“Reasons of State,” Alejo Carpentier’s massive novel of Latin American politics, brings us first-person close to the life and times of a brutal, fictional dictator in the early 1900s. But notwithstanding the tight focus on its protagonist, the book — first published in Spanish in 1974, and recently reprinted in English by Dumbo’s Melville House — provides us a deep cross-section of the complex currents of economy, culture, and revolutionary thought roiling the globe in the years around World War I.
In a deceptively slow opening, we spend a languorous morning with “the dictator” in the lap of turn of the century Parisian luxury. As with a postmodern novel’s bombardments of brand names, his life is set out in relation to the exquisite objects and cultural experiences with which he surrounds himself. His breakfasting is interrupted by the inconvenience of an attempted military coup back in the country of which he is supposed to be in charge, and from there, the novel clicks into a much higher gear.
Steam ships, trains, and the telegram have flattened the world considerably, and the dictator hurries from France back to his unnamed nation. The horrors of the military purge he carries out at home are, disconcertingly, rendered with the same specificity and convincing detail as were the cheese platters and minuets of Paris.
But the Paris that the dictator idealizes as “the source of all culture” is a Paris of the imagination. Throughout the novel we also get vivid descriptions of the Latin American nation’s landscape, culture and folk-life rivaling, in their richness, those of the French capital — which one suspects is the point.
This book, “inexplicably out of print for years,” to quote the back cover, deserves consideration among the greatest novels depicting the interplay between the so-called Old World and New. Carpentier uses a period of economic upheaval to paint a picture of society in the transmuting grip of new forces that remain recognizable and active in our own day.
The rogue general who seeks to replace our antihero is just a different figurehead inside the same battle-dress, but while these mirror images fight it out, an anarchist academic is riling up university students and the nation’s peasant under-class, declaring permanent revolt against all tyrants. These insurrectionists don’t respect the authority of international Yankee business, and by expropriating funds and resources from fruit plantations, they incur the wrath of the US.
This presents the threat of total recolonization — once Uncle Sam gets involved, he tends to stay involved. “Just look at Cuba,” the dictator says, a bitter joke from the pen of the Cuban Carpentier. Even as the dictator fights to remain in his palace, by selling land and other resources to American-owned business interests, he unwittingly loses a more important war, one of culture.
One Christmas, his newly modernized capital city is suddenly awash in freaky new Christmas trappings, including a bizarre Nordic figure named “Santa Claus” who supplants all the local Nativity traditions. Like the smiling, sun-tanned C.I.A. fixers loitering in the capital’s nicest hotel, Santa is now an indefinite fixture.
In the end, “Reasons of State” gives us the life and death not just of a tyrant or a regime, but of a nation — a beautiful and particular world sacrificed on the altar of modernity.
Available at Melville House Bookstore [145 Plymouth St. at Pearl Street in Dumbo, (718) 722–9204, www.mhpbooks.com].
“February Houses,” named after the 20th-century Brooklyn arts commune, spotlights recent or noteworthy literature from Brooklyn publishers. To send books for review, contact xjulesbent