Prologue to The Kingdom of This World (1949)

Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980), one of Cuba's most distinguished writers and musicologists, had spent the years 1928-1939 in Europe as part of Andre Breton's Surrealist movement. He returned to Havana in 1939, having broken with the Surrealists, whom he now accused of bad faith, and otherwise thoroughly disenchanted with European and and literature. In 1943, he travelled to Haiti with the French actor Louis Jouvet and his troupe. In Port au Prince he delivered a lecture on "L'evolution culturelle de l'Amerique Latine," in which he insists on the anti-Cartesian character of Latin America. On his return to Cuba, he began writing The Kingdom of this World, which recounts the slave insurrections led by Mackandal and Bouckman, and the rise to power and downfall of  King Henri Christophe. The text that follows is a translation of the original preface to that novel. It is at once a screed against the Surrealists and a manifesto on the marvelous reality of the Americas. A revised and expanded version of the Prologue was published as a travelogue in 1975; a translation of that essay is available in Zamora and Faris, eds. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (1995).

...What we are to understand in this matter of metamorphosis into
wolves is that there is an illness doctors call lupine mania ...

                                                                                        (The Toils of Persiles and Sigismunda) (1)

Toward the end of 1943, I had the good fortune to visit the kingdom of Henri Christophe (2)---the poetic ruins of Sans-Souci, the massive citadel of La Ferriere, (3) imposingly intact despite lightning bolts and earthquakes--- and to acquaint myself with the still-Norman Cap-Haitien (the Cap Français of the former colony) where a street lined with long balconies leads to the cut-stone palace once inhabited by Pauline Bonaparte. (4)

After having felt the undeniable enchantment of this Haitian earth, after having discerned magical warnings on the red roads of
the Central Plateau, after having heard the drums of Petro and Rada, (5) I was moved to compare the marvelous reality I'd just
experienced with the tiresomsome attempts to arouse the marvelous that has characterized certain European literatures for last
thirty years. The marvelous, sought for in the old clichés of the Forest of Broceliande, (6) the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin the Magician, and the Arthurian cycle. The marvelous, pathetically evoked by the antics and deformities of sideshow
characters--will the young poets of France never get tired of the freaks and clowns of the féte foraine, which Rimbaud
dismissed long ago in his Alchemie du verbe? (7)

The marvelous, manufactured by sleight of hand, by juxtaposing objects ordinarily never found together: the old, fraudulent story of the fortuitous encounter of the umbrella and the sewing machine on an operating table (8),which engendered ermine spoons,(9)
snails in a rainy taxi, the lion's head on the widow's pelvis in Surrealist exhibitions. Or, even more to the point, the literary
marvelous: the king in Sade's Juliette, Jarry's supermacho, Lewis's monk (10), the hair-raising theatrical props of the English
gothic novel: ghosts, immured priests, lycanthropy, hands nailed to the castle door.

The result of attempting to arouse the marvelous at all costs is that the thaumaturges become bureaucrats. Invoked by means
of cliched formulas that turn certain paintings into a monotonous mess of drooping clocks, seamstress' dummies, or
vague phallic monuments, the marvelous is stuck in umbrellas, or lobsters, or sewing machines, or wherever, on an operating
table, in a sad room, in a stony desert. Miguel de Unamuno (11) said that memorizing rule books indicated a poverty of
imagination. Today there are codes for the fantastic based on the principle of the donkey devoured by the fig ( proposed in the
Chants de Maldoror as the supreme inversion of reality), codes to which we owe Children Menaced by Nightingales or
Andre Masson's Horses Devouring Birds. (12)

But we should note that when Andre Masson tried to draw the jungle of Martinique, with its incredible entangling of plants and
the obscene promiscuity of certain fruits, the marvelous truth of the subject devoured the painter, leaving him virtually impotent
before the empty canvas. It had to be an American painter, the Cuban Wifredo Lam (13), who showed us the magic of tropical
vegetation, the uncontrolled creativity of our natural formations--with all their metamorphoses and symbioses--on monumental
canvases whose expression is unique in contemporary art (14).Faced with the disconcerting poverty of imagination of a Tanguy,(15) for example, who for twenty-five years now has been painting the same petrified larvae under the same gray sky, I feel compelled to recite the dictum that was the pride of the first generation of Surrealists: Vous qui ne voyez pas, pensez a ceux qui voient.[You who don't see, think about those who can.]

