The Ten Books of Christmas: Between Christmas and New Year’s FlaglerLive customarily reduces production. It helps us, and no doubt you, exhausted reader, to take a break from outrage and lurid politics. This year I’m doing something a little different. Instead of only running the usual end-of year sum-ups and fillers, I’m launching the Byblos column and offering the Ten Books of Christmas: every day I’m publishing an original piece of mine on one of the books of the year I found most notable—books old and new, fiction and nonfiction, whether inspired by covid, confinement, covfefe or just the libidinous, inebriating pleasure of reading. No doubt only six or seven readers out there are interested in this sort of thing. That's OK. They’re ignored the rest of the year, so this is for them. I hope they find these, ahem, brief reflections (rather than reviews) at least a little provocative. The days' installments are listed below.
Sandwiched between Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s two most beloved masterpieces–One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)–is the lesser known but in many ways superior Autumn of the Patriarch (El otoño del patriarca, 1975). Garcia Marquez described it as “an extremely long poem about the loneliness of a dictator.”
It’s also, like the vultures pecking at the corpse of the dictator in the opening pages, a merciless dissection of the corrosions of power and its servile worshippers, a study in the delusions of mysticism. I’d first read it in college when you could read it in place of Latin American history. I read it again last January, when it became more applicable to a patriarch of our own in his “measureless realm of gloom.” The poetic prose aged better than its subject.
The book was part of a cottage industry of dictator novels in the quarter century of Latin American literature’s acme, from around 1965 to 1990–Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz, Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State, Augusto Roa Bastos’s I the Supreme, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat.
The books weren’t coincidental. The subjects were South American. The inspiration was North. Fuentes in a 1986 review of I the Supreme described how he and Vargas Llosa came up with an idea for a series. They were having a drink in an English pub in 1967, talking about Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson’s Sherman March through the literature of the American Civil War, and visualizing how “An imaginary portrait gallery immediately stepped forward, demanding incarnation: the Latin American dictators.” Fuentes and Vargas Llosa invited a dozen Latin American writers to write stories or novellas about their favorite tyrant. A French publisher signed on. The project fell apart, but over the decades four of them produced full-length novels on the subject, each almost as readable as Autumn of the Patriarch.
Garcia-Marquez’s inspiration was a gallery of dictators from the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo to Spain’s Francisco Franco, with heavier emphasis on Trujillo, an atrocious man summed up, “For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history,” in a footnote in Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. Díaz described Trujillo as a “portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulatto who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery.” He was known as “El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and Fuckface,” and was of course U.S.-backed to the end, because “if we Latin-types are skillful at anything it’s tolerating U.S.-backed dictators.” The footnote is all the historical reference you’d need to the older novel.
Garcia-Marquez claims he was listening to Bartok’s third piano concerto “without respite while I was writing the book,” that two Catalan musicians who knew nothing of this later pointed out the affinities between Autumn and the concerto, and that the Swedish Academy, when it awarded Garcia-Marquez the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, played it in the background. I don’t have the Catalans’ insights, but I’m writing this with the concerto playing “without respite,” just in case. The concerto is unusually melodic for Batrok, less percussive. It’s even danceable. Marquez’s prose doesn’t go that far, but its melodies are unending, his phrases and puns and jokes as gorgeous as Thomas Pynchon’s. Pynchon can be incomprehensible. Marquez never is. The style doesn’t overwhelm the storytelling even as the style is the telling. We are in the labyrinth of the patriarch’s solitude, sentence after endless sentence leading us down the delusional paranoia of this mass-murderer who sired 5,000 children and raped anything of any age, killed anything that moved, occasionally with regret: the purposeful extermination of 2,000 children on a barge with cement and dynamite saddened him particularly. (The children were killed because they alone knew he’d rigged the lottery to win every time, since they’d been used to pick the rigged numbers.) He’d ordered their extermination, then ordered their executioner shot, because the executioner should’ve known not to follow that sort of orders.
In the opening scene the patriarch, the general, is dead. Supposedly. Vultures are everywhere pecking at the body and its “smooth maiden hand with the ring of power on the bone of the third finger” in his “rubble of grandeur.” He had “governed as if predestined never to die.” His death could be a trick. He’d tricked his people before, when his body double was shot with a poisoned arrow. It gave him the chance to have a pretend funeral, and to rise again. He was god, after all. He decided what season it was. He decided when the clock in the clock tower should strike what time he pleased. He was “the undoer of dawn, commander of time, and repository of light.” He would decide when to die, and he had other plans: “I don’t intend to die, God damn it, let other people die.” Therefore “no evidence of his death was final because there was always another truth behind the truth.”
