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15 December 2008
Teaching Guide for Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World
I. Description of the Novel
Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World, first published in 1948, is a foundational
text in the genre of magical realism. In his preface to the novel, Carpentier outlines the goals and
necessary characteristics of the genre, which he called "lo real maravilloso," the "marvelous
real." Though a Cuban writer, Carpentier chose Haiti between the 1750s and 1826 as his setting
for The Kingdom of This World because, like so many authors before and after him, Carpentier
saw the Haitian Revolution as an important symbol of anticolonial resistance in the Americas
and beyond. Unlike many of those authors, however, Carpentier chose to write The Kingdom of
This World from the perspective of an obscure slave, Ti-Noel, rather than from the point of view
of one of the Revolution's canonized figures such as Toussaint Louverture or Jean Jacques
Dessalines. At the height of the Revolution's successes, Carpentier moves the narrative away
from Haiti, instead following the path of the fleeing French planters to Santiago de Cuba. Still
enslaved to Lenormand de Mezy, Ti Noel is part of this migration to Cuba.
Crafting his novel through meticulous historical research, Carpentier seems to have
constructed Ti-Noel from records of an actual slave owned by Lenormand de Mezy. Employing
the vantage of this little-known slave, Carpentier conveys a unique subaltern perspective on the
Revolution. The novel also includes Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon's sister, who is sent to Saint-
Domingue with her husband Charles Leclerc (the French general charged with defeating
Louverture's forces). Henri Christophe, a major figure of the Revolution, also becomes a central
character, but emphasis is placed more on his reign as a dictator during the early years of Haitian
independence than on his role in the Revolution.
II. Potential Courses
With its complex treatment of genre and history, The Kingdom of This World lends itself
to a variety of potential courses. Two possible courses, a genre course on magical realism in the
Americas and a world literature course on the Haitian Revolution in history and literature, are
described in detail below. A short list of introductory courses is also provided. Secondary
sources that elaborate the relationship between genre, music, creolization, and history in
Carpentier's work are discussed in the bibliographic essay that concludes this teaching guide.
1) AML 2070-Survey of American Literature: Magical Realism in the Literature of the
Description: This course provides a survey of magical realist texts from Latin America,
the Caribbean, and the United States. The course attends to the historical and cultural factors
informing the production of those texts, as well as important debates over the defining
characteristics of magical realism. Potential texts include: The Kingdom of This World (Alejo
Carpentier), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Ceremony (Leslie
Marmon Silko), Beloved (Toni Morrison), The Grass Dancer (Susan Power), and excerpts from
Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction (Barbara Webb), MR (Brathwaite), and Magical
Realism: Theory, History, Community (Zamora and Feris).
Objective for including The Kingdom of This World: To understand the origins and
characteristics of magical realism. To understand the genre's role as a response to dominant
historical narratives. To understand the role of the Haitian Revolution in Caribbean nationalist
2) LIT 2120-World Literature: The Haitian Revolution in Myth, History, Literature, and Film
Description: This course approaches the Haitian Revolution as a historical event with a
contested meaning and significance. Historians, novelists, poets, dramatists, and political writers
have all used the Haitian Revolution as a symbol of either horror and chaos or liberation and
hope via black resistance to European oppression. These viewpoints relate to an ongoing political
debate over whether Haiti's politico-economic plights result mostly from external factors
(neocolonialism) or internal factors (the failure of black sovereignty, i.e., the failed-state thesis).
Texts would include: "To Toussaint L'Ouverture" (William Wordsworth), The Black Jacobins
(C. L. R. James), The Salt Roads (Nalo Hopkinson), Master of the Crossroads (Madison Smartt
Bell), The Kingdom of this World (Carpentier), excerpts from Haitian Revolutionary Studies
(David Geggus), excerpts from The Magic Island (William Seabrook), and Toussaint (Dir.
Danny Glover [forthcoming]).
Objective for including The Kingdom of This World: Carpentier's book is one of the first
writings about the Haitian Revolution to depart from emphasis on Toussaint Louverture.
