Explosion in a Cathedral

Penguin Classics. Sept. 2023. 368p. tr. from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West. ISBN 9780143133889. pap. $18. F
Supplanting an earlier English-language edition adapted secondhand from the French, West’s translation from the original Spanish of El Siglo de las Luces (1962), restores the vivid imagery of Carpentier’s story chronicling the promise and betrayal of Enlightenment ideals as played out in the colonies of the New World. Following the fluctuating fortunes of true believer Victor Hugues, the “Robespierre of the Colonies,” who proclaims the emancipation of the enslaved inhabitants of Guadalupe while dealing death to counterrevolutionaries via that infernal machine, the guillotine. In the end, the Rights of Man prove no match for the profitable exigencies of three centuries of colonial subjugation, while Hugues’s opportunistic privateering rouses tensions between the fledgling republics of France and the United States.
VERDICT Juxtaposing engrossing accounts of political and actual tempests raging across the Caribbean with elaborate descriptions of luxuriant decay and the idle trappings of the ancien régime, this lush, erudite period piece by Carpentier (1904–80) brings to visceral life the intellectual ferment and inevitable disillusionment of the Age of Reason, with pungent force. A landmark of Latin American literature.
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