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The Autumn of the Patriarch and Arab Spring

Updated on December 20, 2011

Why now?

Government collapses and failures worry me. Not that they are always unalloyed tragedies or undeserved. Hell, I am willing to admit they may be necessary, but they come with a cost that is usually largely ignored in the euphoria of victory, especially when that victory comes against an admittedly oppressive regime. Arab Spring has, therefore, caught me muddled in the middle, hoping for the best but unsure if the changes we witness today will mean long-term gains for men and women in the Middle East and elsewhere, or end in a transfer of power that does not change the substance of oppression, shifting targets but not ending abuses.

In celebration of the events, I have dug up a novel I first read over ten years ago: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch , as translated by Gregory Rabassa. Marquez, born in Columbia, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, is the subject of some controversy in Latin America for his friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro, and one of the popularizers of magical realism, a style of storytelling largely identified with Latin and South American novelists. The Autumn of the Patriarch relates the life of a Latin American dictator, a man twisted and deformed who in turn twists and deforms the society around him, in the hours that follow the discovery of his body, the end of his solitary reign.

Juan Vicente Gomez of Venezuela, upon whom Marquez in part modeled the patriarch of the novel
Juan Vicente Gomez of Venezuela, upon whom Marquez in part modeled the patriarch of the novel

The Language of the Loose Tongue

If The Autumn of the Patriarch was only about the dictator it would not speak to me now as it does. I am tired of dictators, and rarely find them to be very interesting people. They are merely powerful, usually grotesque, and certainly that is true of the patriarch in Marquez's novel. It is not the patriarch that interests me, but his relationships with the nation, with the elites who surround him, and with the people, and their reciprocal relationships with him, that fascinate me today. Dictators, however powerful, do not have the ability to so dominate their societies and nations that the country becomes an expression of their singular will, though it sometimes seems that this is so, and it would certainly be easier if the deformities of a regime could be encapsulated in one body, and ended with the expiration of that body.

Any book begins with the language. Very few books have a plot so compelling that bad writing can be forgiven. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series. In that series, character and plot made his writing, in other books painful, tolerable. Marquez as translated by Rabassa is an excellent writer. He reminds me of Faulkner, but Faulkner strained through a culture which I do not share and with a cadence I do not know. In The Autumn of the Patriarch , Marquez's facility with language shines, as each chapter is a single paragraph, a rush of language, as if the multiple narrator's involved in laying before the reader the patriarch's solitary life have been holding their breath, biting their tongues, for a long time, and now, with their tongues freed, must speak of everything immediately, hurriedly, before their tongues are again tied. It is a rush of language that made me think of jungles, that sort of luxuriance that disguises, because it is built from, pervasive death, a sort of mocking bounty of infertility. Strangely, it also reminded me of the torrent of explanation that comes out of my five year old when you force him to let someone else finish speaking before speaking himself: so much can accumulate in his brain in such a brief time.

William Dampier, pirate and explorer
William Dampier, pirate and explorer

'a poem on the solitude of power'

Now, Marquez himself has described The Autumn of the Patriarch as 'a poem on the solitude of power'. The English translation does not scan as poetry, but this may be a defect unavoidable in translation; I cannot judge that element of his statement. It is very much about the dictator as a solitary figure, a man who has removed himself, and been removed, from the people, then the government, and finally the nation, in order to retain and exercise his power more securely and effectively. Fear and pride are the two dominating elements of his personality, such as it is. Fear is one element he shares with the larger society he guides and inhabits, but the substance of his fears is different from the fear he engenders. He is feared, because his power is murderous and insatiable, while he fears because his power is fragile, his body is fragile, his opponents, even the illusory ones, many and he is only one.

There is an epic quality to this text: the patriarch founder in his living sepulcher whose image and performances become the substance of the lives and deaths of so many; the bastard whose birth and mother are re-created as secular centers of sanctity; the evocations of the Roman empire and the Spanish empire in the creation of punishment tableaux, as in the serving of roasted general to his conspiratorial fellows and the giving of Sejanus the torturer, in this case an aristocrat named José Ignacio Saenz de la Barra, to mob 'justice'. In fact, former empires and their falls are alluded to throughout the books, both in the names of their destroyers--Lombards and Goths--, their originators--the great admiral (Columbus), and their historians--Cornelius Nepos, Livius Andronicus. In the style of writing we now refer to as 'magical realism', extraordinary occurrences and conceptions are related in the same tone as more typical, even mundane, events. The narrative timeline is disrupted, as speakers crowd into the same paragraph to have their say, make their report, all wandering in the maze of the now dead patriarch's long rule, referencing what might be true, the rumors that lasted as long as he did, and what they think is certainly true.

