A Stunning Portrait
of a Monstrous Caribbean Tyrant
By WILLIAM KENNEDY
The New York Times, October 31, 1976
The Autumn of the Patriarch
By Gabriel García Márquez
In 1968 when he began to write this majestic novel, Gabriel García Márquez told an interviewer that the only image he had of it for years was that of an incredibly old man walking through the huge, abandoned rooms of a palace full of animals. Some of his friends remember him saying as far back as 1958, when as a newsman he was witnessing the fall of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela, that he would one day write a book about a dictator. He has since spoken of the influence of the life of the Venezuelan caudillo, Juan Vicente Gómez, on this book. He himself lived for years under the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship in his native Colombia. He covered the trial of a Batista butcher in the early days of Castro's Cuban takeover. He lived in Spain during the interminable rattlings of Franco's elusive death, when that country was a hospitable journey's end for deposed Latin dictators.
He has added to these times of his own life fragments from the long history of dictators--the deaths of Julius Caesar and Mussolini, the durability of Stroessner, the wife-worship of Perón, what seems to be a close study of the times of Trujillo and the United States and English gunboat-puppeteering of so many bestial morons into the dictator's palace. He has absorbed and re-imagined all this, and more, and emerged with a stunning portrait of the archetype: the pathological fascist tyrant.
García Márquez (his surname is García; Márquez is his mother's name) began this novel in 1968 and said in 1971 that it was finished. But he continued to embellish it until 1975 when he published it in Spain. Now Gregory Rabassa, who translated the author's last novel, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and who on the basis of these two books alone stands as one of the best translators who ever drew breath, has given us the superb English equivalent of García Márquez's magisterial Spanish.
The book, as is to be expected from García Márquez, is mystical, surrealistic, Rabelaisian in its excesses, its distortions and its exotic language. But García Márquez' sense of life is that surreality is as much the norm as banality. "In Mexico surrealism runs through the streets,"he once said. And elsewhere: "The Latin American reality is totally Rabelaisian."
And so his patriarch, the unnamed General (his precise rank is General of the Universe) of an unnamed Caribbean nation, lives to be anywhere between 107 and 232 years old, sires 5,000 children, all runts, all born after seven-month gestations. He is a bird woman's bastard, conceived in a storm of bluebottle flies, born in a convent doorway, gifted at birth with huge, deformed feet and an enlarged testicle the size of a fig, which whistles a tune of pain to him every moment of his impossibly long life. The graffiti on the walls of the servants' toilet give him oracular insight into traitorous cohorts, one of whom he serves roasted for dinner to a gathering of his generals.
He has such power that when he orders the time of day changed three to eight in the morning to deliver himself from darkness, the roses open two hours before dew time. His influence is so indelible that eventually his cows are born with his hereditary presidential brand. His venality such that he rigs the weekly lottery, using children under seven to draw the winning three numbers, and he always wins all three. To quiet the children about their enforced complicity, he imprisons them. When they number 2,000 and the Pope anguishes publicly over their disappearance and the League of Nations investigates it, he isolates the children in the wilderness after a Nazi-like deportation in boxcars, and finally drowns them at sea, denying they ever existed.
But his most fantastic depredation is the sale of the Caribbean Sea to the gringos who have kept him in power. The United States ambassador orders in giant suction dredges and nautical engineers, who carry off the sea "in numbered pieces to plant it far from the hurricanes in the blood- red dawns of Arizona, they took it away with everything it had inside general sir, with the reflection of our cities, our timid drowned people, our demented dragons," and they leave behind a torn crater, a deserted plain of harsh lunar dust. To replace the breezes that were lost when the sea went away, another U.S. ambassador gives the General a wind machine.
The novel is unendingly bizarre and fevered, but ultimately not difficult. Yet it is difficult to enter: a densely rich and fluid pudding that begins at the end and makes Faulknerian leaps forward and backward in time. Sentences at times run on for three pages, with dialogue neither quoted nor paragraphed. García Márquez has compounded the problems by making the novel a puzzle of pronouns, consistently changing narrative points of view in mid-sentence. For instance: ". . .he saw more infamy and more ingratitude than had ever been seen and wept over by my eyes since the day I was born, mother. . ." The he, the my, and the I all refer to the General.
