By Alan Cheuse

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Anything from the stories of Louis L’Amour to Paradise Lost or Moby Dick, no doubt. Consider how the poetry of Milton or the ocean scenes of Melville or the cowpokes and bandits of L’Amour would carry him back to Earththemes and Earth-places. Even if he’s never set foot on Earth, these are still the stories of his homeplace. Reading—reading is home itself, the place where we go when we wish to be with ourselves and our own minds and our own hearts. It is an act of the eye that, unlike the viewing of painting or film, has little to do with what the eye perceives before it.

Ironically, the very allegiance to the traditions and mores of Spain that kept Spanish America in harness for several centuries produced the conditions that led to the burgeoning New World revolutionary movements. In the eighteenth century, the Latin American ruling class, true to its sense of itself as a European-oriented group, opened wide its arms to the methods of European science, technology, and education. Rationalism and liberalism took hold among an increasingly enlightened young generation and congress with Spain led to congress with Europe as well, a Rousseau-ist Europe in which man was everywhere throwing off his unnatural bondage to monarchy.

The mode of El reino is itself metamorphic, weaving back and forth between, on the one hand, Creole rationalism and, on the other, indigenous belief in magical transformation as though there were no actual distinctions between the two modes of thought. Here, Carpentier’s enlistment of surrealist narrative technique in the service of the revolutionary ideal strikes a fresh and pleasing new style quite unlike the social fantasies of European writers from Gogol to Hoffman. Reality in this novel is an amazing realm in which one sees no distinction between what the Haitian revolutionaries believe to be true and what appears to be true.

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