Thursday, July 26, 2012

El Otoño del Patriarca

El Otoño del Patriarca is one of those novels of Gabriel García Márquez in which time is moved around and stretched in any way that fits the narrative. It’s a form of Magic Realism often used by South American writers of a certain type or period, but he does it in his own way.

García Márquez is a storyteller of genius, there are very few who can touch him. Often when I read a novel I stop after a few chapters because I think, ‘What’s the point of reading this book when I could have written a better one myself?’ (My attempt to prove myself right on this point should be in the Amazon store by the autumn, by the way, very modestly priced.) But when I read GGM I wonder why I even bother trying.

The patriarch of the title is a decaying dictator, bloodthirsty and ruthless, but we don't learn how he gained power and he has little idea what to do with it. It doesn’t seem to matter very much. He is the leader because someone has to be. At times his main interest in power is the fact that he can do what he wants without having to explain himself to anyone. The country is a mess because he's more interested in his routine than in any of the trappings of power, or in power itself. He has been the tyrant for decades, they celebrate his hundred years of power a couple of times. He has a shack full of concubines and their children, none of whom he cares in the least about, and the palace is full of valuable objects being spoiled by chickens.

The banality of his life and the pointlessness of the power he wields go round and round in time and the characters and the situations come up again and again and nothing is explained. There are many narrators who are never properly identified and often switch in mid-sentence for no apparent reason. Some of the sentences are many pages long without being especially forced. It's good stuff, although any point it had was made long before the middle and the narrative purpose could have gone on forever. It's a strange kind of allegory for a friend of Fidel.

The ‘palace’ is mostly abandoned because he cares nothing for comfort or luxury, even the comfort of the eye. The only woman he ever loved is long gone, his mother lived and died in poverty because she never understood that she owned half the country, and his only friend was an actor, discovered by chance, who was his exact double, and who took his place when he wanted to be somewhere else, or was afraid of assassination, or just bored by his duties, and thus a legend of ubiquity arises around him. The double becomes his confidante because they are, to most people, the same person. They share the same life exactly, as they must, they run the same risks, they become identical in every aspect of their appearance, speech, gestures and character.

The double is also long dead and when he died the army and the people thought the tyrant was dead and most of them celebrated. The tyrant watched and waited, then rounded up and tortured to death many of those who had cheered, and rewarded opulently those he had seen genuinely mourning him.

The book doesn’t end, any more than it begins. It’s GGM doing what he does very well.


James Higham said...

The banality of his life and the pointlessness of the power he wields go round and round in time and the characters and the situations come up again and again

Ain't that the way it is? He grasps onto what he has and there's nothing worthwhile there.

CIngram said...

Very true.

CIngram said...

I remember a version of The Invisible Man from the early nineties in which William Defoe (I think) discovers how to became invisible and uses this extraordinary power to spy on his neighbour undressing. I don't know if that banality was the point of the film or they just didn't have any imagination but it made you want to throw things at the screen. Likewise the dictator's power is useful to him mainly because it stops others from telling him what to do. He himself doesn't know how to use it.