Outside of literary circles, The Autumn of the Patriarch may be one of Gabriel García Márquez’s lesser known works, hidden behind the towering One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. This is a great shame as this is no less a masterpiece than those two works. However, part of its greatness is no doubt part of the reason it may be less fancied, for it is a reading challenge that will alienate many readers. Intrigued? Allow me to explain…
Those who are familiar with García Márquez’s style will know that he favours languid sentences and paragraphs, with minimal dialogue, written in trademark lyricism that, as Salman Rushdie says, “no-one else can do”. It is perhaps no surprise that at some point he would take these traits to the extreme – and he does so in this novel. Each chapter, each around 35-40 pages, is just one paragraph. Sentences often go on for pages. Within this stream-of-consciousness-styled narrative, the point-of-view switches, often rapidly, from third-person to first to third, and dialogue is subsumed within the prose without quotation marks. It is suffocating just looking at the page, let alone reading it. There is barely a chance to draw breath. Indeed, one of his friends became upset with him as he was in the habit of sipping a glass of wine during his reads but could not find any gaps in this novel in which to indulge!*
Of course, this is a very deliberate choice on the part of García Márquez – as is the equally particular six-part structure of the novel, in which the life and tyranny of an ‘eternal’ dictator is retold in each chapter. He said of this work that is was “a poem on the solitude of power”. (What’s with all the solitude Gabito?! It is, of course, one of his recurring motifs.) Just as many great war novels are delivered through the prism of absurdity to heighten the sense of madness, so one could argue that García Márquez has devised a perfect format for the paranoia and stifling of freedom inherent in a dictatorship with this tightly-packed, recurring nightmare of a narrative, where the simple act of drawing breath seems like sedition. There are the usual García Márquez signatures: the exotic, lyrical language, the surreal and distorted realities, the fusion of magical and real. The result is an uncompromising yet marvellous read, a book that truly pushes the boundaries of what the novel is capable of.
The novel opens with the Generals’ ultimate death, then falls back to his ‘first’ death. The narrative is subject to these regular leaps in time, back and forth, the likes of which Faulkner would be proud. The main portion of the chapter deals with the ‘first’ death, which is really the death of his look-alike double. Such is the conceit of the real despot, lurking in the shadows, that he is surprised when the sunrise still occurs the next day. Apart from a couple of mourners, the city begins to celebrate his death. Aghast, the dictator shows himself to those people who have gathered to “divide up amongst themselves the booty of his death”, and orders them to be shot as they attempt to flee.
The depiction of the deadly apparatus of power is a highlight. Take for instance the General’s rigging of the weekly lotteries so only he wins. He forces children to pick his winning numbers, and subsequently jails all two thousand of them. When the truth outs, he transfers them in “nocturnal boxcars to the least-inhabited regions of the country”, whilst he declares the rumours of the children’s’ imprisonment to be “an infamous lie on the part of traitors to get people stirred up, the doors of the nation were open so that the truth could be established …”. He invites the League of Nations to come and inspect the jails for confirmation. It all sounds eerily familiar. Whilst in exile, candy and toys are dropped to the children from planes to keep them happy while the General waits for a ‘magical solution’ to occur to him. The magical solution is the order to “put the children in a barge loaded with cement, take them singing to the limits of territorial waters, blow them up with a dynamite charge without giving them time to suffer…”. He rewards the officers who carry out the order with promotion and medals before having them killed for their crime.
Soon thereafter the tyrant survives a failed assassination attempt. The suspect’s fate is a lesson in violent retribution. At the annual dinner at which members of the military are honoured, where Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar gives his familiar toast to the dictator, the guests become concerned when the Major General fails to show – but he then enters “on a silver tray stretched out … on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, … ready to be served at a banquet of comrades by the official carvers to the petrified horror of the guests … and when every plate held an equal portion of the minister of defense stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs, [the General] gave the order to begin, eat hearty gentlemen.” It pays to stay on the General’s good side!
In the fourth chapter, we find the General mourning the death of his mother. He tries to make her into a saint, organising for the Church to review her merits given all the miracles she has performed for the people, but the investigator sent by Rome finds out that these thousands of claims of miracles have been made by people paid for their false testimony. The effort to have her canonised fails. Not to be out-manoeuvred, the General proclaims the “civil sainthood” of his mother, declaring a national holiday in her honour, after which he declares war on the Holy See. The property of the Church is nationalised and all the priests and nuns are forced to leave the country stripped of everything, even their clothes.
When she was alive the General’s mother wished he had learnt how to read and write. He is later taught to read by his lover Leticia Nazareno. He refuses to allow any interruption to his daily two-hour lessons even when rural people begin to suffer from ‘the black vomit’. As always, it is the people who suffer. In return for her lessons, Leticia convinces the General to have the Nuns and God allowed back into the country. Ironically, the Pope awards the General with a sash and a medal – the “order of the knights of the Holy Sepulcher”. Meanwhile, Leticia becomes pregnant with the General’s child, and forces him to marry her. The General by this stage is so convinced he is God that he names his son Emmanuel. As soon as he is born he is declared a Major General with full authority, and his mother takes him in his “baby carriage to preside over official acts as representative of his father”. (Of course, this is only one of thousands of babies he has sired – all ‘seven-month runts’). After one failed assignation attempt on both mother and son, they are eventually killed in a “hellish whirlpool” of rabid hunting dogs in a public market, organised by treacherous conspirators, which prompts a further round of revenge killings that even the General seems tired of, particularly when one of those killed turns out to be an aide he used to play dominos with.
