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The Autumn of Our Patriarch

[H]e promised us that he would rebuild an exact replica of the house of our forebears but its blackened ruins remained down to our times, he did nothing to disguise the terrible exorcism of the bad dream but took advantage of the occasion to liquidate the legislative and judicial apparatus of the old republic, he heaped honors and fortune upon the senators and congressmen and magistrates whom he no longer needed to keep up the appearances of the beginning of his regime, he exiled them to happy and remote embassies and remained with no other retinue but the solitary shadow of the Indian with his machete […]

[H]e checked the facts on paper against the tricky facts of real life …

— The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel García Márquez

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IN HIS BRILLIANT essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges challenges the simplicity of our usual ideas about literary influence. Ordinarily, we presume that a writer reads his precursors and is influenced by them in one way or another. This is true, of course, but there is more. Borges inverts this chronology to propose that influence also flows backward in time because writers also influence their precursors. How can works of literature influence writers who lived long before those works were written? Here’s how: we read those works now.

If, in Borges’s example, we read Kafka, we will necessarily read previous works through a Kafkian lens. So Borges finds The Castle haunting Aristotle’s account of Zeno’s paradox, which argues that a moving object can never reach its goal because it will always have to cover half the distance, then “half of the half,” and then “half of the half of the half, and so on to infinity.” In Aristotle’s account, Borges asserts that “the moving object and the arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkian characters in literature.” We smile, and concede the point. Why not? Other examples follow: Kafka’s tone influences a Chinese writer in the ninth century, Kafka’s “spiritual affinity” with Kierkegaard influences the latter’s religious fables, and so on. In short, literary history isn’t successive but simultaneous. Borges concludes: “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

This is a theory of reading, of course, not of writing. Borges winks and brings his vast and witty erudition to bear on a proposition that in three short pages has become obvious. His essay occurs to me (after reading Borges, everything is Borgesian) because I have lately reread Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, published in 1975 but dated by the author as 1968–1975. Fifty years after the conception of this landmark work, it is clear that along with writers, politicians also create their literary precursors. In a word, García Márquez’s “dictator novel” has been deeply influenced by our current national experience of political irrationality.

How the novel has changed since I read it in 1975! I first saw a brilliant fictional evocation of a crazy strongman in an undefined (but clearly Latin American) setting. Reading it now, I see it filled with insights into our own ongoing political circus in the United States, and even with predictions of what looms ahead because, as Borges says, this process not only influences the past but also modifies the future. In short, my Borgesian rereading has made me newly aware of the vulnerability of democratic institutions, a circumstance that we might have imagined to be more Latin America’s problem than our own. But no. A Mexican friend wrote me in the early hours of November 9, 2016: “EEUU ha elegido a su primer tirano, siempre hay una primera vez.” (“The US has elected its first tyrant. There is always a first time.”) How quickly he recognized the possibility of an American dictator.

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The literary tradition of the dictator novel features political figures — or combinations of figures, at different times and places in Latin America — intended by authors and appreciated by readers as a form of political activism. In an interview, the Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa describes a meeting of young writers from various Latin American countries in the late 1960s. As he tells it, one of them suggested that they each write a story about “their” dictator, with the aim of publishing a collection. Vargas Llosa remembered the conversation in an interview: “Fuentes would write about Santa Anna; García Márquez about Rojas Pinilla. My dictator was Sánchez Cerro or perhaps Odrío, Roa Bastos’ dictator was Dr. Francia, Carpentier’s was Batista, and so on.” The short story collection never materialized, but Vargas Llosa noted that “novels about dictators began to appear, and it may have been this project that was their source.”

Whatever the source, this anecdote suggests the political impulse of these writers and the public roles they played at the time (Alejo Carpentier and Carlos Fuentes) or would eventually play (Vargas Llosa ran for president of Peru, and García Márquez was to become a vast political force without ever holding public office). These writers used their cultural authority to protest unbridled power in their dictator novels, which include Carpentier’s El Recurso del método (translated as Reasons of State), Augusto Roa Bastos’s Yo el supremo (I the Supreme), Vargas Llosa’s La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat) and Conversación en la Catedral (Conversation in the Cathedral), Fuentes’s La silla del águila (literally “the eagle’s throne,” referring to the seat of presidential power in Mexico), and perhaps the earliest example of the mode, Miguel Ángel Asturias’s 1949 El señor presidente (The President). The politics of these writers is neither liberal nor conservative, but, quite simply, ethical. The dictator-characters in these novels are not “magical-real.” Rather, they are realistic psychological portraits of ruthless individuals who claim and maintain power, regardless of the cost to others. In contrast, The Autumn of the Patriarch follows the logic of magical realism.