The novel really is a prose poem, its sentences and paragraphs at times pages long without a single punctuation, its voices switching mid-sentence between the first, the second, the third person. It should be difficult to follow. It isn’t. There’s a naturalness in the style that reads as if it couldn’t possibly be written any other way. The voice is pitched to its subject. Garcia Marquez here adopts a lot of the methods of Faulkner and Joyce, as many contemporary Latin American writers did. The stream-of-consciousness approach never feels forced or precious, as in lesser, more pretentious hands (John Updike’s Brazil, for example). The past, the present, even the future are a jumble in the patriarch’s telling. To conclude that he’s losing his grip on reality is redundant, Garcia Marquez seems to say: what dictator ever has a grip on a reality other than the one he fabricates? The patriarch is all fabrication. Lose a grip, make up a new one, even as the patriarch’s regime is sustained by inertia and “irreparable disillusion.” (There’s a tragic postscript here: dementia, that home invasion of the mind, rubbled Garcia-Marquez’s last years.)
Autumn of the Patriarch is a study in power unbound, unscrupulous, re-imagined rather than invented. History gave Garcia-Marquez too much material to need invention. “You can take my books and I can tell you line for line what part of reality or what episode it came from,” Garcia Marquez had told a New York Times interviewer in 1988. But literature had never imagined the inner life of a dictator, the stem cells of power. If Autumn was bound to a Caribbean dictator of the past century, it no longer is. Forty-five years later and at the end of the American presidential reign most closely resembling that of Latin America’s strongmen of the 20th century, The Autumn of the Patriarch reads like a eulogy for something nearer and, like the book’s subject, not nearly as dead as its rotting corpse suggests: “… he discovered in the course of his uncountable years that a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth, he had arrived without surprise at the ignominious fiction of commanding without power, of being exalted without glory and of being obeyed without authority.”
The novel can be read for “this throne of illusions.” But it’s Garcia-Marquez, so it can’t be reduced to a few themes, to its style or allusions, or to any one kind of reading. There are shattering set pieces, like those describing the patriarch’s mother who, entirely unaware of her son’s station, lives in a mansion but prefers to stay in the servants’ quarters and skips lunch to save money. The lush feel of the Caribbean, that “breeding ground of islands,” breezes in and out of scenes as if mirroring “the dead doldrums of power.”
Then there are the pages that lead up to one of the great scenes of forced cannibalism in modern literature. There’d been a plot against the patriarch’s life. He’d rounded up masses of people and had them shot, and figured out the plot was the work of his inner circle. He’d gathered his cabinet all around the table for a feast. The ministers had to wait for their chief, Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar, who wouldn’t show, and wouldn’t show, making them all livid with fear until “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 curtain parted and the distinguished Major General Rodriguo de Aguillar entered on a silver tray stretched out full length on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, steeped with spices, oven brown, … 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.”
Garcia Marquez knew his audience, so he never wrote a book without a love story. His dictator has a few of them. Manuela Sanchez left him even after he conjured an eclipse for her. He nurtures a pathological love for his mother, who lives in a fabricated world of her own. There’s nothing oedipal here, unless mother-worship is a form of incest. When his mother dies he tries to have her canonized, then expropriates all church property when the Vatican refuses. He kidnaps a novice who ends up taming him and negotiating a peace with the church. She gives him a son, forces him to quit his brutalities and protect freedoms. But she and his child are assassinated by a pack of 80 Scottish pit bulls trained for the occasion, so it’s back to massacres and solitude. I’m not sure what Garcia-Marquez is saying here. Maybe dictators are beyond redemption, their past crimes always catching up with them like a pack of pit bulls. (And yet: Are we supposed to like this guy? Pity him? Find excuses for him? The surrealism softens his edges, the poetic style romanticizes him. What does it say that you are immersed in the man’s fate from the first page, that you find yourself occasionally rooting for him? Tyrants are rare, the solitude of old age is universal. Garcia-Marquez’s fiction is a a requiem to old age.)
The patriarch’s last love is also a child he’d kidnapped–there’s no lack of disturbing scenes here, but tyrants are not sane men–but she ends up exiled, adding to his endless longings and wanderings around an enormous palace of lost animals and lepers and memories of a sea the gringos took away: yes, he’d sold the sea to the gringos, and the Marines came to get it. Such was his power, such was American materialism.
Seneca said to read a few books many times, not many books once. We live in a time when reading a single book once can be an act of magical realism. I doubt Garcia-Marquez intended The Autumn of the Patriarch to be read just once, or even twice. I doubt he intended it as a study of Latin American dictators alone, either. “If a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?” John Steinbeck asked in East of Eden.
Garcia -Marquez answered yes, and added one more disturbing twist to his tale. We don’t like freedom. We like our tyrants. We like to lose ourselves in them, to let them decide our lives for us, because how else would they stay in power but for us? We will let them rule if they claim power by illegal means, and if they don’t, we’ll even elect them, “for the only thing that gave us security on earth,” an unnamed voice in The Patriarch says of the tyrant everyone wants dead and no one wants dead, “was the certainty that he was there, invulnerable to plague and hurricane, invulnerable to Manuela Sanchez’s trick, 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…”
He did not love his people, but they loved him.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. Reach him by email here.