There are still too many "adolescents who take pleasure in raping the freshly murdered cadavers of beautiful women"
(Lautreamont), who do not realize that it would be more marvelous to ravish them alive. (16) It's that so many people forget,
because it costs them so little to dress up as magicians, that the marvelous begins to be marvelous in an unequivocal way when it arises from an unexpected alteration of reality (a miracle), from a privileged revelation of reality, from an unusual insight that is
singularly favored by the unexpected richness of reality, or from an amplification of the scale and categories of reality, perceived
with particular intensity by means of an exaltation of the spirit that leads it to a kind of "limit-state."

In the first place, the phenomenon of the marvelous presupposes a faith. (17) Those who do not believe in saints cannot be cured by the miracles of the saints, in the same way that those who are not Quixotes cannot enter, body and soul, into the world of
Amadis of Gaul or Tirant lo Blanc. (18) Certain remarks by Rutilio in Cervantes's Toils of Persiles and Sigismunda, about
men being transformed into wolves, are prodigiously believable because in Cervantes's day it was believed that there were
people afflicted with lupine mania. The same applies to the character's journey from Tuscany to Norway on a witch's cape.
Marco Polo allowed that certain birds could fly carrying elephants in their talons; Martin Luther saw the Devil right before his eyes and threw an inkwell at his head. Victor Hugo, so exploited by the sellers of marvelous books, believed in apparitions, because he was sure of having spoken, while in Guernsey, with the ghost of Leopoldina.

All Van Gogh needed was faith in the Sunflower (19) to capture its revelation on a canvas. Thus, the idea of the marvelous invoked in the context of disbelief--which is what the surrealists did for so many years--was never anything but a literary trick, and a boring one at that for having been prolonged, as is the literature that is oneiric by "arrangement," or the praises of folly now back in fashion. But, by the same token, we are not, for all that, going to yield to those who advocate a return to the realism--a term that takes on, in this context, a slavishly political agenda--because they are merely replacing the magician's tricks with the commonplaces of academics or the scatological delights of some existentialists.

There is clearly no excuse for poets and artists who praise sadism without practising it, who admire the supermacho because of
their own impotence, who invoke spirits without believing they answer to incantations, and who found secret societies, literary
sects, or vaguely philosophic groups with passwords and arcane goals that are never achieved, without being able to conceive
a valid mysticism or to abandon their pettiest habits in order to risk their souls on the frightening card of faith.

All of this became particularly evident to me during my stay in Haiti, where I found myself in daily contact with something we
could call the marvelous real . I was treading earth where thousands of men, eager for liberty, believed in Mackandal's (20)
lycanthropic powers, to the point that their collective faith produced a miracle on the day of his execution. I already knew the
prodigious story of Bouckman, (21) the Jamaican initiate. I had been in the citadel of La Ferriere, a structure without architectonic precedents, portended only in Piranesi's Imaginary Prisons. (22) I had breathed the atmosphere created by Henri Christophe, a monarch of incredible undertakings, much more surprising than all the cruel kings invented by the surrealists, who were very fond of imaginary tyrannies, never having suffered through one.

I found the marvelous real with every step. But I also realized that the presence and vitality of the marvelous real was not a
privilege unique to Haiti but the patrimony of all the Americas, where we have not yet established an inventory of our
cosmogonies. The marvelous real is found at each step in the lives of the men who inscribed dates on the history of the
Continent and who left behind names still borne by the living: from the seekers after the Fountain of Youth or the Golden City of Manoa to certain early rebels or modern heroes of our wars of independence, those of such mythological stature as Colonel
Juana Azurduy. (23)  It has always seemed significant to me that as recently as 1780 some perfectly sane Spaniards from Angostura set out in search of El Dorado, and that, during the French Revolution-- long live Reason and the Supreme Being!--Francisco Menendez, from Compostela, traversed Patagonia hunting for the Enchanted City of the Caesars. (24) Looking at the matter in another way, we see that while in western Europe folk-dancing has lost all its magical evocative power, it is rare that a collective dance in the Americas does not embody a profound ritual meaning that creates around it an entire initiatory process: such are the santeria dances in Cuba or the prodigious African version of the Corpus feast, which may still be seen in the town of San Francisco de Yare in Venezuela.

