In The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez delivered a gripping narrative on the regime of a Caribbean despot. With creativity, sagacity and erudition he presented a disturbing story about the corrupting influence supreme power brings. At times I felt like I sat in on meetings with this ‘leader’ at his palace. I got so nervous I might displease him, that I debated whether or not to write this review. In the end, the interest of free speech won out.
The author structured the book in a manner reminiscent of Beckett’s Molloy and Simon’s The Flanders Road. Chapters consisted of one long, rambling paragraph. The sentences went on for several lines. The approach worked well in this story. The narrator informed readers early on that the general couldn’t read or write when he came to power. (Page 13) I figured the person relaying the story would have had a similar educational background. (Not many dictators enjoy the company of their intellectual superiors, after all.)
While a bit challenging to adjust to Gabo made the reading lucid. Unlike the other works I mentioned, I didn’t have any trouble following the story.
This ‘leader’ possessed absolute power. At one point he asked an aide for the time. The gentleman replied, “Whatever time you command, General, sir.” (Page 86) As Lord Acton told us, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I must warn readers that The Autumn of the Patriarch depicted a vicious, brutal, sadistic tyrant ‘warts and all.’ And then there were the awful things he did. Sensitive audiences should avoid this one. I really hope that most of these actions were a product of the author’s imagination. It would really trouble me if Gabo based them on real-life events. Here’s why. I’ll cite the most egregious. The Minister of Defense fell out of favor with the leader. Here’s a description of his entrance to a party hosted by the dictator.
The curtains parted and the distinguished Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar entered on a silver tray stretched out full length on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, steeped with spices, oven brown, embellished with the uniform of five golden almonds for solemn occasions and the limitless loops for valor on the sleeve of his right arm, fourteen pounds of medals on his chest 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. (Page 119)
And I thought Petronius’ Feast of Trimalchio in The Satyricon pushed the limits of garishness.
While the book chronicled a reign of extreme violence and bizarre behavior a few sections struck me as amusing. They reminded me a bit of American politics. At one point the general engaged in a, shall I say, Clintonesque use of asparagus with a young lady. (Page 206) Earlier the dictator declared his age between 107 and 232 years. (Page 82) Government service must facilitate longevity. That’s about as long as some current members of the U. S. Congress have served in the House.
I hope the dictator in The Autumn of the Patriarch doesn’t take issue with my review. If he sentences me to “one-hundred years of solitude” I’ll smuggle some of Gabo’s work with me. With a lot of time to read great books like this one, it won’t be a punishment.