The central character, the figure for whom the entire novel exists, is the patriarch himself. Yet he is less a unified character than a pastiche of the idea of the dictator: one who has ultimate power to create his own world and to manipulate other human beings as though they were dispensable pieces in an elaborate, self-indulgent game. If the patriarch were to be taken as a real person, he could be dismissed simply as mad. Since, however, he is an embodiment of the horrors of ultimate power that corrupts absolutely, he suggests the madness of power itself, which is a much more horrifying concept.
He is given all the attributes of the magical personage—one who can change the weather, who is invulnerable to bullets, who fathers hundreds of children, who is destined to live forever, who rules so absolutely that when he asks what time it is, the answer is whatever time he wishes it to be. At the same time, however, he is also seen as weak, fearful of assassination, often sexually impotent, at the mercy of those around him, and generally in a state of aging decay. His gigantic herniated testicle, which he must carry about in a leather case, is a central symbol of this double image: Even as it suggests the magnitude of his sexual organs and thus his power, it also is like a hump on his back, a burden that limits him. Moreover, his seemingly unrestrained power is made ridiculous by the various ruses that his followers must employ to maintain the illusion of...
The patriarch, also called the general, the “All Pure,” the “Magnificent,” and so on, an unnamed Latin American dictator who is somewhere between the ages of 107 and 232. At one point, he writes a note to himself reading “my name is Zacarias” (sah-kah-REE-ahs), but because this event occurs after his senility has progressed, the writing of the note, like many other events in the novel, is suspect. Superstitious, paranoid, and ruthless, illiterate but peasant-shrewd, he rules from a palace that has been converted into a marketplace. It is overrun with soldiers, prostitutes, cows, and lepers seeking miraculous cures to be bestowed by the patriarch. The state of his palace is that of the nation, and the decrepitude of both palace and nation results from and mirrors the patriarch’s deteriorating mental state. The general has the huge flat feet of an elephant, a herniated testicle that whistles at night, and no lines on his smooth hands (rendering him immune to prophecy). In a sense, he is the only character in the novel, because all other characters are rendered in relation to him and the novel fluctuates between third-person reports of his actions, first-person statements made to the patriarch, and first-person interior monologue of the general’s responses to characters and events. He is the history of his nation, and as he becomes increasingly senile, he even remembers the arrival of Europeans in the New World. These memories are never convincingly proven or refuted. The novel begins with and repeatedly returns to the discovery of his body, mutilated beyond recognition by vultures in the presidential palace.
Manuela Sánchez (mahn-WEH-lah SAHN-chehs), a woman from an impoverished background whose supernatural beauty astounds the nation. The patriarch dances a waltz with her out of ceremonial obligation, then gradually becomes obsessed with her to the extent that he has reveille played at three in the morning and changes the nation’s clocks to distract him from his nocturnal fascination with her. The patriarch courts her in the traditional manner, going to her house with presents, but also rebuilds entire neighborhoods to elevate her slum origins. She disappears during a total eclipse of the sun, and the general’s agents are unable to locate her, although rumors abound.
Bendición Alvarado (behn-dee-see-OHN ahl-vah-RAH-doh), the patriarch’s mother by an unknown father, a former prostitute who paints common birds in order to sell them as exotic songbirds. During most of her son’s reign, she lives frugally in a house in the suburbs of the capital city, coming to the palace to clean up after and criticize her son. She serves to keep him in touch with his peasant roots, deflating much of the pomp and ceremony that grows about the general’s person. He nurses her during her fatal illness, washing her pustulated sores with various quack remedies. After her death, her son has her embalmed and sends her corpse on a tour of the provinces. Rumors of her miraculous preservation lead to his insistence on her sainthood. This demand results in his expulsion of the...