Monday, May 3, 2010

The Kingdom of this World - Alejo Carpentier

When the earthquake in Haiti first hit, I was heartened to see that my local bookstore made an effort to stock and promote books about Haiti and by Haitian writers (most notably Edwidge Danticat). In my effort to learn more about Haitian history, the owner recommended this fiction book, which is actually by a Cuban author. The Kingdom of the World tells the story of Ti Noel, an illiterate slave who lives through the Haitian revolution in 1804. After the United States, Haiti was only the second country in history to break free from European colonization. Dependent entirely on plantation slavery, once Haiti achieved independence, it experienced a complete overhaul of its social and economic order. Carpentier employs the devices of magical realism to tell the story of this brutal transformation, and while short, this book is chock full of voodoo, violence, sexuality, history, and commentary on race relations. Predominantly, I felt this was a book about form - Carpentier's method of storytelling is as important, if not more important, than the actual story he is telling - and it takes a lot of work to follow. As I often feel when books are a little over my head, I think I would have really benefitted from reading this book in a class taught by a professor of literature, as well as Haitian history. I particularly enjoyed the theme of hybridization throughout the novel, and the ideas of intersecting cultural identity - particularly profound given Carpentier's own complex background. I'm not sure I came away with much factual information about Haiti from this novel, but it certainly gave me a feel for the times, and the incredible struggle against and for power endured by those portrayed in the novel. For anyone looking for a work of historical fiction, that is more lyrical than linear, this is a good bet.

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