I was just on the point of saying firmly
that I would come back some other day for
the present, when the servant returned, taking
off her rubbers. What she had brought for me
was a half-cut record without label, which the
Curator put on a phonograph, carefully selecting a fiber needle. Anyway, I thought to myself,
the suffering won’t last long, not more than two
minutes to judge by the grooving. I had turned
away to fill my glass when I heard behind me
the warble of a bird.
I looked in astonishment at the old man,
who was smiling with a gentle, fatherly air as
though he had just made me a priceless gift. I
was on the point of speaking, but he enjoined
silence on me, pointing a finger at the disc. Now
something different was surely coming. But no.
We were at the middle of the cutting, and that
monotonous warbling continued, broken by
brief pauses that all seemed of the same duration. It was not even the song of a very musical
bird, for I could not identify the trill, the portamento, and it had only three unvarying notes
whose timbre had the sonority of Morse code
in a telegrapher’s cabin. The record was almost
finished, and I could not understand where the
vaunted present of my former teacher was, nor
imagine what a document that could be of interest only to an ornithologist had to do with me.
The ridiculous audition came to an end, and
the Curator, transported by a joy I was at a loss to
understand, asked me, “Do you realize? Do you
realize?” And then he explained to me that the
warbling was not that of a bird but of an instru-
ment of fired clay with which the most primitive
Indians of the hemisphere imitate the song of a
bird before they set out to hunt it—this in a pos-
sessory rite to make the hunt propitious.
“It is the first proof of your theory,” the old
man said to me, almost embracing me, as a fit
of coughing choked him.
And just because I understood only too
well what he was trying to tell me by means
of the record (which was playing again), I was
filled with a growing irritation to which the two
drinks I had tossed off added fuel. The bird that
is not a bird, with a song that is not a song, but
a magical imitation aroused an unbearable resonance in my breast, bringing back the memory
of the work on the origins of primitive music
and organography I had done such a long time
before—it was not the years that frightened me,
but the futile rapidity of their passing.
Alejo Carpentier, from The Lost Steps. The son of
a French architect and a Russian pianist, Carpentier
grew up in Havana and left for Paris in 1928; upon
returning to Cuba in 1939, he began writing a study
of his country’s music. “I turned myself into a scholar,
a library rat, a paleographer, a midget historian,” he
later said. He published Music in Cuba in 1946.
The author of nine novels, Carpentier joined the Cu
ban Revolution and served as a diplomat in France
until his death in 1980.
Mbembe slit gong with human figure, Nigeria, late nineteenth century.