The Kingdom of This World

Written by Alejo Carpentier Pablo Medina (trans.)
Review by G. J. Berger

Originally published in Spanish in 1949 and translated soon after, this second English translation offers a new edition of the classic novel based on Haiti’s slave revolts in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The story unfolds mainly from the point of view of a plantation slave, Ti Nöel, starting on a quiet day when he and his master buy a horse for stud. Soon Ti is swept up in the frenzy of the coming mutiny. Magical realism, Vodou, and snake worship energize and unite the slaves. Imagined events blend with reality. Slaughter, looting and burning follow after the oppressed attack their oppressors and install their own ruler—who abuses them just as badly as had their European masters. Episodes of unchecked brutality on both sides are interspersed with scenes of normalcy—sharing drinks at a tavern, modest theatre performances, and ship passages back to Europe.

Carpentier avoids detailed battle strategies, dates, places, and body counts and stays away from exploring French, British, and Spanish roles in this symbolically important colony. Instead he digs into the emotions and feelings brought on by racism on both sides, the jungle terrain, disease, powerful weather, and the aftermath of unchecked slaughter where the only certainties are the earth, the sky, the sea, and death. Even in translation, the prose is literary, often lyrical. The whole novel unfolds in less than 130 pages but packs disturbing messages about colonial exploitations, culture divides, and man’s darker impulses.