‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ by Gabriel García Márquez

Published - August 24, 2019 04:00 pm IST

It took Gabriel García Márquez 17 years to write The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), which he considered his most important book from a literary point of view, one that would save him from oblivion. His previous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude , a big breakthrough, had brought him unprecedented fame. He wanted to do something different with the Patriarch.

Using the visual image of a “very old, inconceivably old, dictator all alone in a palace full of cows” as a starting point, Márquez decided to tell the history of Latin America through the life of a dictator who refused to die. He made the patriarch rule over an unnamed Caribbean nation for two centuries — Márquez had been reading biographies of dictators and regaled friends with stories, of Doctor Duvalier of Haiti who once had all the country’s black dogs put down, Doctor Francia of Paraguay who closed off his country “as if he were locking up a house, just leaving a window open for the mail”, and the intuitive Juan Vicente Gómez of Venezuela who used to have his death announced and then come back to life.

Fragments of many Latin American dictators found their way into the book. Pressed to define it in one sentence by a friend, Márquez said it was a “poem on the solitude of power.”

Comfortable lies

The novel opens with the dictator, “older than all old men and all old animals on land or sea,” lying dead on the floor, face down, as vultures get into the presidential palace, stirring up the “stagnant time inside”. The story is told mostly in flashback. The despot used to be an illiterate soldier but once he seizes power, he clings on, resolving matters of state with the same simplicity with which he gave orders — “the clock in the tower should not strike twelve at twelve o’clock but two times so that life would seem longer.” Eventually, the patriarch will sell off the sea to pay off national debt, even as he discovers “in the course of his uncountable years that a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth...”

He is so convinced of “being master of all his power”, he keeps death at bay by employing his perfect double, Patricio Aragonés, and by other means. The ambitious novel, with its long and winding sentences, was criticised as being sympathetic to the patriarch, drawing attention to Márquez’s politics and his friendship with Fidel Castro.

But the closer Márquez takes us into the palace, more horrors of the excesses of power tumble out. It’s impossible to read it and not remember the words he wanted to explore in fiction: “Power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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