The final chapter sees the General promoted in the final moment before his death to ‘general of the universe’, “to give him a rank higher than death”. The chapter is partly narrated by a girl who is offered candy by the old General who then takes advantage of the twelve year old and has his way with her. He dreams of eating the girl, seasoned with rock salt, hot pepper and laurel leaves. The girl narrates this with fondness, even love, for the old man. When he dies, she thinks on behalf of the people “we no longer wanted it to be true, we had ended up not understanding what would become of us without him”. Thus begins a strong indictment of those who allow military dictators to enslave them.
The General learns that the information given to him all these years has been falsified. One of the ironies of his newly acquired ability to read is the fact that the newspaper he reads is the only one of its kind, full of stories and pictures his hangers-on think he wants to read. The real news is something else entirely – for not only is the nationa morally bankrupt but economically bankrupt too. He and his cronies have driven the country into the ground, having sold off the farm as it were, forced to pay interest on borrowings taken to pay back other loans. The only thing left to sell is the sea. When faced with an ultimatum from the ‘gringos’ to allow the removal of the sea or face invasion by marines, the General relents. The sea is taken, in numbered sections no less, back to Arizona, whilst the people won’t come out to protest despite the offered inducements because they have done so before and been shot, and won’t fall for the same trick twice.
Great polemic novels are a product of their time yet have the power and reach to become classics. This is definitely the case here. García Márquez began writing Autumn in 1968, and whilst he reportedly finished it in 1971, he continued to polish it until its eventual publication in 1975. So it sits in between One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and his novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), which was followed by Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). García Márquez was definitely at the height of his powers in these years. Autumn is set in an unnamed Caribbean nation, and the General is installed with the help of the British, but the man Garcia Marquez most had in mind when writing it was Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez. García Márquez said the overthrow of Jimenez “was the first time we had seen a dictator fall in Latin America.” The book was actually written in Barcelona in the autumn of the Franco’s brutal dictatorship, which also ended in 1975. Barcelona provided stern resistance to Franco and endured much hardship. Furthermore, Spain offered asylum to numerous ousted dictators including Jimenez. So there was plenty of material and first-hand experience for García Márquez to utilise in constructing the General’s character and his apparatus of fear. This extended to the persistent rumours of Franco’s death that dragged on much like the numerous lives of the General and very reminiscent of Fidel Castro. Speaking of Castro, much has been made of García Márquez’s friendship with him, whom he has been quoted as saying is a “very cultured man”. Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas recalls with justified bitterness in his memoir the 1980 speech given by Castro and attended by Garcia Marquez in which Castro painted the recently gunned-down refugees in the Peruvian embassy as ‘riffraff’. Apparently García Márquez applauded the speech. Perhaps in his mind a left-wing dictator like Castro is far superior than a right-wing version such as a Pinochet or Franco. In any case, it seems a perverse act for the author of Autumn. It is a shame that such a great writer became enamoured of the very type of man he ridiculed in his writing. Perhaps it is the ultimate proof of the cult-like power such men possess and the eternal danger they pose.
Not everyone will enjoy Autumn, but it is, as they say, an important book**. I am a bit sceptical when I see comments like ‘deserves to be read twice’. I am not usually one for reading things a second time – unless they are truly special. This is one of those books. Whilst the novel is only 229 pages, it reads like a book at least twice as long. Close reading is a must, and you need to plan your reading time; you can’t grab a few sentences during the advertisements in your favourite TV show; reading in bed is problematic if you wish to sleep; and reading on public transport is downright treacherous – you’re trying to find a break in the story when your stop comes along that simply doesn’t exist. I dare say it will be a while before I return to it, my eyes will take a long time to recover(!), but I’m convinced I’ll discover so much more in a second reading that it’s tempting to start again now.
One last thing: spare a thought for the translator! Can you imagine trying to translate never-ending swathes of narrative such as this? Wow, I’m not sure if there are awards for translating, but if there is, Gregory Rabassa – also responsible for the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude – deserves it.
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabríel Garcia Márquez
* This was noted in García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale which was intended to be the first of a three volume memoir, and covers his life up to the point he asked his wife Mercedes to marry him. Unfortunately, the other two will not be completed.
** It is one of four of García Márquez’s works that sit on the (2008) 1,001 Must Read Books list, an honour he shares with: Austen, Calvino, deLillo, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Henry Green, Hemmingway, Henry James, DH Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, Nabokov, Rousseau, Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf, and possibly others I’ve missed. (Coetzee, Graham Greene, and Emile Zola have five!) It’s pretty good company to be in and no surprise from the Nobel Prize winner (1982). The Autumn of the Patriarch truly deserves its place on such a list.