When a Great Novelist Turned His Pen on Tyranny
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past
"The Autumn of the Patriarch," the second of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's three masterworks, to this day remains something of a middle child: taken for granted, overlooked, misunderstood. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (1967) is his best known novel, his most admired, most imitated and most honored. "Love in the Time of Cholera" (1985) is his most beloved, one of the great love stories of world literature. But "The Autumn of the Patriarch" (1975) is widely believed to be difficult, inaccessible and even unpleasant.
None of this, as it happens, is true, but so many readers apparently have been scared away from the novel that it lags far behind the other two in sales and, presumably, recognition. Though sales rankings at Amazon.com should always be regarded with skepticism, probably the ratings for these three are a reasonably accurate reflection of reality. "Solitude" ranks around No. 2,000, "Cholera" is around 5,000, while "Patriarch" lags far behind at around 80,000; not merely does it trail "Solitude" and "Cholera," it is also outsold by such comparatively minor books by Garcia Marquez as "No One Writes to the Colonel" and "Chronicle of a Death Foretold."
This would be puzzling under any circumstances, but it is especially so at the present moment because "The Autumn of the Patriarch" is the definitive fictional inquiry into tyrannical government, the surprisingly limited literature of which includes, most recently, Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Feast of the Goat." The name of the dictator who is its protagonist is never disclosed, but it could just as easily be Saddam Hussein as Augusto Pinochet, Juan Vicente Gomez, Rafael Trujillo or any one of all the other Latin American dictators upon whom the author modeled this chilling figure -- with a touch of Joseph Stalin and Francisco Franco thrown in for bad measure. Indeed, re-reading the novel as the war in Iraq was winding down, I was repeatedly struck by the parallels between Hussein and this "indecipherable satrap whose iguana eyes refused to let the slightest emotion show through" as he presides over "his measureless realm of gloom."
The reader may have noted that among those despots to the south who served as the author's models, two are conspicuously missing: Juan Peron and Fidel Castro. The explanation for this is simple -- Garcia Marquez is a man of the left -- but it makes the author vulnerable to charges of inconsistency, if not hypocrisy. A year ago a journalist named Jorge Ramos wrote in the Miami Herald that it is "difficult to believe" that the novel was based on Pinochet rather than Castro, though he acknowledged that in the mid-1970s Castro "still could dazzle and dupe writers and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic." This complaint, often expressed within the Cuban exile community, has merit: A tyrant is a tyrant no matter his ostensible political convictions, after all, and the picture of Garcia Marquez cozying up to Castro -- to the extent of living for long periods in Cuba and serving as de facto counselor to El Presidente -- is not exactly edifying.
But that complaint has to do with politics, not literature. "The Autumn of the Patriarch" is literature above all else, a fantastic and phantasmagorical novel that at the same time is deeply grounded in reality. Forget "magical realism": This is truth.
It is truth as Garcia Marquez has observed it in the three-quarters of a century since his birth (in March 1927) in the Colombian town of Aracataca. He studied law but soon found his way into journalism, which was (and remains) an important influence on the fiction he began writing in the early 1950s. His early work, though skillful, was limited. Then in 1965 -- the story, which is true, is an essential part of his legend -- the world of the fictional town of Macondo came alive in his mind while he was living in Mexico and driving to Acapulco. He turned the car around, went home, and stayed at his desk for a year and a half, at the end of which he had the completed manuscript of "One Hundred Years of Solitude." The novel was received with joy throughout Latin America upon its publication in 1967, then became an international bestseller when it appeared in English in 1970. In 1982 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Allen B. Ruch, in his exceptionally useful modern literature Web site (themodernword.com), correctly observes that its "dense but fluid prose . . . makes 'Autumn of the Patriarch' Garcia Marquez's most challenging novel; but it also makes it one of his most exciting." Ruch attributes this to the influence of James Joyce (he refers to "a winding sheet of endless words twisting through the tyrant's head like a macho version of Molly's soliloquy in 'Ulysses' "). No doubt this is accurate, but American readers will be quick to recognize the hand of William Faulkner, whose powerful influence Garcia Marquez has readily and graciously acknowledged -- a reminder, in light of his frequent criticism of U.S. policy toward Latin America, that political differences ultimately matter far less to him than literary affinities.
Whatever the exact inspiration for the style of "The Autumn of the Patriarch," it is stream of consciousness. Here, though, the device is taken to new dimensions, for this is the consciousness not of a single individual but of an entire nation. With extraordinary suppleness, Garcia Marquez moves in and out of different heads. The principal one is that of the tyrant, found dead at last "at an indefinite age somewhere between 107 and 232 years," but we hear as well from people who served him, people who feared him, people who were tortured and/or executed at his orders, people who submitted to his clumsy, brutal sexual demands and bore his thousands of nameless children.
The prose style in which this is written is elaborate, florid, expressive: to coin a usage, maximalist. Yet, interestingly, the effect on the reader is much like that of the music of a minimalist composer such as Philip Glass: a rhythm and repetitious theme are established and one submits to them, rolls along them like a surfer on a wave, accepts them on their own terms. If you don't always know whose mind it is you are entering -- and you don't -- it doesn't really matter, because the collective portrait of the dictator and the small Caribbean nation that he rules is more important than individual thoughts, memories and voices.