There is a moment in the sixth song of Maldoror when the hero, chased by all the police in the world, escapes from "an army of
agents and spies" by taking on the shape of diverse animals and making use of his ability to transport himself instantly to Peking,
Madrid, or Saint Petersburg. This is "marvelous literature" at its peak. But in the Americas, where nothing like that has been
written, there did exist a Mackandal who possessed the same powers because of the faith of his contemporaries and who used
that magic to inspire one of the most dramatic and strange uprisings in History.

Maldoror--Isidore Ducasse himself confesses it--was nothing more than a "poetic Rocambole." (25) All he left behind was a
short-lived literary school. The American Mackandal, on the other hand, has left behind an entire mythology, accompanied by
magical hymns, preserved by an entire people, who still sing them at Vaudou ceremonies. (There is, on the other hand, a strange coincidence in the fact that Isidore Ducasse, a man who had an exceptional instinct for the fantastic-poetic, was born in the
Americas and bragged so emphatically at the end of one of his chapters of being "Le Montevideen.") Because of the virginity of
its landscape, because of its development, because of its ontology, because of the Faustian presence of the Indian and of the
Black, because of the Revelation its recent discovery constituted, because of the fertile racial mixtures it favoured, the Americas
are far from having used up their wealth of mythologies.

The text that follows, even though I didn't conceive of it in programatic fashion, responds to this order of concerns. It tells of a
sequence of extraordinary events that occurred on the island of Saint Dominigue over a period of time which does not exceed a
singe human life. It allows the marvelous to flow freely from a reality set down strictly in all its details. The reader must be
warned that the story he is going to read is based on rigorous documentation which not only respects the historical truth of the
events, the names of the characters (even the minor ones), of the places, and even of the streets, but which also conceals under
its apparently non-chronological facade a minute collation of dates and chronologies.

And yet, because of the dramatic singularity of the events, because of the fantastic bearing of the characters who met, at a given
moment, at the magical crossroads of Cap-Haitien, everything seems marvelous in a story it would have been impossible to set
in Europe and which is as real, in any case, as any exemplary event yet set down for the edification of students in school texts.
What, after all, is the history of all the Americas but a chronicle of the marvelous real?


1. The Toils of Persiles and Sigismunda (1617); Cervantes last romance, the story of the religious conversion of some travellers from Greenland to Rome.

2. Henri Christophe (1767-1820); president (1807-1811) and king  (1811-1820) of the French Caribbean colony of Saint Dominique (now Haiti). He was born in Grenada, and  distinguished himself in the revolution against the French in 1791. In 1806, he and the Haitian general Alexandre Pétion helped to overthrow the self-proclaimed emperor Jean Jacques Dessaline. In 1811, following a civil war between Pétion and Christophe, who in 1807 had proclaimed himself President of nothern Haiti, Christophe proclaimed himself king as Henri I. He did much to improve the lives of  his people, and his court tried to rival the splendour of Versailles, but his rule was brutally autocratic. In 1820, he was incapacitated by a stroke, and shot himself when his army mutinied.

3. Images of Sans Souci and la Ferriere

4. Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825); Napolean's favorite sister resided in Cap Francais as the wife of General Victor Leclerc, who had been sent to quell the insurrection. He died from fever in 1802, after which Pauline returned to Europe to marry Prince Borghese of Italy.

5. Petro and Rada: "loas" or spirits, in the Voudon religion. Rada loas are benevolent and gentle; Petro loas are dark gods, counterbalances to the benevolent forces of the Rada, and can be very aggressive and sometimes ferocious.

6. The forest of Broceliande lies in the region known today as Paimpont, to the south west of Rennes.. This enchanted region is the setting for the quest by the Knights of the Round Table to recover the Holy Grail under orders from King Arthur. One of the best known inhabitants of the forest was Merlin the Magician.

7. The second Delirium, "The Alchemy of the Word," is from A Season in Hell (1873) the best known prose poem by the great French Symbolist, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1881). The poem recounts his sufferings close to madness and his failed experiment to become a seer poet.

As translated by Paul Schmidt, and published in 1976 by Harper Colophon Books, Harper & Row, the poem reads, in part:.