Through this reordering of the historical record, the Revolution becomes a foundation for
Carpentier's New World aesthetics. Teaching The Kingdom of This World will illuminate how
stylistic choices make a historical/political statement about who (and/or what) should be
considered important actors/agents in human history.
Introductory and Survey Courses
3) Caribbean Literature Survey, 4) Latin American Literature Survey, 5) Introduction to Cuban
Literature and Culture
III. Lesson Plan 1: Historical Context of The Kingdom of This World
Haitian revolutionary history is a central feature of The Kingdom of This World.
However, Carpentier's treatment of the Revolution is idiosyncratic, departing greatly from
conventional renderings of the Haitian Revolution. The timelines below provide a historical
context for the novel. This context will help students identify and understand the sorts of choices
Carpentier has made in his construction of the novel. This timeline may be useful as a
handout/worksheet for individual or small group work or as a visual to accompany a lecture.
Topical Timeline-Relevant Dates in Haitian Revolutionary History
1757: Makandal's poisoning of the planters
1758: Makandal's execution
1791: Boukman foments an uprising with the Bois Caiman ceremony
1801-1804: French planters flee to Santiago de Cuba to escape the slave revolt;
Napoleon attempts to reclaim Saint-Domingue for France
1801-1802: Pauline Bonaparte follows Leclerc to Saint-Domingue
1803: Rochambeau retaliates against the revolting slaves
1803: Dessalines completes defeat of French forces
1807-1820: King Christophe's reign
1826: President Boyer's code rural (See Paravisini-Gebert 116).
Carpentier Timeline-Relevant Biographical Dates1
1927: Carpentier arrested for opposing Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado y
Morales. Starts writing Ecue-Yamba-O, which deals with the African-derived
traditions of the Cuban poor, during his 40 day incarceration. Leaves for exile in
France upon release from jail. Influenced by French Surrealism (Breton/Artaud).
1937: Attends anti-fascist writers' conference in Madrid (Span. Civil War).
Influenced by Span. Baroque.
1943: Carpentier visits Haiti, sees Christophe's Palace of Sans-Souci and
Citadelle La Ferriere
1945: Carpentier moves to Caracas, Venezuala, where he finishes The Kingdom of
Of particular importance to the timeline are Carpentier's emphases on the enduring
influence of Makandal and the planter migration to Santiago de Cuba. The novel begins
sometime in the 1750s, before Makandal's career as a revolutionary maroon has begun.
Makandal remains a pertinent figure in the novel even after his execution, as Ti Noel often thinks
back on the teachings of Makandal and passes songs and stories about the revolutionary figure
on to his sons. While Makandal is frequently featured in traditional accounts of the Revolution,
conventional periodization tends to create a gap between Makandal's activities and the
Revolution proper-Makandal becomes prerevolutionary rather than a contributor to the actual
Revolution itself. Carpentier's treatment of Makandal asserts a subaltern historiography that
challenges this periodization, allowing Makandal to be an early and enduring figure in Haitian
But, of primary peculiarity is Carpentier's turn to Santiago de Cuba during Haiti's
victorious battle against Napoleon's counterrevolutionary forces. This turn to Cuba has been
seen as a symptom of Carpentier's pessimism (see Paravisini-Gebert), but this narrative
trajectory seems to further Carpentier's subaltern principles by amending the gaps of
periodization and "silences [that] enter the process of [traditional] historical production"
(Trouillot 26) with scenes from Ti Noel's life as a Haitian slave exiled yet still in bondage. In
Santiago de Cuba, Ti Noel meets to swap news with other French slaves (84), creating a sense of
subaltern solidarity that exists beyond the borders of Saint Domingue-the site of revolution is
thereby extended from Haiti to Cuba. The relevance of these narrative decisions can be a fruitful
'(See "Alejo Carpentier: 1904-1980" at http://biography.jrank.org/pages/3566/Carpentier-Alejo-1904-1980-
Writer.html for more biographical information)
source of class discussion. The following discussion prompts ask students to consider the
historical relevance of Carpentier's narrative decisions.