Readers who know "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera" may be unsettled by the violence and cruelty that suffuse this novel, but they will also find much they have encountered before: "the stigma of solitude," "the drain of memory," the "incapacity for love," "the lethargy of death" -- all are themes Garcia Marquez repeatedly has explored in sunnier realms than this one.
As is also true of Garcia Marquez's other masterpieces, the novel weaves back and forth in time. "The past is not dead, it's not even past," is how Faulkner put it, a notion as essential to Garcia Marquez's work as to his own. The individual memory of the dictator and the collective memory of the nation are pinned down to no specific moment but exist in eternity. Indeed it can be argued that the dictator is the embodiment of time and timelessness: "the only thing that gave us security on earth was the certainty that he was there, invulnerable to plague and hurricane . . . invulnerable to time, dedicated to the messianic happiness of thinking for us, knowing that we knew that he would not take any decision for us that did not have our measure, for he had not survived everything because of his inconceivable courage or his infinite prudence but because he was the only one among us who knew the real size of our destiny."
As that passage suggests, Garcia Marquez understands that the relationship between the suppressor and the suppressed is often complex and interdependent. If there is in some of us a powerful urge to dominate, there is in others an inclination -- perhaps even a desire -- to submit. "These people love me," the dictator likes to tell himself, and though that is a lie and a delusion there is a grain of truth in it. The dictator and his yes men operate "an invisible service of repression and extermination," a "machine of horror," yet because it is the only existence the people have known it is also the only one they can imagine, and they submit to it.
By the same token Garcia Marquez concedes to the dictator a measure of humanity. He is a child of poverty who may for a time have had a genuine sympathy for those in like circumstances. But power has a way of feeding on itself, and so does violence. He engages the services of the sublimely satanic Jose Ignacio Saenz de la Barra, who employs "the most ingenious and barbarous machines of torture that the imagination could conceive of," with a toll in human lives that inexorably rises from the scores to the hundreds of thousands. When the dictator complains that "this isn't the power I wanted," the response is that it is "the only power possible in the lethargy of death."
This is gruesome business, yet because Garcia Marquez is an uncommonly gifted comic writer there is humor in it as well -- wry and morbid humor, to be sure, but humor all the same. The dictator comes to fear, as dictators always do, "that there was someone within reach of his hand," his personal Judas or Iago, and determines to strike first. He settles his complacent gaze upon "the handsome artilleryman's eyes of my soul comrade General Rodrigo de Aguilar . . . his strong right arm, his sacred accomplice," and orders the other officers closest to him to attend a banquet:
". . . it was twelve o'clock but General Rodrigo de Aguilar was not arriving, someone started to get up, please, he said, he turned him to stone with the fatal look of nobody move, nobody breathe, nobody live without my permission until twelve o'clock finished chiming, and then the curtains parted and the distinguished Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar entered on a silver tray stretched out full length on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, steeped with spices, oven brown, embellished with the uniform of five golden almonds for solemn occasions and the limitless loops for valor on the sleeve of his right arm, fourteen pounds of medals on his chest and a sprig of parsley in his mouth, ready to be served at a banquet of comrades by the official carvers to the petrified horror of the guests as without breathing we witness the exquisite ceremony of carving and serving, and when every plate held an equal portion of minister of defense stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs, he gave the order to begin, eat hearty gentlemen."
That is in every respect an amazing piece of writing, in which cruelty and comedy are placed in perfect balance. If it is possible to be savage and witty at the same time, that is what the tyrant has done in the disposition of General Rodrigo de Aguilar. The first time I read that passage, when the novel appeared in English in 1976, I almost literally leaped out of my chair in amazement; if it no longer has the power of surprise for me, in every other respect its power and artistry are undiminished.
The same is true of the rest of the book. Its portrait of "the most solitary man on earth" is timeless and applies with equal pertinence to every man who ever has seized power by force and held onto it with force. The tyrant's "throne of illusions" rests on a foundation of lies, as we are now all too painfully reminded by the tales seeping out of Iraq as yet another despotic regime crumbles into dust. When Garcia Marquez writes about "the perfidy within the presidential palace itself . . . the greed within the adulation and the wily servility among those who flourished under the umbrella of power," he states a universal truth that each dictatorship merely reconfirms.
It should be noted, as these several quotations from the book make plain, that Garcia Marquez is uncommonly well served by his translator. In "The Autumn of the Patriarch" as in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," that is Gregory Rabassa. In "Basilisk's Eggs," his seminal essay on Garcia Marquez and "Solitude," Alastair Reid writes: "the English translation . . . is something of a masterpiece, for it is almost matched to the tune of the Spanish, never lengthening or shortening sentences but following them measure for measure. Garcia Marquez insists that he prefers the English translation to the original, which is tantamount to saying they are interchangeable -- the near-unattainable point of arrival for any translator." The same is true of Rabassa's translation of "The Autumn of the Patriarch," a masterpiece of translation as well as of literature.
"The Autumn of the Patriarch" is available in a Perennial paperback ($13).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.