My turn now. The story of one of my insanities.

For a long time I boasted that I was master of all possible landscapes and I thought the great figures of modern painting and poetry were laughable.

What I liked were : absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, bright-colored prints ; old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books full of misspellings, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children's books, old operas, silly old songs, the naïve rhythms of country rimes.

I dreamed of Crusades, voyages of discovery that nobody had heard of, republics without histories, religious wars stamped out, revolutions in morals, movements of races and continents : I used to believe in every kind of magic.

I invented colors for the vowels ! - A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. - I made rules for the form and movement of every consonant, and I boasted of inventing, with rhythms from within me, a kind of poetry that all the senses, sooner or later, would recognize. And I alone would be its translator.

I began it as an investigation. I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.

The worn-out ideas of old-fashioned poetry played an important part in my alchemy of the word.

I got used to elementary hallucination : I could very precisely see a mosque instead of a factory, a drum corps of angels, horse carts on the highways of the sky, a drawing room at the bottom of a lake ; monsters and mysteries ; a vaudeville's title filled me with awe.

And so I explained my magical sophistries by turning words into visions !

8. Carpentier alludes to, and may be misreading Isidore Ducasse (1846-1870), who wrote under the name Comte de Lautréamont. The image of the umbrella appears in the sixth canto of Les Chants de Maldoror (1890) and was for Breton and the Surrealists the emblem of a fortuitous and incongruous encounter. Lautréamont describes an encounter with a passerby as follows:
I am an expert at judging age from the physiognomic lines of the brow: he is sixteen years and four months of age. He is as handsome as the retractility of the claws in birds of prey; or, again, as the unpredictability of muscular movement in sores in the soft part of the posterior cervical region; or, rather, as the perpetual motion rat-trap which is always reset by the trapped animal and which can go on catching rodents indefinitely and works even when it is hidden under straw; and, above all, as the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table!
                                                                      (Maldoror and Poems. Trans. Paul Knight, Penguin Books, 1978)
The Surrealists regarded Ducasse as an antecedent, and this particular image and variations of it seem to have been especially resonant with them. See, for example, Salvator Dali's poem, "You Could See the Ass's Bone," in Julien Levy's Surrealism (New York, 1936) or Joseph Cornell's Collage(1932) below. According to Nancy Gray Diaz, Carpentier is reading Lautréamont through a Surrealist filter; in actuality, the Chants of Maldoror constitute "a vigorous, multivalent assault on the French popular novel, Romantic literature and beyond these, the western literary tradition, for the transgressions of its myth-making"(52). See "The Metamorphosis of Maldoror and Mackandal: Reconsidering Carpentier's Reading of Lautréamont," Modern LanguageStudies 21, no 3 (Summer 1991): p. 48-56.]

9. Carpentier here alludes to a number of works that he might have seen at the 1938 "Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme" in Paris (Galerie Beaux-Arts).

Meret Oppenheim created her Object: Fur Covered Cup, Saucer, and Spoon in 1936.

Salvador Dali's Rainy Taxi was the main object in the lobby of the January, 1938 "Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme". The installation consisted of the hulk of a taxi containing a driver with a shark's head (supposedly Christopher Columbus) and a blonde female passenger. Holes had been cut in the roof of the taxi to let rain seep through the installation for the benefit of the 200 live snails.

The "head of a lion on the pelvis of a widow" refers to Georges Hugnet's Woman Panther(1938).

10. Carpentier aludes to Donatien Alphonse François, comte de Sade (1740-1814). His Historie de Juliette; ou, Les Prosperites du vice (6 vols.) appeared in 1797. Alfred Jarry (1873-1907); his Ubi Roi appeared in 1896. Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818); his The Monk was published in 1796.

11. Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), important member of the Spanish Generation of 1898; a philosopher in the Existentialist vein.

12. Two Children Menaced by a Nightingale (1924), by Max Ernst; Horses Devouring Birds (1927) by Andre Masson, oil and feathers on canvas. The image of the fig devouring the donkey occurs early in the fourth canto of the Chants, and is intended to convey Maldoror's condemnation of figurative language. The "drooping clocks," "seamstress' dummies," "phallic monuments," etc. referred to earlier in the paragraph  indicate works  by Dali and Giorgio de Chirico.