1: Why might Carpentier have chosen to follow Ti Noel and Lenormand de Mezy to Cuba when
landmarks in Haitian revolutionary history (Toussaint Louverture's campaign against French
forces, Napoleon's eventual capture of Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines' final conquering of
French forces, and the writing of the first Haitian constitution) are occurring in Hispaniola?
What happens to Ti Noel when he is in Santiago de Cuba?
2: Toussaint Louverture, the central figure of most literary and historical renderings of the
Haitian Revolution, only appears once in The Kingdom of This World. He is depicted as a
cabinetmaker incorrectly fashioning wood carvings of the three wise men for Lenormand de
Mezy's nativity display:
Toussaint, the cabinetmaker, had carved the Three Wise Men in wood, but they
were too big for the nativity, and in the end were not set up, mainly because of the
terrible whites of Balthasar's eyes, which had been painted with special care, and
gave the impression of emerging from a night of ebony with the terrible reproach
of a drowned man. (39)
Toussaint becomes a major force in the Haitian Revolution a few years later, but we do not see
these events in the novel since Carpentier follows Ti Noel to Cuba just as Toussaint assumes
leadership of the slave rebellion. What is the significance of Toussaint carving unusable wise
men? Consider the fact that Balthasar is described as a black magus in the Bible (Book of
IV. Lesson Plan 2: Music and Creolization
Cuban music is an amalgam of Spanish music and Negro rhythm. Both of these elements
were the basis of the original creole style which persisted for a long time, before Cuban
music could evolve its definitive stylistic characteristics so different from those of the
music of other lands of the continent"
-Alejo Carpentier and Ethel S. Cohen, "Music in Cuba (1523)" (374).
This lesson plan continues the theme of historical context and narrative choice but with a
closer focus on how Carpentier utilizes music and creolization as concrete aspects of his
alternate/subaltern history of the Haitian Revolution. Alejo Carpentier had a deep interest in
music for most of his life. Writing many articles, like the one quoted above, and a book, La
mufsica en Cuba (1946), Carpentier saw Cuban music as a unique syncretism of African and
Spanish musical idioms. The popular music style s6n, which Antonio Rodriguez helped
popularize in the 1940s, was of particular interest to Carpentier. Carpentier's interest in
creolization led him to Afro-Cuban music just as it led him to lo real maravilloso, a genre that
seeks to embody the creolized vitality of cultural life in the Americas. The following links
provide audio-visual examples of Cuban s6n and Haitian rara, also a creolized music form that
fuses African and European elements, as well as a clip of popular Haitian music group Boukman
Eksperyans, who use allusions to the Haitian Revolution in their lyrics as a representation of
liberation and hope for the African diaspora.
A photo and sound montage of popular 1940s s6n music band leader Antonio
A performance of Haitian rara music during a CIW (Coalition of Immokalee
Workers) march protesting the unfair treatment of Hispanic, Haitian, Mayan, and
other immigrants who work in the produce fields of Immokalee, Florida:
A music video of the Boukman Eksperyans song "Se Kreyol Nou Ye" ("We're
1. According to Carpentier, s6n music is a creolization (amalgamation/intermixture) of "Spanish
music and Negro rhythm" that creates a uniquely Cuban style of music (Carpentier and Cohen
374). Carpentier's interest in music continues in The Kingdom of This World but within a Haitian
rather than Cuban context. View the clips of Antonio Rodriguez and the Haitian rara band. What
is the significance of Carpentier's shift from a Cuban cultural context to a Haitian one? Is Haitian
rara also a product of creolization? Does Haitian rara bare any resemblance to s6n?
