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Of Time and the Patriarch

ISSUE:  Spring 1977
The Autumn of the Patriarch, By Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. Harper & Row. $10.00.

GABRIEL Garcia-Marquez addresses himself, unerringly, to the great subjects of our age. One Hundred Years of Solitude used a town, Macondo, and a family, the Buendias, in which to approach individuals solitary in a stream of time. His new book, The Autumn of the Patriarch, takes a nameless dictator of an unidentified Latin American country and nails down the subject of power. But one subject does not exclude the other. Power here is seen essentially as an attempt to annul time, so that we are again involved in a view of time itself. In this respect, Garcia-Marquez is not unique. He belongs in a distinguished line of technical experimenters in the novel form: Proust, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf. All these writers had rejected the traditional view of time as chronology before Garcia began his own view of those One Hundred Years. His method is not completely new; yet his voice is so distinctly his own, his feats of sleight of hand so sure and so dazzling, that we must recognize him at once as an original talent.

As a boy, Garcia-Marquez grew up in the home of his grandparents in the small town of Aracataca, Colombia, which we Norte Americanos used to describe, to our shame, as a banana republic. For some years Garcia lived by journalism, producing short fiction until he had mastered that tightly disciplined art. The stories collected in No One Ever Writes to the Colonel would surely have excited the admiration of Chekov. Then one day he took his wife to Mexico, shut himself in a back room for from eight to ten hours a day, and wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Time is the subject. The vehicle, the flesh, if one likes, is the Buendia family, six generations in the town of Macondo, which is Aracataca sub specie aeternitatis. The legendary history of the Buendias springs from an original fount: the tales told Garcia as a boy by his grandmother. Succeeding generations of the Buendias are caught in an irresistible stream of prose; they are individuals, yes, but none stand alone, After a while, one is transported into a fluid world, moved by fantasy. Yet all is perfectly clear, calm, and composed. Here time has been released from its conventional straight jacket, its power and mystery restored.

When Garcia-Marquez emerged from his labors in the back room he asked his wife what had happened while he had been away. Nothing, she said, nothing. We are all well, we owe $12.000 in bills.

Since then, Garcia has been living in Spain, a fugitive from fame. He has not been able to turn his face to the wall, to hide from the iniquities of politics in his native land, from which he has long been a political exile. He has issued occasional political statements, but no major work of fiction has appeared, until the current novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch.

The Patriarch is not as long, and perhaps not quite as mesmerizing as Solitude. It is divided into sections which may stand alone. This is not to say that it too does not have a tremendous flow; we are swept along on torrents of prose. In the end, it becomes apparent that each section has contributed to an organic whole. The time-vehicle now is not the generations of a family, but the life span of a single man, the nameless dictator, referred to only as He. His life covers something between 107 and 232 years. We are never told, his people cannot imagine, his true age. Every section starts at his death and rushes furiously back through time, revealing the increasing horror, the sadness and sterility of power.

To maintain this power, time must be unarmed, drowned in the quicksands of illusion, Illusion, that is the dictator’s stock in trade. The people thirst for it, it is the secret spring on which his power depends. They have created him out of nothing; this surrogate God born without a known father of a wandering woman, a painter of birds in illusory colors, to sell to the credulous at country fairs. It is the people who have made him, “invulnerable to plague and hurricane, invulnerable to the tricks of (women), invulnerable to time, dedicated to the messianic happiness of thinking for us, knowing that we knew that he would not take any decision for us that did not have our measure, for he had not survived everything because of his inconceivable courage or his infinite prudence but because he was the only one among us who knew the real size of our destiny. . . .” He is their creature, not a man as others are. Not for nothing are his palms innocent of the lines of human character, the blank palms which are the mark of a King.

Even on a throne of illusions there are problems. For example, the case of the children. They told him, general sir, about the thousands of children held in custody because they had been used to draw the winning numbers and knew the trick behind the national lottery. More than two thousand children! What an embarrassment! We would not have bothered you, general sir, but the parents are complaining.

