Alejo Carpentier – Explosion in a Cathedral – Book Review

Taking a look at Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier. I wrote a long story once which was partly inspired by Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. Here’s an excerpt:

Maenads blazed beneath myriad plumage. The tar on their faces glistened in the sun.
I hate to see all this evil without an apparent master, Aegle said.
But they’re tame. See the wire?
Makeshift beaks and claws hung off as an afterthought. This was what all the recruiting came down to? This feathered march? But Petaling beamed. A barker announced each species — starling, redbreast, crested swallow.
They hotstepped to the horn-shaped tower. They trembled up its spiral to applause all around. Outspread wings chained in their own arch and the claws of their feet cringing over their tiny perch, if they looked down they believed themselves in flight.
Audience sat with heads wrapped in ligaments of sweet conversation. Children in the field chased each other. One of them broke away and climbed the podium, clearing her throat. The nymphs grew quiet.
Parts of the body have abused language and music for centuries, announced the child. Until now. From now on, the body will do no more damage.
The Aviary swayed. Red tethers zigzagged down like arteries pulled taut to a major organ beating on the ground.
The harmonium rose from its knees and wobbled. It leaned to the left, tightening the lines on its right, and half the tower howled. Overcorrecting, the other half shrieked. The harmonium controlled each bird-key like a tiny kite. It veered into a sharp, raised a foot for a flat, crescendoed its arms to lift the scalp of the audience an inch off its head.
The score rustled on the stand. The child licked her thumb and turned its pages. The ancient composition was discovered on sheaves of parchment yellowed with age, Property of …. emblazoned on the cover, and the sole handwritten word — Threnody — taken as its title.
The Aviary’s backwash of colors mixed with Threnody’s first strains and settled like hallucinogenic snowflakes on the mind’s ear. Some maenads were good. Some maenads could squawk as if they had a syrinx, trained tracheas vibrating to pitch far beyond normal nymph hearing. They did the birds they were supposed to be proud. No one would think to shoot them down but rather throw breadcrumbs in their face if they were not already stuffed full of bread and water.
The song’s logic blanketed the listening field. Movements were divided into pieces called lungs. The length of each lung varied per bird and lasted exactly one breath. The lungs were layered on top of each other in a long continuous breath. Then a coordinated pause when all lungs ended on a mass inhale called a heart — the entire work had only one heart.
The first lung grabbed the nymphs with one hand on top of the head and one hand below the chin, twisting until the neck popped.
The second lung stepped on spines, cracking them straight.
The third lung was not unfriendly with privates, though no one would admit it.
The fourth lung touched only the tips to draw them to the edge of their seats.
The fifth lung collapsed and people went inside themselves. They filled each breath with sympathetic personal paintings that rippled and blurred the tower, making everything mythic.
Hyacinth herself was gliding with killer whales. Fish with wings flew by her side. The sea was a religion before she lost her strength and struggled to breathe. A fleet of stingrays, the stupid face of sunfish. Days and nights. Remember the sight of land. Remember the rescue but with no details. No one cares about your dreams. Was this a dream?
Quarternotes landed on heads and pierced scalps with sharp proboscis and sucked blood to make people dizzy. Hyacinth narrowed her focus to the inevitable silence. She would be the first to clap if it killed her. But someone else clapped first.
This person was doing it wrong. This person clapped in between lungs, not waiting for the end. Enraged looks did nothing. The clapping trespassed into the music itself, over the heart of Threnody. The clapping grew louder until it was just behind her head.
Hyacinth turned to see Rosiphae. Hyacinth wondered what the music was doing to Rosiphae’s head. It looked smaller, like a cold dead stone. The head did not sway on the long neck, side to side, even though she had the bones for that.
Hyacinth closed her eyes hoping to regain the melody. In time the clapping stopped, and when she looked back, Rosiphae reached the edge of the forest. Hyacinth sighed knowing she would punish herself by missing the grand finale. Sweet music stretched long and tight with hundreds of hooks in her back. She tore away and floated half-dead.
Rosiphae pulled ahead in the trees and Hyacinth followed. They could still hear the maenads in the tower.

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