The Harp and the Shadow

tutorial, commentary, study resources, web links

The Harp and the Shadow (1979) is one of the many novels by Alejo Carpentier in which he explores the history of Latin-America. He also deals with the ambiguous relationship between European culture and that of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These themes were very close to his own experience, since although he was raised in Cuba, his parents were Russian and French, and he spent a lot of his life living in Paris – where he was eventually made the Cuban cultural ambassador. He spoke in French, but wrote in Spanish.
The Harp and the Shadow

The novel is a mixture of political history, social documentary, and the re-imagined character of a real historical figure – Christopher Columbus. Most of the events in the novel are related from his point of view.

The Harp and the Shadow – commentary

Who was Columbus?
Christopher Columbus is often thought of as ‘the man who discovered America’ or ‘the first man to make a sea crossing to the New World’. Neither of these claims are true, and Carpentier’s novel is his way of setting the record straight. At the same time, he is trying to imagine what would be the real problems and preoccupations of a fifteenth century seafaring adventurer.
The person known in the west as Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, which was then a small independent Mediterranean republic with its own language. It was not incoporated into what became modern Italy until 1871.

His name was Christophoro Colombo. He spent much of his adult life in Portugal and Spain, where he was called Christobal Colon. This is the name by which he is now known throughout the Spanish-speaking world. But the name was also Anglicised as Christopher Columbus

In north America his name is built in to the expression ‘pre-Colombian’ – which refers to art and archaeology in the Americas (north and south) which pre-dates the so-called ‘discovery’ of America. It is also worth noting that Columbus never set foot in what is now the United States of America. All his activity was in the Caribbean islands and on the South American coast.

Magical Realism

It was Alejo Carpentier who coined the term ‘magical realism’. The expression is used in literary studies to describe the mixture of realism and fantasy elements in a single text – two approaches to fiction which are normally kept in separate genres.

This approach originated in Latin-American fiction with Carpentier, the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974), and it was made most popular by the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) with his best-selling novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

The Harp and the Shadow starts off in a reasonably conventional manner. The first two sections could easily be considered as parts of a historical novel. Section one concerns a real nineteenth century pope’s mission to Chile and his considering the beatification of Columbus on return to Europe.

Section two steps back temporally to the late fifteenth century and presents events from the perspective of Christopher Columbus as he organises and undertakes his voyage of ‘exploration’ to locate the East Indies by sailing westwards across the Atlantic.

But in the third part of the novel these two centuries are brought together. A nineteenth century papal tribunal is considering the application for his sainthood, but other historical figures make arguments for and against the decision. Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, and Leon Bloy (all French writers) participate in the debate. Even Columbus himself is present as the shadowy ‘Invisible One’

When the tribunal reaches its negative conclusion, Columbus then meets Andrea Doria, a fellow Genoan sixteenth century military commander, and they discuss the vagaries of fame and historical reputation.

As readers we are not expected to take these chronological liberties too seriously. They are fanciful, imaginative, and (sometimes) entertaining. But they are not arbitrary. or random. They are thematically linked and justified.

The whole novel is concerned with how history, from the perspective of Latin-America, sees the invasion of Christopher Columbus – not as a ‘discoverer’ (he discovered nothing that didn’t already exist) but someone who brought disease, greed, slavery, and imperialist domination to the continent from which it then had to spend the next two or three centuries liberating itself.

The world map

Columbus was sailing from Europe in a westerly direction, thinking that he could reach what are now known as the East Indies in Asia. These had already been visited and described by European explorers such as Marco Polo – but they had travelled by land routes in an easterly direction from Europe. Nobody at that time knew how big the earth was, and it had certainly not been circumnavigated or accurately mapped.

The first mistake of Columbus was to assume that on reaching what we now call the West Indies, that he had reached Asia. This accounts for his failure to understand where he was and his inability to locate all the spices which had been reported by earlier land explorers. His second mistake was to be blinded by his mistaken idea that there was a huge gold mine ‘just around the corner’, no matter where he found himself.

It is also obvious that he did not ‘discover’ America. Both continents of South and North America were already in existence, occupied by their native inhabitants. It is interesting that the indigenous population on both continents are still referred to as ‘Indians’. Columbus was merely amongst the first Europeans to visit what we now know as Latin-America. It is certainly worth noting that he never set foot in what is now the United States of America.

There is a third ironic mistake, though it is not discussed in the novel. Columbus lands in the West Indies and thinks he has reached the East Indies. Hence the ambiguous and double use of the term ‘Indian’ to describe the inhabitants. Explorers travelling in both easterly and westerly directions thought they were going to India.

Sea travel was very difficult and hazardous at that time, and Columbus must be given credit for his journeys if not his behaviour. But the fact is that he only reached the Caribbean, and his actual goal still lay at the other side of the world. Even discounting central America, he was still separated from his goal by the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific covers half of the earth’s surface. He thought he had sailed round half way the world, but had only covered less than a quarter of its navigable surface. This is a misconception of distance that is still perpetuated today. It is very common for maps of the world to omit the Pacific Ocean, giving the impression that Central America and Asia are not very far apart – when in fact the distance between them is 12,000 miles.