He cannot shut out the sound of the children. “It was a chorus of such adulant and distant voices that he could not have gone to sleep with the illusion that the stars were singing, but he got up irate, that’s enough, God damn it, he shouted, either them or me, he shouted, and it was them, because before dawn he ordered them to put the children in a barge loaded with cement, take them singing to the limits of the territorial waters, blow them up with a dynamite charge without giving them time to suffer as they kept on singing, and when the three officers who carried out the crime came to attention before him with news general sir that his order had been carried out, he promoted them two grades and decorated them with the medal of loyalty, but then he had them shot without honors as common criminals because there were orders that can be given but which cannot be carried out, God damn it, poor children.”

If this episode wakes an echo in the secret vulnerabilities of our own hearts, it does not stand alone. Garcia-Marquez inserts a thin knife, quietly, between the ribs of his North American readers: “. . .he had accepted the occupation of the marines, mother, not to fight yellow fever as Ambassador Thompson had written in the official communique, nor to protect him from public unrest, as the exiled politicians said, but to show our military men how to be decent people, and that’s how it was, mother, to each his own, they taught them to walk with shoes on, to wipe themselves with paper, to use condoms, they were the ones who taught me the secret of maintaining parallel services to stir up distractive rivalries among the military, they invented for me the office of state security, the general investigation agency, the national department of public order. . . .”

Lest the reader fears an excess of polemics these passages are done lightly, in passing. Let us not flagellate ourselves too severely. In the book of Garcia-Marquez, we come out not worse than the rest of mankind—for the vices of power are universal. To think otherwise is illusion.

The Patriarch is not easy reading. The sentences roll on in Faulknerian profusion, but the difficulty is not in the style. There is no doubt, for instance, to whom the pronoun “he” refers, although the point of view may be switched at will, without apparent explanation. Nor is it in the element of fantasy, which one comes to believe is not fantasy, but the awesome truth. Even that matter of age. When a young patriot approaches the general and speaks of giving one’s life for one’s country, there can be no greater glory, general sir, “He replied smiling with pity don’t be a horse’s ass boy, fatherland means staying alive. . . . that’s what it is.” After all he has done it: he has stayed alive longer than anyone. We believe that he has outwitted time and the human condition, mortal man notwithstanding.

It is neither lack of belief nor obscurity which makes The Patriarch slow reading. It is the density, the emotional impact which Garcia has packed into each section. One may find it most rewarding read section by section, not more than one at a sitting. Granted that the impact depends on our ability to shed our own illusions. Some are obvious, others so deeply buried that we have scarcely recognized them as illusions. But there is no escaping the fact that Garcia-Marquez has given voice to the moral perceptions of an age.

The rotting of power, the death of a nation, runs like a sad dirge through the final pages of this book. At the end, through one of his magic shifts in time, Garcia-Marquez brings us back to a scene at the beginning of his power. He and the mother-of-his-heart, the poor bird woman, are sitting in the wreckage of the former Presidential palace, She is advising him as to how he should clean up the mess, put all this in order. But in the next moment we see that it is a pitiful old man who sits among the cow dung, alone among the wreckage. The uncountable time of power has come to an end; he is abandoned, he of the blank palms, the creature of illusion. In the street frantic crowds are singing hymns of joy at the jubilant news of his death. They know who they are, while he is left never knowing forever.

The bourgeois novel of manners and character is clearly not a concern of Garcia-Marquez. The genius of Spain, and of her child Latin America, turns to eternity as naturally as flowers turn to the sun. At the same time, the accent that we hear in these pages is venal, earthy. The present translation by Gregory Rabassa we may believe retains the original tone; it is so good that we are hardly aware that it is translation. Over all broods the figure of Garcia-Marquez in his workman’s clothes. Out of his own continent he speaks to the concerns of men everywhere.


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