I’ve long fancied the role of tyrant or dictator; In fact, I’m convinced that it’s a job that is made for me. Inflated sense of self worth and importance? Yep. Irascible? Intolerant? Yep. Looks good in a hat? Oh yes. Unbending, strong-willed, dogmatic? Thrice yes. Most tyrants are known to outlaw or make punishable certain acts or groups of people that previously were permissible or tolerated, so, with that in mind, let’s suppose [in an ideal world, and all that] that I am made world dictator, what would I want to put a stop to?
Small talk; English people cheering Andy Murray during tennis tournaments; cultural stereotypes in The Simpsons on holiday episodes [it’s not the 1970’s any longer, you cretins]; drunken shouting outside my window at 2am; 50 Shades of Grey; funny greetings cards; women who think that getting drunk and sleeping around is somehow an act of feminism [do what you like, ladies, but you’re not making a political statement]; people who are obsessed with their children and are unable to talk about anything else; breastfeeding in public; spitting; people playing music on their mobile phones on trains and buses; people who criticise hip-hop for being misogynistic and yet watch and enjoy rapey arthouse films [your hypocrisy galls me] where women are abused from the start of the film to the finish; the press, particularly The Sun and The Daily Mail [but all of them really; they’e all lying, sanctimonious, hate-mongering fuckwits]; Reality TV shows; the English royal family…I really could go on forever.
Victor Hugues, the central character of Carpentier’s work, the man around whom all of the action in the book revolves [even if he, himself, isn’t directly involved in it at times], wants to stamp out oppression, the old order, the monarchy, and instate a worldwide people’s republic, in which all men are equal and slavery is abolished. At least, initially he does. What we ultimately find is that as the revolutionary Hugues finds success, especially after he takes control of Guadeloupe in the name of France, as he becomes more powerful and influential, he succumbs to the allure of money and status and his seemingly entrenched beliefs are cast to the wind in favour of maintaining his own elevated position. As a mad bastard, proto-Gadaffi, he finds justification for these changes of heart, of course [the emancipation of black people being one of the first ideas he reneges on], citing the need to ensure stability as the motivation. Sound familiar?
The instigating factor for everything that happens in the book is the French Revolution. Robespierre! Guillotine! Vive le France! Vive la liberté! The action, however, mostly takes place in the Caribbean. Explosion in a Cathedral is a novel about the effects of the French Revolution on this part of the world, which is something I, at least, was not really aware of prior to commencing my reading. There are many South American novels that deal with dictators and their mad reigns of terror, but it was particularly interesting to encounter one that wanted to show how a dictator is made. Victor cleverly takes advantage of the naivety and liberal spirit of those in thrall to the quixotic idea of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité and the maxim all men are born free and equal, he rides the good-will of the native people whose lands he invades by overthrowing their corrupt oppressors.
As with all of Carpentier’s work the characterisation is a little flat, but it matters less when he is writing about world-altering events. The thought struck me during my reading that the Cuban wasn’t interested in individual psychology [if you want to read about how the individual feels in these kinds of conditions then War & Peace is what you ought to be picking up], but, rather, the place, the role, of human beings within the world-as-a-whole; he seemed to view humanity as merely another part of the world, instead of as something distinct from, or more important than, it; he is interested here in cause and effect, connections and order [the order that exists even in disorder]. Reading Carpentier I am always left feeling small and insignificant or, rather, that my significance is equal to the smallest and also the greatest of all things.