Marquez's book is complicated by a question that does not get the attention it deserves from readers, by and large: the trustworthy, or untrustworthy, narrator. I have heard many interpretations of Nabakov's Lolita, for example, and most of them are flawed by the interpreter's failure to take on this question, or a failure to embrace the full ramifications of the very untrustworthy nature of Humbert as a narrator. Readers can become the accomplices of narrators, accepting what is said without thinking of what is left out, how the reality described may be different from the reality the narrator, a specific voice with its own biases and limitations, avers. Many readers of Lolita become the accomplices of a child molester, without noticing that this is what they have become, merely because they are drawn in by Humbert's voice and forget Lolita, who is not given a voice of her own unmediated by her abuser. In the case of The Autumn of the Patriarch, we as readers must remember that we enter the thoughts of the patriarch only through the voices of those who surround him, people at varying distances from the man himself, a man of whom Marquez writes, "not even his mother was shown the inside of his sighs". What we are concretely witnessing in reading this text are the thoughts, the beliefs, the myths, of a ruler conveyed by the ruled after his demise.

Marquez does use some cheap parlor tricks in his narration. For example, the patriarch is made a physical grotesque, a man with a herniated testicle and large elephantine flat feet. He has a perfect double, Patricio Aragones, son of a glass blower, who in order to more perfectly match the dictator has his feet hammered flat as well, and is turned into a wheel in the security machine that protects the dictator, appearing in public in the dictator's place, so that it appears that the patriarch is both ubiquitous and immortal. His immortality seems assured after Patricio dies of poisoning, and only the one, real patriarch is left, to appear in the aftermath of his own wake to avenge himself and to restructure the state's power. All of the patriarch's children are born too soon, seven-month children born of hurried, loveless encounters with various women.

Working Towards the Patriarch

What does this book tell us about those who live under the patriarch? We will begin with those who also have power, the elites of the army and society. These men have a large degree of power, but they use it narrowly, swelling their own coffers and ambitions while loudly praising and mollifying the dictator. He is afraid of the military, and so he keeps it weak by promoting infighting, controlling and tampering with arms, and periodic purges of personnel and leadership. The government's civilians are no better, only less well-armed, and thus less likely to build an effective force of personally loyal adherents. In the aftermath of his double's murder, it is these civilians and the generals that the patriarch has murdered by his loyal friend and general, Rodrigo de Aguilar, and the presidential guard. This same Rodrigo de Aguilar is later served roasted to fellow conspirators by the patriarch.

The elites of the nation are kept on their toes, and kept loyal, by the patriarch's independence from them, by his unpredictability and the grave penalties for his displeasure, even as he remains inscrutable, so his displeasure may not be known in advance. As Jose Ignacio Saenz de la Barra tells him, "You aren't the government, general, you are the power". The work of government goes on without him, prepared and executed by other men, but his ability to intrude at any moment, to change course by his will, and drag them along with him or put them to death, guarantees his position. This analysis of the caudillo state, the cult of state built around a single man, certainly fits with other observations on dictatorial regimes, including Ian Kershaw's theory of the functioning of the Nazi state as one in which the system operated by "working towards the Fuhrer", guessing his will and, with this will as their justification and their authority, acting to realize it. When the functionary guesses wrong, the penalties are severe, and no concrete policy, action, or directive can be attributed directly to the Fuhrer, or to the patriarch. The patriarch, like the Fuhrer, can always correct the nation by switching tracks, punishing offenders who had gone too far or acted against his will, as in the June 1934 Rohm purge.

There are penalties for choosing to rule by such devices. In order to remain free of direct responsibility, while retaining control and de facto responsibility, a space for independent action by the army and other security personnel is created. This space is necessary for the state to "work towards the Fuhrer", or patriarch. A new concern in government is created, that of retaining the patriarch's purity and ensuring that he remains a fit vessel for the love of nation and for the nation itself. Thus, the patriarch is the power of the nation, but he will know least about it, have the least contact with its realities, and soon come to understand it the least. There is too much risk in contact with the country, and so the country is kept away from the leader.

How is power distributed in this caudillo state under the patriarch's rule? His power in part relies on the distribution of offices, of opportunities for profit and gain, and the elites have their own expectations of how this distribution is to occur and to whom such gifts are properly given. The patriarch is powerful, but he is not all-powerful. Breaches of the rules of distribution, of the giving of favors to the faithful, will be punished. In the novel this is shown in the rise of Leticia Nazareno, and her death with his son, torn apart by dogs in the public market as her security detail looks on.

