on. Better yet, Carpentier made the main character a nameless artist as a stand-in for all the false artists who have come after this novel claiming to have some profound new insight onto how terrible our “Modern Life” is.
Basically, Carpentier is calling bullshit on all the hippies that were to follow this book’s example by saying they are all assholes who don’t know a damn thing and they sure as hell won’t find it in the jungle or atop a mountain or in a dirty river.
However, I’m not going to actually credit Carpentier fully here either because I don’t think this was his intent. In fact I think the main character and this whole book was a vehicle for Carpentier to do some good ol-fashioned preaching about ‘Getting Back To Nature”.
Yet I stick on with my premise because reading this book not through the forced perspective of the narrator, but rather between the lines, from the point of view of the side characters – especially the women – is where the truth really lay.
Our narrator pays no attention to anyone but himself. He’s more than self absorbed and that’s the main cause of his dissatisfaction with life (not the world actually being all that terrible). He treats everyone poorly except for when he lusts after them (Rosario) and even then it’s all sexual and no intimacy. And since the book is all 1st person POV, we get inside this characters limited and shallow mind and see first hand how hes filled his head with half educated ideas – he’s the guy we all know who is always telling us how some situation or other reminds him of some work or art but it’s always some well known thing so that everyone else can follow along, yet it sounds just smart enough as to try and sound intellectually impressive. Yet it’s all smoke. This guy is a proto-hippie and proto-hipster.
But it’s fascinating seeing him bring himself to his own demise. His wife gets the better of him, and Mouche, whom he detests because she spews a different fragrance of bullshit : new age mysticism, astrology, and pseudo-science, but whom he hates because she’s exactly like him in every way except for her sex (no wonder he hates her so much) and how good it was to see her get the better of him too.
In all this book is a warning to everyone who read this book in the 60’s and 70’s but totally missed the subtext. The book is saying that if you can’t be satisfied in this marvelous modern world full of paper and ink (the one thing that causes our narrator to get on that plane) then the problem is with you. And no amount of hand waving is going to change the fact that it’s you who have the problem, not society.
Even the society they create in the jungle falls apart before it even begins. They have the notebook with the laws all written down and they have to acquire more notebooks for when they fill up the old notebooks with laws. Man is destined to order his world and his life and create a society and no amount of looking back to simpler times is going to change the fact that we cannot live as primitive people. The book even says point blank that the items carried out of the jungle by academics and put on display in museums are always wrongly labeled as ‘barabaric’ because these items are, in fact, serving the purpose they were intended for by the people who made them – they are a tribe’s ‘high technology’. Just because we have better tools doesn’t make their stuff barbaric or ours less real.
So it’s hard for me to say if Carpentier intended any of what I read in the novel. I read the book because when reading “Clandestine on Chile” this book was mentioned in that book and it sounded like another real-life “Fitzcarraldo”, and in a way they are similar, especially with the focus of truth and lies and ancient and modern, but after having read it I’m wary that Carpentier meant something more in line with what all the hippies took from it.
Yet real life prevails and by the 1980’s during the height of the narcissistic, me-me generation, even the most ardent proponent of hippiedom had wandered back to ‘Civilization’ and spent the next 10 years bitching about how we are all being lied to and that our rituals are all empty. And they are still at it and they are still juvenile because what they are saying isn’t profound at all because it is they who can’t navigate their own society and are always looking everywhere around them for an answer but never at themselves for one. They cause their own downfall just like the main character of this book.