The narration is largely within the General's mind, but García Márquez also enters other minds with brief intensity, often speaks in the collective voice of all people in the blasted nation; and so, through relentless immersion of the reader in these exquisitely detailed perspectives, he illuminates the monster internally and externally and delivers him whole.
As with "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the reader also bathes luxuriously in panoramic prose, this works even more poetic than the last. There is no conventional plot, only chronologically scrambled episodes that take the General from birth to death through an unspecified modern era in which the king and queen of Babylonia co-exist with closed-circuit television. He is traced through assassination attempts, atrocities, comically senile sexual perversity, through marriage to a nun and a ridiculous war with the church to have his mother canonized, through meaningless, empty politics that have nothing to do with his untouchable power, through doomed palace revolts and the rise and fall of a mad secret police chief who keeps sending him sacks of heads of presumed enemies.
The General deteriorates from a deformed, charismatic stud into a mindless blood beast imprisoned on the "throne of illusions" that his power creates, unable to say what is true now, or what was true in the beginning. He comes to think of himself as God and names his son Emanuel.
A reader grows somewhat weary at times over the excesses, the repetition and predictability of certain sections--that old man walking endlessly through the palace corridors, kicking lepers and beggars in the courtyard, tending the resident cows on the stairs and taking the concubines by surprise, and there is a yearning for some pithy understatement. But García Márquez is as exorbitant as Melville and Dostoyevsky. He believes not only that excess is good for you, but that it is essential, that a book must have an immensity about it in the same way life is enormous--and dense and mysterious and as repetitiously predictable as the General's vengeance for an affront. How else, his novel implicitly asks, could the story of interminable dictatorship be told?
This novel, of necessity then, has none of the life-celebrating quality that made "One Hundred Years of Solitude" so universally embraced. There is nothing to celebrate in the General's long and tortured life. He is given endless opportunity to persuade us that his anguish and grief and bafflement are real. But we are never persuaded. He is not even pitiable. He is a spectacle, the embodiment of egocentric evil unleashed, maniacally violent, cosmically worthless and despite pretentions to eternity, as devoid of meaning as anything else in an absurd world. His main contribution to life, finally, is fear; but fear such as thunder, cancer or madness may provoke, fear based on irrational possibility, on the oblique ravages of a diabolical deity.
The book is a supreme polemic, a spiritual exposé, an attack against any society that encourages or even permits the growth of such a monstrosity. García Márquez objectifies the monster and at novel's end attempts to explain it as the consequences of the General's incapacity to love:". . .he had tried to compensate for that infamous fate [of being unable to love] with the burning cultivation of the solitary vice of power, he had made himself victim of his own sect to be immolated on the flames of that infinite holocaust, he had fed on fallacy and crime, he had flourished in impiety and dishonor and he had put himself above his feverish avarice and his congenital fear only to keep until the end of time the little glass ball [his personal symbol of the nation] in his hand without knowing that it was an endless vice the satiety of which generated its own appetite until the end of all times general sir. . . ."
But the monster is not reducible to a single cause, any more than civilization is explainable through the invention of the wheel. The cause is beyond reductive statements, even when they exfoliate into such resplendent prose. The General presumes to have love of a kind for his goddess mother and his lusty wife. But he loves them the way he loves and softly caresses his wounded testicle: as an extension of himself. Given time, he will annihilate anything that is not of, by, from, or for himself. Could lovelessness alone explain such blood-drenched misanthropy?
The incapacity to love seems to stand, rather, as another fact of the General's life, like the whistle of his hernia, or the seed of his unknown father, or his discovery that a lie is more comfortable than doubt. And these facts, under the hand of this master novelist, accumulate not to explain anything simply, but to embody a most complex and terrible vision of Latin America's ubiquitous, unkillable demon.
William Kennedy interviewed Gabriel García Márquez in Barcelona in 1973 and has written essays and articles about his work. He is the author of two novels, "The Ink Truck" and "Legs."