García Márquez’s fictional patriarch is a puppet whose actions are not given motivation or explanation, whose proclamations are constantly contradicted or reversed, and whose appetites are inordinate: disproportion and excess are the basic tools of magical realism. The reader’s view of this character is constantly and intentionally blurred. He never appears fully in view of the community: he has an identical double who stands in for him on public occasions, and a bodyguard who is “a solitary shadow.” The patriarch dies six times, or so the community (and reader) believe, reappears six times, changes day for night, advances the clocks, reverses the seasons, and banishes the future. Paranoia competes with power at every turn. The patriarch regularly consults a fortune-teller, but his paranoia is never explored as a psychological matter. In fact, he is never given an interior life, as he would have to be given in a realistic novel, so there is no need to look for psychological explanations. The patriarch is not an individual but rather an archetype, a myth, a freestanding hyperbole. We are told that his “baggy linen suit” looks “as if there were nobody inside.” Exactly. There is no person or personality, only air.

But air shifts and thickens. The patriarch’s whims, based on no rhyme or reason, rule his regime. His cruelty is described in wild detail: a “comrade general” who dares to question him is roasted and served on a platter at a state dinner with an apple in his mouth; the patriarch rapes a woman and has her husband cut into small pieces because, as he tells his henchman, otherwise he would have an enemy for life. Excess typifies García Márquez’s style (remember the José Arcadio Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude), but there is also “realism” in his “magical realism.” The patriarch’s political appointments are believable, given his paranoia:

[W]ith his ancient certainty that […] the very men he was arming and raising up so that they would support his regime will end up sooner or later spitting in the hand that feeds them, he wiped them out with one stroke, he took others out of nowhere, raised them to the highest ranks pointing at them according to the impulse of his inspiration, you to captain, you to colonel, you to general, and all the rest to lieutenant, what the hell, he watched them grow in their uniforms until they burst the seams, he lost sight of them …

“The impulse of his inspiration” — in my Borgesian rereading, influenced as I am by our current administration, this scenario now seems altogether plausible.

Beyond the roasted general and other horrors, the novel’s hallucinatory atmosphere rises from sentences that continue for pages with little or no punctuation (the opposite of Twitter, I suppose, but to similar effect), added to which there are various narrators from the oppressed community who enter and exit without introduction, a kind of Greek chorus in local garb. Chapters without paragraphs, sentences without periods reinforce our sense of the patriarch’s power as uncontainable, inexorable, inevitable. So, too, this streaming style seems to mirror the community’s powerlessness as the unbounded account flows on and on, and yet nothing changes.

This style, so different from that of One Hundred Years of Solitude, reflects the novel’s overarching subject — deception and illusion. Illusionism is, of course, another of magical realism’s tools. García Márquez uses the visual strategies of trompe l’œil (literally, “to deceive the eye”) to make the unreal appear real. Beyond the strategies of doubling and deceit that I have described, the author presents the patriarch’s delusions as if they were fact. Some are, it seems, but we never know which. In my Borgesian rereading, I have come to think of these strategies as trump l’œil. Magical realism presents alternative realities, but politicians cannot.

Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, which ends abruptly and apocalyptically when the fictional town of Macondo is swept away by a “biblical hurricane,” The Autumn of the Patriarch ends on the upswing. Until the last scene, the townspeople have been passive bystanders who intermittently recount travesties in which the patriarch lumbers and lurches, satisfies his appetites and strews chaos as he goes. But nothing is forever, it seems. The community outlasts the patriarch because this time his demise is not feigned but real. The proportion of hope in this novel, which amounts to one final page, is slight compared to what the townspeople have suffered over 267 pages, but this one page is enough. Reflecting on the “comic tyrant who never knew where the reverse side was and where the right of this life which we loved with an insatiable passion that you never dared even to imagine,” the townspeople declare “the uncountable time of eternity has come to an end.” As in Greek tragedy, this chorus surveys the damage, cautions survivors, and carries on.

The Latin American “dictator novel” has become sadly relevant today in the United States. As our writers survey the damage and contemplate the future, they may wish to turn to their literary precursors from Latin America for guidance.

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Lois Parkinson Zamora is professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Houston. She is a leader in the comparative study of literature of the Americas.

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