As hundreds of thousands of people designated Haitian in the Dominican Republic are facing imminent deportation and the unknown, it’s an appropriate time to remember Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World. First published in 1949, this brief, lyrical novel is one of the works usually pointed to as kicking off the genre magical realism. The fantastical and historical meet in this work about the origin of modern Haiti. It renders before, during, and after the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th to early 19th century through the eyes of Ti Noel.
Ti Noel serves as a cook and a slave on the sugar plantation of Lenormand de Mezy when the novel begins. There he is drawn into a vast network of resistance by Macandal, a fellow slave and a leader in the revolt, whose stories create a community with a shared past among the displaced and dispossessed people taken from Africa to work the plantations in the Caribbean. Macandal is a messianic character with a talent for working miracles from the harm done to him. When his hand is mangled early on in the story, Macandal returns with greater magic beginning a cycle of meeting devastation with regeneration.
Through contact with Macandal, Ti Noel develops a reverence for nature, knowledge, and action. Although by his own account not a good person, Ti Noel finally, like Macandal, gains the power of transformation. However, he and Macandal do not use this power to the same ends. At the end of his life and after the rule of the infamous Henri Christophe and the re-stratification of social class based on skin color, Ti Noel uses transformation to escape human society altogether.
Ti Noel is both a witness to history and a participant in the revolution. Like Carpentier himself, Ti Noel experiences the liberation of his home in exile. This absence from Haiti can easily be read to represent the trauma at the heart of the book, something too awesome or terrifying to be seen or remembered accurately. The victory literally unseen by Ti Noel reflects the tension between the unimaginable and wonderful feat of a slave revolt trouncing French and Spanish military might and then forming an autonomous nation, a unique event in history in many ways, and the dismal failure of liberation to bring anything better than a reenactment of the old power structures under colonialist rule. These facts cannot be reconciled, and instead they are overlayed.
In some ways Carpentier is telling his own story and the story of the Caribbean in which he lived. The novel speaks to his own struggles with identity, displacement, and statelessness. After his first period of exile escaping persecution in Europe, Carpentier visited Haiti where he encountered a real sense of the marvelous before returning to his home country of Cuba. Just as magic overlays fact and triumph overlays defeat in this novel, the present overlays the past. The reader is asked to accept layer after layer of complication and contradiction. Carpentier’s Haiti is a bridge to many places, and the myth of origin he creates is an attempt to reclaim its narrative outside the official history.