This novel appeared seven years after One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the author has said that he began it much earlier, as early as January 1958, when as a journalist he witnessed the ouster of President Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela. In August 1967, at a conference in Caracas, a group of writers of the Boom movement, including Carlos Fuentes, announced that several of them would collaborate on a novel about the archetypal Latin American dictator. The project was never carried out, but the idea produced outstanding works by, among others, Augusto Roa Bastos, Alejo Carpentier, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and, of course, by Gabriel García Márquez. The Autumn of the Patriarch is not the only book about the dictator, the cacique of Latin American history, or about corruption and power, but it is one of the finest by any writer.
Many of the details of the cacique portrayed in The Autumn of the Patriarch are based of the life of Juan Vicente Gómez, a military general and president of Venezuela from 1908 until his death in 1935, but the protagonist in the novel is a composite of leaders including, but not limited to, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla of Colombia, the Duvaliers of Haiti, Maximiliano Hernández Martínez of El Salvador, Marcos Pérez Jiménez and Juan Vicente Gómez of Venezuela, Juan Perón and Eva Duarte de Perón of Argentina, Joseph Stalin, and Francisco Franco, who was still in power in Spain where García Márquez worked on this novel. Historical anecdotes are incorporated into the narrative, such as the one about the mother saying that if she had known that her son would become dictator, she would have insisted he learn to read.
This book is a meditative treatise and analysis of dictators and power on both mythical and historical levels but based in an unnamed Caribbean country that includes parts of many different shores. There, a dictator rules for 100 years from inside a multilocked room with a window overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The author plays with both time and geography. New inventions are introduced to mark the passage of time, but the rule of the tyrant seems eternal. The chronology is not linear but spiral, and there are anachronisms, such as the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the landing of the U.S. Marines in the same scene.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this novel is its intricate narrative style. It is divided into six chapters—relentless blocks of prose, without paragraph divisions, in long unpunctuated sentences, laid out as poetry in unmarked words, cadences of colloquial phrases, popular expressions, and snatches of familiar songs and verse by well-known writers, such as Rubén Darío (1867– 1916), the Nicaraguan poet who invigorated the Spanish lyric. The pace is swift; the words fl ow in a torrent from various sources: the tyrant, an onlooker, or the allknowing narrator. Reality and illusion are both themes and devices. The episodes employ hyperbole, allusion, paradox, shifts in narrative voice, and intermittent insights into minds and characters.
The novel moves in a series of anecdotes that relate to the life of the dictator, identified as the General, from the autumn of his reign to its end. In the first chapter the General’s rotting corpse is discovered in the presidential palace, but there is suspicion because this is the second death discovered there. The first was that of his officially appointed double. The General had, therefore, been able to observe the spectacle of popular celebration over his demise and later assassinate the celebrants, and reward the mourners.
The second chapter begins with the discovery of the first corpse of the General, which is really that of Patricio Aragones. As the discoverers wait for verification and identification, they recall the General’s brutal appetites, including his obsessive love for Manuela Sánchez, a working-class woman of stunning beauty, before whom the General was impotent. The third chapter is about limitless power and utter ruthlessness. It portrays the arrival of the General’s best friend at a banquet, a friend whom the General suspected of involvement in a plot. The friend arrives stretched out full length on a silver platter, garnished with cauliflower and laurel, almonds, gold medals, and pine nuts, ready for carving and serving to the petrified guests. In the fourth chapter the General tries to have his aging mother canonized and instead names her patroness of the nation. He initiates intimacy with his intended wife and instead defecates in his shorts.
As the narration continues through the stages of trussing the General’s body, managing the public announcement, and preparing the official funeral, there are flashbacks to the beginning of the end. In the last two chapters the bodies of the General’s wife and child are thrown into the plaza and ripped apart by dogs. The General puts into motion a sadistic cleansing and celebrates his 100th anniversary in power. He dies in solitude and utter desolation, in power but powerless, never knowing what he was like, or even if he was a figment of the imagination, an uncertain vision of pitiful eyes, through a life arduous and ephemeral, “through the dark sound of the frozen leaves of his autumn toward the homeland of the shadows of the truth of oblivion.”
Despite the irony, the satire, and the moments of humorous delight, the novel reads like a Greek tragedy of a tyrant blinded by power to everything including his own nature. The General rains pestilence and corruption through his land, and evokes pity and fear in his subjects, who celebrate in choral hymns of joy at his demise.
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