13. Andre Masson (1896-1987) left France in March 1941, and spent three weeks in Martinique in the company of Wilfredo Lam(1902-1982) and Claude Levi-Strauss. Lam had come to Martinique with Breton and numerous other artists and intellectuals, all heading for the USA directly or indirectly. Early in 1942, and in subsequent years, Lam attended Afro-Cuban ritual dances and nañigo ceremonies in Havana and elsewhere with Carpentier and others. In 1945, Lam, Breton, and Pierre Mabille visited Haiti, where they witnessed voudon ceremonies.

14. Note with what American prestige the works of Wilfredo Lam triumph, in their deep originality, over the other painters shown in this special issue--a panorama of modern art--published in 1946 by Cahiers d'Art. (Author's note)

15. Ives Tanguy (1900-1955)

16. "In his critique of Ducasse, Carpentier demonstrates ironically how much of a Surrealist he is. Furthermore, the remark about the delights of raping live women places him with the Surrealists in the cult of gratuitous violence advocated by Breton, Artaud, and other French writers of the thirties (including Gaston Bachelard, who wrote his study of Lautréamont, a celebration of violence, in the thirties. Violence in El reino itself, of course, is in no way gratuitous, since it serves the goal of revolution against oppression. But here again Carpentier approximates Ducasse, in whose work violence is anything but gratuitous, as it works to try to demolish what Ducasse considers to be the pernicious influence of literary myth, metamorphosis arming itself to destroy metaphor" (55). Nancy Gray Diaz; see note 8.

17. Cf;: William Seabrook, The Magic Island (1929)] " I learned from Louis that we white that we white strangers in this 20th century city (New York), with our electric lights and motor cars, bridge games and cocktail parties, were surrounded by another world invisible, a world of marvels, miracles, and wonders--a world in which the dead rose from their graves and walked, in which a man lay dying within shouting distance of my own house and from no mortal illness but because and old woman out in Léogane sat slowly unwinding the thread wrapped round a wooden doll made in his image, a world in which trees and beasts talked for those whose ears were attuned, in which gods spoke from burning bushes, as on Sinai, and sometimes still walked bodily as in Eden's garden...Voodoo in Haiti is a profound and vitally alive religion--alive as Christianity was in its beginnings and in the early Middle Ages when miracles and mystical illuminations were common everyday occurences" (12).

18. Romances of chivalry read by Don Quixote.

19. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

20. François Macandal, was the famous runaway slave who led a six-year rebellion (1751-57) against the French colonists in Saint Domingo. He was reputed to be an hougan, or voodoo sorcerer, and drew upon African traditions and religions to motivate his followers. The French burned him at the stake in Cap Français in 1758, although his followers believed that he escaped execution by turning himself into a fly..

21. Bouckman, a houngan who employed vaudau in its most aggressive (Petro) form to summon the slaves to revolt at a ceremony at Bois Caïman in 1791. He was  assumed by some of his followers to be the reincarnation of Mackandal.He was captured and beheaded.

22. Giovnni Batista Piranesi (1720-1778). In Carceri d'Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), 1745 this Italian engraver transformed Roman ruins into immense, fantastic dungeons with gloomy arcades, staircases rising to incredible heights, and bizarre galleries leading nowhere. Piranesi's engravings were an influence on 19th-century romanticism and also played a role in the development of Surrealism.

23. Juana Azurduy de Padilla (1781-1862), a heroine in the Bolivian wars for independence.

24. The enchanted City of the Caesars is a variant of the Eldorado legend and has incited countless explorations in Patagonia. Many Spaniards claimed to have  actually been there, and and numerous others went in search of it.. Sebastian Cabot, who discovered the Paraná and Paraguay rivers and established the first Spanish settlement in the Plata basin in1528, was preparing to search for the fabled city when a surprise attack by the Indians in1529 wiped out his base at Fort Sancti Spíritus.

25. Rocambole was the hero of Les Exploits de Rocambole (1859), French popular romances by Pierre-Alexix, Vicomte de Poson du Terrail (1828-1871). Maldoro is thus the ultimate parody of the Romantic literary hero and, at the same time, the embodiment and the destroyer of the Romantic literary myth. See Nancy Gray Diaz, note 2.