2. Early in The Kingdom of This World, Ti Noel hums a song about the English king to himself
as "a kind of mental counterpoint" to Lenormand de Mezy's whistling of a French fife march:
M. Lenormand de Mezy and his slave left the city by the road that skirted the
seashore .... Old memories of his days as a petty officer stirred in the master's
breast, and he began to whistle a fife march. Ti Noel, in a kind of mental
counterpoint, silently hummed a chanty that was very popular among the harbor
coopers, heaping ignominy on the King of England. This he was sure of, even
though the words were not in Creole. (10)
Is Ti Noel's appropriation of a song from a different culture and in a different language than his
own a form of creolization? How does this scene relate to the novel's themes of anticolonialism
3. As the slaves begin to revolt on his plantation, Lenormand de Mezy starts to realize that "a
drum might be more than just a goatskin stretched across a hollow log" (72). Much later in the
novel, Henri Christophe becomes dismayed once the "the drums [have] boomed, the radas, the
congos, the drums of Bouckman, the drums of Grand Alliances, all the drums of Voodoo" (142).
Why do these authority figures fear the music of the slaves? How are drums more than just
instruments in The Kingdom of This World?
4. The name of popular Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans alludes to both Boukman, the
Jamaican Vodou priest believed to have led the Bois Caiman ceremony, and Jimi Hendrix's
band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience (eksperyans is Kreyol for experience). Review Carpentier's
depiction of the Bois Caiman ceremony (60-63), then view the clip of Boukman Eksperyans's
"Se Kreyol Nou Ye" ("We're Creole"). Why is Boukman an important icon for Boukman
Eksperyans? What is the significance of juxtaposing Boukman and Jimi Hendrix in the band's
name, and why might Boukman Eksperyans declare "We're Creole" in this song?
Bibliographic Essay for The Kingdom of This World
The lesson plans included in this teaching guide focus mostly on the topics of historical
context and music. This essay notes useful secondary literature on those topics, but it also notes
additional sources that can enhance an instructor's fluency with related aspects of The Kingdom
of This World, namely, the genre of magical realism and theories of creolization. This essay also
notes useful primary sources by Carpentier on the topics of music and creolization (La music en
Cuba) and the marvelous real (Carpentier's "On the Marvelous Real in America," a preface to
The Kingdom of This World). Publication dates have been included parenthetically for
convenience, but complete citation information can be found in the works cited page that follows
Beginning with works by Carpentier himself can provide added understanding of nearly
all the topics mentioned above. Before writing The Kingdom of This World, Carpentier published
a book on musical creolization in Cuba, La music en Cuba (1946) and also co-authored an
article with Ethel S. Cohen, "Music in Cuba," in the journal Music Quarterly (1947). Both the
book and the article stress the syncretic nature of Cuban music, emphasizing the dual origins of
Cuban musical idioms in Spanish and African music traditions. This argument posits
creolization as a force that leads to the creation of a Cuban culture that emerges from European
and African sources but has evolved into something uniquely Cuban. An English translation of
La music en Cuba was recently published for the first time as Music in Cuba (2003). Editor
Timothy Brennan provides useful biographical and historical information about Carpentier and
Cuban music in his introduction to the English edition.
With the publication of Carpentier's "On the Marvelous Real in America," a continuation
of his interest in creolization can be seen, though in a broader context that includes all manner of
cultural production (music, religion, architecture, visual art) and locales far beyond the scope of
Cuba. Carpentier references his travels to Europe and Asia and his observations of the cultures
within those continents, but his gaze ultimately settles on Haiti, where he becomes fascinated
with Henri Christophe's citadel, a fascination that sets his creation of The Kingdom of This
World in motion. Carpentier describes lo real maravilloso, the marvelous real, as a literary mode
that blends realistic and fantastic elements to better depict the realities of creolized cultural life in
the Americas. An English translation of Carpentier's preface can be found in Magical Realism:
Theory, History, Community (1995), an anthology of primary and secondary sources on magical
realism edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris.
Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community serves as a valuable primer on the scholarly
debates concerning the characteristics and implications of magical realism. Editors Zamora and
Faris assert magical realism as a global genre rather than a regional phenomenon specific to
Latin America and, in addition to Carpentier's "On the Marvelous Real in America," their
anthology also includes Franz Roh's "Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism" (1925), in which
Roh coins the phrase "magic realism." A newer anthology on magical realism, Sisyphus and
Eldorado: Magical and Other Realisms in Caribbean Literature (2002/2007), edited by Timothy
J. Reiss, takes a Caribbean-specific approach. Analyzing the works of authors such as
Carpentier, Derek Walcott, Erna Brodber, Aime Cesaire, Wilson Harris, and many others, the
collection posits a distinction between a Sisyphean literary tradition common to Anglophone
Caribbean literature and an Eldoradean literary tradition common to the Franco- and
Hispanophone literatures of the Caribbean. Where the literary Sisyphus (realism, social realism)
adopts a pessimistic tone toward the Caribbean's ability or inability to survive postcoloniality,
the literary Eldorado (magical realism) explores creolity and creolization as symptoms of a new
and unique cultural vitality native to the Caribbean. Also of value is Anne G. Hegerfeldt's Lies
that Tell the Truth (2005), which provides a succinct overview of magical realism's contested
meaning and history, as well as a useful explication of Carpentier's contributions to the genre, in
chapters 1 and 2. Also of merit is Shannin Schroeder's Rediscovering Magical Realism in the
Americas (2004), which compares North and South American strands of magical realism to
assert a pan-American approach to the genre. A more demanding and experimental study of
magical realism, Kamau Brathwaite' s MR: A Black Caribbean Blues Perspective on Post-
Cosmological Disruption & Redemption in the New Millenium (2002) performs magical realism
as it theorizes it. Brathwaite defines magical realism as a response to cosmological catastrophe
that utilizes an "open system" (hybrid knowledge, creolized cosmologies) rather than the "closed
system" (rational/analytic knowledge, secularized cosmologies) that characterizes colonial and
A common theme of creolization can be seen throughout Carpentier's writing on music,
his theory of lo real maravilloso, and the newer secondary literature on magical realism surveyed
above. A complicated topic, creolization can be challenging to teach, but familiarity with some
key theoretical works on creolization can yield immense benefits for understanding The Kingdom
of This World An early and accessible text on creolization, Kamau Brathwaite's Contradictory
Omens: Cultural Diversity andIntegration in the Caribbean (1974/1985) provides an etymology
of the term "creole" plus a cataloguing of the different usages "creole" and "creolization" have
been given since the sixteenth century ("Part One: Creolization"). Contradictory Omens gives a
clear history of these terms but can be a difficult text to find. Much easier to access but less
succinct in its explication of creolization is Brathwaite's The Development of Creole Society in
Jamaica 1770-1820 (1971/1978). Creolization is explicated through the exigency of plantation
life in colonial Jamaica, wherein the white planter class and the black slaves they oppressed
participated in a largely unacknowledged process of cultural exchange. Brathwaite's focus on
creolization under the extreme conditions of plantation slavery parallels Carpentier's interest in
Cuban music as a product of European and African syncretism that begins during plantation
slavery in Cuba. In these texts, Brathwaite and Carpentier both assert creole culture as the reality
of Jamaica and Cuba, respectively, a view that refutes a Eurocentric vision of colonies as
miniature versions of their metropolitan counterparts.
Newer relevant scholarship on creolization includes Caribbean Creolization: Reflections
on the Cultural Dynamics ofLanguage, Literature, and Identity (1998), edited by Kathleen M.
Balutansky and Marie-Agnes Sourieau; Michel-Rolph Trouillot's essay "Culture on the Edges:
Caribbean Creolization in Historical Context," available in editor Brian Keith Axel's anthology
From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures (2002); and A Pepper-Pot of
Cultures: Aspects of Creolization in the Caribbean (2003), edited by Collier and Fleischmann.
Caribbean Creolization offers a variety of older and newer essays on creolization that situate the
Caribbean as a key site in a broader New World context of creolization, subsequently
highlighting important disagreements between scholars. Trouillot's essay calls for an
ethnographic approach to creolization that respects local specificities and contexts in order to
avoid a totalizing application of creolization theory, while the anthology A Pepper-Pot of
Cultures takes a pan-Caribbean approach and utilizes both linguistics- and literature-based
perspectives on creolization.
