The Autumn of the Patriarch
Gregory Rabassa’s excellent translation of Leaf Storm and Other Stories introduced García Márquez to the English-reading public in 1972. Paul Theroux, writing in Book World, was among the first to note that García Márquez’s “marvelous fables” are neither allegorical nor symbolic: “The texture is that of the prose poem, and the intention a restatement of religious belief. But the feeling one comes away with is that of enchantment, which is a sense of having endured terror and magic.” In fact, the enchantment García Márquez generates is that of myth, which is much more basic than religion. In all his works, García Márquez excels in the transformation of history, science, religion, and politics into myth, thereby bringing the poetic circle to closure with the perfection of his greatest contemporaries, Borges and Carlos Fuentes.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (English translation, 1970) immediately established García Márquez as a major writer of this century, demonstrating to anyone who still doubts it that the novel is alive and well in our times and living in South America. One Hundred Years was the saga of the founding, evolution, and destruction of Macondo, a circular narrative in progressively disintegrating linear disguise. Here García Márquez developed a self-consuming aesthetic (making style, theme, and structure indistinguishable parts of a continuous whole) that compelled the reader to involve himself creatively in the very act of literature—by reading. This novel made the act of reading an act symbolic of life itself, simultaneously creating and destroying, as it made us recognize that to read a book for the first time is inevitably and intentionally to deprive oneself forever of an irrevocable experience—the artistic realization of Henri Bergson’s observations about the relationship between time, memory, and perception.
The Autumn of the Patriarch represents a giant step forward, as García Márquez’s focus shifts from a village to an entire nation, epitomized in its solitary dictator. The novel is set in an unnamed Latin American country in an advanced stage of corruption due to anarchy, savagery, and sheer physical exuberance. From his reclusive “throne of illusions,” the unnamed dictator breathes in and creates as he breathes out “an atmosphere of mortality through which only the farewell laments of the illusory ships from the shadows of power could pass, imaginary winds passed, the racket of inner birds which finally consoled him for the abyss of silence of the birds of reality.” The mood of the novel is dreamlike, apocalyptical, sensual, dizzily delirious, lethargically anxious, filled with “stagnant time,” “decrepit light,” and “illusory loves.” Throughout the crumbling presidential palace the cows (replacing the omnipresent red ants of One Hundred Years of Solitude) amble, ruminate, and graze disinterestedly on furniture, tapestries, old paintings, and the decaying body of the dictator himself, discovered anew at the opening of each chapter. Yet the tone is far from being oppressive, although García Márquez’s vague impressionism (a step beyond “magic realism”) produces a far darker humor than the mock-exactitude which characterizes Rabelais, one of his predecessors in the genre of satirical comic-epic.
The central character, of which all the other characters are variously distorted mirror-images, wears “the showy dress uniform with the ten pips of general of the universe.” He has become a legend in his own uncertain time (he dies “at an age somewhere between 107 and 232 years,” the kind of hilarious precision Rabelais delights in). “Official schoolboy texts referred to him as a patriarch of huge size who never left his house because he could not fit through the doors.” He is seen as he sees himself, “undoer of dawn, commander of time, and resource of all fertility,”...
(The entire section is 1611 words.)