Leticia Nazareno is the patriarch's only wife, "my only and legitimate love", who alone could get him to bare his full body: he came to her naked, as only his mother had seen him before. She came to his attention as his program to coerce canonization for his mother from the Roman church failed, and he turns upon the church, exiling its priests and nuns. She was a novice he spotted and chose as his own. In obedience to his wish, not his order, she is delivered to him "in a strait-jacket inside a pine box with metal hoops and black letters saying fragile" from Jamaican exile, stripped naked and drugged for his bed. In this version of Sleeping Beauty, however, the rapist requires mercy from his victim, and she is reduced to making concessions and deals with him to lessen the pain that will nonetheless come. They marry, and she becomes the deadly queen of the country, free to indulge herself in purchases the state must pay for and in educating her son and her husband in the bourgeois virtues of good manners and reading the newspaper. With the queen, come her relatives, and herein lies the problem, for they are granted favors they have not earned, without any proofs of loyalty or sacrifice. The elites are upset, and so the queen and the patriarch's only legitimate son are killed by hounds in the public market. He had broken the rules of power distribution in the state.

Patricio Aragones, dying of poison, dares to tell the patriarch the truth as he understands it: "You're the president of nobody". According to Patricio, the English established the patriarch's power, and the gringos (Americans) maintain it. If the patriarch appeared a mortal man before the people he claims love him, they would tear him apart for the atrocities he has committed against them. Here enter more important figures in the patriarch's power with whom he has conflicted relationships of dependence and animosity: Europe, especially Britain, and America. This is a young nation, building itself on the ruins of the Spanish Empire, the claims of Britain and Europe in Latin America, and the economic and military pressures of the United States. It is a nation imprisoned in debts from which there is no reasonable escape: the country is too poor and its wars, its attempts to placate the public, have been too expensive. The patriarch even sells the sea to America, and this will not leave his nation free of the burden of debt upon his demise, but only burdened again with the loss of yet another resource. They provide toys, ingenious marvels answering no need, with which he woos, but fails to win, the beautiful Queen of the Poor, Manuela Sanchez, who disappears from his side, never to be seen again, during an eclipse. They are both the problem, and the answer to the problem, before the general and the country.

What of the people? Perhaps the most disappointing element in this novel is the way in which the people are merely objects of manipulation for both the general and the author. There are no revolutionaries here, as there are in many of Latin America's dictatorships both of the past and of the present. There are no dissidents that are not dead, and most of the dead dissidents, one suspects from the narrative, were not dissidents at all, but merely men and women and children for whom death was the assigned role in the creation of the narrative, national or secret, of the country. When dissidents are required, the army creates them, supplying victims for the scene called defense of the nation. Revolutionaries, in this novel, do not write their own script, but are provided with one, and anyone will do for the role. The people are, in the end, apathetic under the patriarch's rule, losing the ability to acclaim him faithfully, but also without the courage or energy to oppose him actively. Even when he is dead, and they suspect that he is, they do not dare to breach the presidential palace until the vultures do so first. He has become, through the fear he creates, the image created for him, and the long passage of time, the necessity at the center of thought of the nation. Without him, what will exist? It has been so long since the nation existed without him, if it could be said to have existed all those years ago, for he is over 100 years old when he dies, that no one is sure what exists anymore. The world of the patriarch's creation, deformed as it was, was the whole of their world, and with him it died.

I end this discussion where Marquez begins his novel, at the presidential palace. The presidential palace is created in this work as a sacred space violated and laid to waste from within. Here, the solitude of the patriarch was over time created, step by step, until all that remained of him was a corpse in a denim uniform, his very face unknown to his people, and cows that eat the furniture and graze on the tapestries. He created no legacy, left his people no inheritance. In the end, the palace existed for him alone. Long before his death, the general had told his mother on the marines leaving the country, "we're our own dogs now, mother, long live the plague". And the plague lived a long time, leaving the survivors without a model, without a compass, without a plan for life once the plague was done.

Psalm 137, NIV

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

when we remembered Zion.

2 There on the poplars

we hung our harps,

3 for there our captors asked us for songs,

our tormentors demanded songs of joy;

they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD

while in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,

may my right hand forget its skill.

6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,

if I do not consider Jerusalem

my highest joy.

7 Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did

on the day Jerusalem fell.

“Tear it down,” they cried,

“tear it down to its foundations!”

8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,

happy is the one who repays you

according to what you have done to us.

9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants

and dashes them against the rocks.


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