Carpentier is clearly offering an anti-heroic account of Columbus – a figure to whom statues have been erected all over the Spanish-speaking world as a great pioneer. In the novel he is cut down to size as a human being riven with flaws. He confesses that his younger days were those of a rake – a regular visitor to brothels. He lies about his achievements in order to secure patronage. He makes mistakes in navigation and geography – and much of the time does not know where he is. Nevertheless, he inflates himself with artificial pride about his ‘achievement’.

He is fuelled by an infantile lust for easy riches – the dream of a ‘mother load’ of gold just beyond the horizon. When this dream fails he turns to the slave trade as another source of easy wealth – at other people’s expense. He fails completely to deliver the results promised to his patrons, and in an act of petty greed, he keeps the reward offered to the first man to sight ‘land’. As old age and death approach him at the end of his journeys, he is terrified of meeting his ‘confessor’. He has been hailed as a hero – but he knows what sins he has committed.

The Harp and the Shadow – study resources

The Harp and the Shadow The Harp and the Shadow – at Amazon UK – (text in English)

The Harp and the Shadow El arpa y la sombra – at Amazon UK – (text in Spanish)

The Harp and the Shadow The Harp and the Shadow – at Amazon US – (text in English)

The Harp and the Shadow El arpa y la sombra – at Amazon US – (text in Spanish)

Boroque Concerto

Alejo Carpentier

The Harp and the Shadow – summary

The Harp

The first part of the novel is set in the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the Vatican City, Pope Pius IX hesitates over making Christopher Columbus a saint. As a young man, Giovanni Maria Mastai-Perretti, he is scholarly but poor. Because of his knowledge of Castillian, he is appointed envoy to Chile, where Bernado O’Higgins has liberated the country from Spanish rule. The mission arrives in Uruguay, where Montevideo is full of horses and mud, but the upper classes have imported European culture and modern ideas. The group crosses the Argentinian pampas, climbs over the Andes, and descends into Santiago de Chile.

Bernado. O’Higgins is overthrown by Ramon Friere. Mastai pretends to be radical, but the mission is eventually forced to leave Chile. They return via Cape Horn, where Mastai conceives the idea of uniting Europe and the Americas by elevating Chistopher Colombus to sainthood. So – as the later pontiff Pius IX he signs the papers recommending the beatification of Columbus, whose blameless life has recently been revealed in a specially commissioned biography.

The Hand

The second part of the novel is set towards the end of the fifteenth century.

An old seafarer is in the last stages of his life, and is preparing to make a religious confession of his worldly sins. He reveals his youthful lusts and his knowledge of Mediterranean brothels. He lists his beliefs in fabulous sea beasts and medieval myths, plus his enthusiasm for maritime navigation.

He recounts being on board a ship bound westwards towards the end of the known world at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He has gathered tales of earlier expeditions made by Vikings which had reached Greenland and even further west.

The old sailor is revealed as Christopher Columbus who confesses that he is an ambitious fake. He has constructed the myth of exploration westwards and promoted it in order to find sponsors. He operates from Portugal, and embellishes his reputation with exaggeration and lies. Despite repeated setbacks, he eventually wins the support of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who have recently driven the Muslims and Jews out of Granada.

He sets off with an inexperienced crew who soon become discouraged because of the length of the journey. He falsifies the ship’s records to make the distance seem shorter. When they finally sight land Columbus is filled with a vainglorious sense of his own importance and his ‘achievement’.

They think they have reached the East Indes. Columbus hopes no other missionaries have already reached there. Worthless gifts are exchanged with the natives, but Columbus is immediately in search of gold. He takes hostages by force and they sail on to Cuba which he finds beautiful – but it doesn’t contain the spices and the gold he expects. He does not know where they are, and he fears going back empty-handed.

They sail on to Haiti (Hispaniola) laying claim to ownership of all the places they visit, but they still find no spices and no gold. Reading over his journal of the voyage, he is ashamed by his obsession with gold, and unconvincingly vows to make religious penances.

They sail back to europe where he is given a hero’s welcome and summoned to the court in Barcelona. There he displays the captured ‘Indians’ (who are dying) and describes his expedition as a great triumph. But Queen Isabella sees through his claims as a vain bluff. Nevertheless she commissions another expedition in order to compete with the Portugese.

On the second voyage Columbus still doesn’t find any gold, but instead he captures natives and turns them into slaves. He argues that this is equally profitable, and regards the captives as ‘rebels against the Crown’.

He makes further journeys, still finds nothing, and lapses into a delusion that he has located an ‘earthly paradise’ in the ‘orient’. He proclaims by decree that Cuba is not an island but a continent. He feels that he has been overtaken by rivals and has been dispossessed of a national identity. He then faces the final confession before death.

The Shadow

The third part of the novel takes place in the late nineteenth century.

In the Vatican under pope Leo XIII the petition for beatification for Columbus is being considered by a tribunal. His bones and remains have frequently been moved and cannot be authenticated. There is a debate about the validity of his claims, with contributions from Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, and Leon Bloy. The tribunal considers his illegitimate son and his involvement in slavery – for which two reasons he is denied sainthood.

Columbus meets Andrea Doria after the tribunal. They discuss the limitations of fame and justice as two Genoan sailors.

The Harp and the Shadow – characters
Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti a young clergyman, later Pope Pius IX (1792-1878)
Christobal Colon a seafaring navigator and explorer (1451-1506)
Bernado O’Higgins leader of the Chilean independence movement (1778-1842)
Queen Isabella I Spanish monarch and patroness of Columbus (1451-1504

© Roy Johnson 2017

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