Monday, October 5, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

 “THE AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez  (“EL OTONO DEL PATRIARCA” written 1968-74; first published in Spanish 1975; English translation by Gregory Rabassa first published 1976)

            As I remarked some months back on this blog (see review of The General in His Labyrinth), I was never as enamoured of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera as were most of the admirers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014).  Though they are the most-praised novels of the Colombian Nobel Prize-winner, their undertone of boastful machismo, and the diffuseness of their narratives, frequently irritated me. I might some day deal with them on this blog (when I will, of course, also have favourable things to say about them).  But I re-affirm here that I was more impressed with Garcia Marquez’s more overtly political novels.
            The Autumn of the Patriarch, coming relatively early in the Garcia Marquez canon, is one of the most political. It is a “dictator novel”, apparently as established a South American genre as the “jungle novel” (see the review of Jose Eustasio Rivera’s The Vortex). It is written in a fantastical style that is nearer to magical realism than to the more sober and researched history of The General in His Labyrinth. It is an account of the unnamed dictator of a Caribbean-coast country, like Colombia. We are told at one stage that he has been ruling for one hundred years. In other words he is the paradigm of all South American dictators, the “eternal” dictator. He is the father of over five thousand children and his age is given as being somewhere between 107 and 232. He has magical powers, mythologised by his hypnotised subjects. When he is bored with a night, he can decree that it become day, and it does.
            There is no linear narrative. This is very self-consciously an experimental and modernist novel, a novel of memory and reveries and reflection and thoughts drifting back and forth in a semi-steam-of-consciousness, linked by key words and odd, fortuitous associations. It begins and ends with the dictator’s death. It is divided neatly into six sections of equal length.
The narrative viewpoint shifts and shifts again, often in the same sentence. Sometimes it is told in the “we” of the collective hero (like Silone’s Fontamara), who is the voice of the community. Sometimes it is told in the first-person-singular of the dictator himself. Or of his aides. Or of his whores. The most obvious stylistic device, and the one most challenging to readers, is the use of long string sentences, running for pages and punctuated only with commas (a nod to Faulkner?), involving different narrators. One critic computed that the whole novel comprises only fifty sentences. It is odd how the effect of these sentences is at once breathless and languid.
The novel’s best moment is the opening (recapitulated at the end), where crowds burst into the dictator’s palace to find his dead and useless body, now stripped of real power and yet still radiating power like a fetish. It sets the tone for the sense of decay (physical and moral) that dominates the novel.
In a series of memories we are introduced to a number of socially-representative characters.
There is Patricio Aragones, the dictator’s exact double, who took his place on public occasions and who was therefore assassinated in his place – thus the dictator’s two “deaths”. There is General Rodrigo de Aguilar, the general’s most loyal supporter, who later conspires against him and is executed and eaten. There is also the dictator’s mother Bendicion Alvarado, an ignorant bird-seller. The general wants to have her canonised as a saint when she dies. He expels the church and shoots the priests when they don’t comply. The proletarian Venus, Manuela Sanchez, brings in the typical Garcia Marquez theme of machismo and love-making. Leticia Nazareno is a novice nun whom the dictator kidnaps and makes his chief mistress. Her love leads him to frenzies of revenge on others. The man who runs the dictator’s security services, Jose Ignacio Saenz de la Barra, is in charge of the state’s torture chambers. All torture is done far from the dictator’s residence so that the dictator can claim to be totally ignorant of what is going on. Hence the official torturer has a chance of becoming the scapegoat for popular wrath, should there be a revolution.
Some of the incidental stories in The Autumn of the Patriarch are consciously and deliberately bizarre. If we were not aware that dictators, answerable to nobody, really are capable of such things, we might read such stories as particularly sadistic surrealist fantasies. The dictator has two thousand children murdered by drowning, when the public realizes that the children have been used to rig the national lottery: protests of the pope and the League of Nations do not make them appear again. The dictator likes seducing innocent and virginal schoolgirls who are sent to him. He flies into a rage when he discovers that they are all in fact practised whores, groomed and dressed by his security services to look like schoolgirls. The dictator sells the Caribbean Sea, drop by drop, to the United States of America, which helps to keep him in power.
By its mannered style, The Autumn of the Patriarch gives off a sense of something heavy weighing down the state and stifling social life. It is, as the title tells us, the “autumn” of the patriarch. There are many descriptions of the dictator walking slowly through his huge palace, like a man who has lost something and then forgotten what it is. He is dying. His power – built on violence, built on his increasingly non-functioning penis – is waning. But the dictator is also the “patriarch” – both literally and figuratively he is the father of his people. They believe in him, even as they despise him, and he is their product, having come from the lowest social classes. There is a symbiotic relationship between oppressor and oppressed. Often in dreamlike terms, the novel is also telling us that the dictator is a recurring type. This dictator may die, but another like him will take his place, despite all the fervour of revolution. Of course the dictator’s absolute power is hollow – it leads nowhere and builds nothing. But then, in the dismal recurrent course of history, the joy of his overthrow is also hollow.
In one sense, given that this novel was conceived and partly written in the 1960s, it is oddly retro in its imagery. We often appear to be dealing with a theatrical dictator of the 19th century rather than with the 20th century monsters, many of whom were (and are) more savvy about public relations and about what to suppress and how to propagandise. The world of The Autumn of the Patriarch is the world of dictator as make-believe military leader, with a big military hat and lots of gold braid.
Wikipedia’s brief snippet on this novel informs us that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was inspired by a number of real dictators, including various dictators of Colombia and Venezuela. There could also possibly be an element of Spain’s Francisco Franco. Apparently the novel was written in Barcelona, in the last years of Franco’s regime, and it was first published in Spain in 1975, some months before Franco died. It was [another snippet from Wikipedia] apparently the most widely-read novel in Spain that year. Reading it, my mind clanged with images of Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay and the Somosas of Nicaragua. Oddly, though, I thought most of Juan Peron of Argentina (far away from Garcia Marquez’s Colombia). That military uniform. That symbiotic relationship with the people who at once loved and hated him (and his wife). Cuddling up to the church and then turning against it when it wouldn’t do his bidding. And having a long “autumn”, including a return to power after he had been overthrown. The eternal dictator. The fraud. The hollow man behind the big smile.

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