By Alejo Carpentier

Translated from the Spanish by

Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen

Mercury House. 159 pp. $16.95

ACCORDING TO the Uruguayan journalist and historian Eduardo Galeano, Alejo Carpentier was one of the first to find "that there is no magic more prodigious and delightful than the voyage that leads through experience, through the body, to the depths of America." As a pioneer on that journey, the Cuban novelist discovered huge new countries of fiction and became, along with the reclusive Mexican Juan Rulfo and a few others, a founding father of that singular collection of Latin American writers known as "the boom generation." Along the way, he coined the phrase "magical realism" to explain what they did.

One of the final markers of his passage through this virgin territory (Carpentier died in 1980) was a brief novel, The Harp and the Shadow, here translated into English for the first time. More accessible than many of his works, it is something of a summation of the discoveries he made on his long literary pilgrimage to the depths and heart of the New World.

The vehicle Carpentier chooses is the life and afterlife of Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, discoverer, explorer, conqueror, the giant who first "gave man a consummate vision of his world." Certainly, he was all these things, but was he also a saint?

The novel revolves around the effort -- instigated in the 19th century by Pope Pius IX -- to make him so. Moving through time from the Romantic Age to the Age of Discovery and back again, Carpentier treats us to a vision in metaphor of the New World taking revenge against the Old, absorbing its conquerors, withholding its secrets, commanding attention.

In the beginning, the continent hides itself and its riches from these first adventurers. So why has Columbus come? He tries slaves, but they die out quickly in the Spanish climate and further exploitation of the natives is forbidden by royal decree. Now the fearless mariner, having achieved "the greatest event witnessed by man since the world had received the Christian faith," has no second act.

Lacking one, he pretends: "Seeing that I could obtain neither gold nor flesh to sell, I began . . . to substitute, for gold and flesh, words." The conqueror builds, for himself and the sovereigns paying his way, great filigreed castles in the air, sculpting out of nothingness a vast mythology of expectation. Since he can deliver nothing concrete, Columbus spins out dreams.

But even as the man dreams a continent of wonder and mystery, that continent is dreaming him: "It is those lands that have formed me, sculpted my shape, defined me in the air that surrounds me . . ." Who will have the last laugh in this fierce battle between rival illusionists? Will the Admiral's vision of boundless material wealth and endless cruelty win out over the mystical soul of America? Or will the mystery be preserved?

This sort of struggle, pitting intractable and irreconcilable opponents against each other, is the kind of fight Carpentier loves to wage in his fiction. In richly textured, baroque settings he sends his characters off to dubious battles they can neither understand nor win. If they manage to survive, it's only by accident.

In The Harp and the Shadow the stakes are high -- but what are they, exactly? As one of his priestly supporters puts it, "Columbus's miracles surpassed those . . . of healing the sick, making the lame walk, the dumb speak, and raising a few dead"; had they been anything so simple, the issue would have been obvious. But his miracle was in transforming the way we all think, and not many get sanctified for that.

The question is much larger than one explorer's standing in the hereafter. What the author is asking us to muse on is the real nature of this "consummate vision" we have been given. Columbus has indeed "rent the veil of the unknown and entered a new reality" -- but what sort of reality is it?

It is a question Carpentier does not answer directly, though he does give hints. In a novel filled more with sinners than with saints, he shows how each discovery enlarges the mystery of America, how the conquest changed the conquerors and their perceptions forever.

"Pursuing a country never found that fades away like a castle of enchantments each time you sing your victory song," laments the mariner on his deathbed, "you were a follower of vapors . . ."

James Polk writes frequently about Latin America.