Ultimately, Carpentier's use of music, creolization, and the marvelous real all contribute
to a critique of traditional historiography of the Haitian Revolution. Michel-Rolph Trouillot's
Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) can provide a useful theoretical
approach to understanding Carpentier's treatment of Haitian revolutionary history. Trouillot
asserts that "[s]ilences enter the process of historical production" when sources, archives,
narratives, and a "history in the final instance" are created (26). Against these "silences"
characteristic of traditional history-making, Carpentier emphasizes music, a mode of subaltern
historical transmission, and uses Ti Noel, an obscure slave as his protagonist. Roberto Gonzalez
Echevarria's Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home (1977) discusses Carpentier's use of
Haitian revolutionary history, asserting that Ti Noel becomes the thread that ties The Kingdom of
This World together. Barabara Webb also provides a useful examination of Carpentier's
approach to history in Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris,
and Edouard Glissant (1992). Of particular interest to those teaching The Kingdom of This
World are Webb's first and second chapters, "Lo real maravilloso in Caribbean Fiction" and
"The Folk Imagination and History: El reino de esta mundo, The Secret Ladder, and Le
quatrieme siecle." Chapter 1 situates Carpentier within an intellectual dialogue about the cultural
identity of the New World, emphasizing lo real maravilloso as Carpentier's contribution to a
"mythohistorical heritage of the America" (13). Chapter 2 compares the works of Carpentier,
Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant. Concerning The Kingdom of This World, Webb argues that
with "the consciousness of Ti Noel, Carpentier merges the mythic and historical cycles of the
novel. Thus the folk imagination (the oral traditions and religious beliefs of the Haitian slaves) is
the vehicle for the author's experiments with space and time in the narrative" (28). For a
dissenting opinion of Carpentier's narrative choices, see Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert's recent
article "The Haitian Revolution in Interstices and Shadows: Re-Reading Alejo Carpentier's The
Kingdom of this World' (2004). Paravisini-Gebert contests the notion that Carpentier reclaims a
lost history-from-below, arguing instead that Carpentier suffuses The Kingdom of This World
with a pessimism that devalues the Haitian Revolution as a historical event.
Balutansky, Kathleen M. and Marie-Agnes Sourieau, eds. Caribbean Creolization: Reflections
on the Cultural Dynamics ofLanguage, Literature, and Identity. Gainesville: UP of
Brathwaite, Kamau. Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean.
1974. Mona: Savacou, 1985.
--. The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820. 1971. New York: Oxford UP,
---. MR: A Black Caribbean Blues Perspective on Post-Cosmological
Disruption & Redemption in the New Millenium. 2 vols. New York: Savacou North,
Carpentier, Alejo. The Kingdom of This World. 1948. Trans. Harriet de Onis. New York: Farrar,
--. Music in Cuba. Ed. Timothy Brennan. Trans. Alan West-Duran. Minneapolis: U of
Minnesota P, 2003.
--- and Ethel S. Cohen. "Music in Cuba (1523-1900)." Music Quarterly 33.3 (1947): 365-
Collier, Gordon and Ulrich Fleischmann, eds. A Pepper-Pot of Cultures: Aspects of Creolization
in the Caribbean. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.
Faris, Wendy B. and Lois Parkinson Zamora. MagicalRealism: Theory, History, Community.
Durham: Duke UP, 1995.
Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto. Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home. New York: Cornell UP,
Hegerfeldt, Anne G. Lies that Tell the Truth. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.
Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. "The Haitian Revolution in Interstices and Shadows: Re-Reading
Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World. Research in African Literatures 35.2
Reiss, Timothy J., ed. Sisyphus and Eldorado: Magical and Other Realisms in Caribbean
Literature. 2002. Trenton, NJ: Africa World P, 2007.
Schroeder, Shannin. Rediscovering Magical Realism in the Americas. Westport,
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. "Culture on the Edges: Caribbean Creolization in Historical Context."
From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures. Ed. Brian Keith Axel.
Durham: Duke UP, 2002. 189-210.
--. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production ofHistory. Boston: Beacon, 1995.
Webb, Barbara J. Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and
Edouard Glissant. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.
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