Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, renowned as a master of magical realism, creates stories that grip the imagination. Set in exotic locals, peoples with unforgettable characters, and crafted with exquisite prose, his stories transport the reader to a world that is at once fanciful and real.

One of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's most intricate and ambitious works, The Autumn of the Patriarch is a brilliant tale of a Caribbean tyrant and the corruption of power. Employing an innovative, dreamlike style, the novel is overflowing with symbolic descriptions as it vividly portrays the dying tyrant caught in the prison of his own dictatorship. From charity to deceit, benevolence to violence, fear of God to extreme cruelty, the dictator embodies at once the best and the worst of human nature.

Goodreads description

This novel by the great Gabo himself comes with a reputation for being hard work and dark. And to be sure The Autumn of the Patriarch deals with the darkest of subjects - inside the mind of a psychopathic dictator. So I was nervous as I settled down to read this book in advance of this review. I needen't have worried. Afterall this is a book by the master.

First of all I had to develop a new way of approaching reading the book. The Autumn of the Patriarch is made up of six huge chapters, each consisting of one paragraph. Sentences can go on for pages and are divided almost exclusively with commas (the semicolon is discarded). And within these sentences the narrative voice can shift from the Patriarch's to another character to the general mass of the Patriarch's subjects like a Greek chorus without either punctuation or formating signposting. 

Clearly you cannot read this book anywhere where you will be interrupted, but even so I soon found myself relaxing into the book and not worrying when I lost sense of who was speaking. There is a reason for that - the subject of the entire narration is the omnipresent Patriarch. The nation is an extension of the Patriarch. Or at least that is how he sees the world - he is totally self-centred - and it is one reason that The Autumn of the Patriarch is a "poem on the solitude of power" as Garcia Marquez has described it. 

It is a tribute to the author's genius that I found myself at times feeling sympathy for the monstrous Patriarch. He is a man who cannot feel love. He is also a man for whom the power he seeks and clings too brings no joy:
but he learned to live with those and all the miseries of glory as he discovered in the course of his uncountable years that a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth, he had arrived without surprise at the ignominious fiction of commanding without power, of
being exalted without glory and of being obeyed without authority.

The book opens with the people he rules breaking in to the palace to find his body. They cannot believe that he has died: afterall he has already died once. That first death was when the Patriarch's double is killed and he watches his subjects' response to his "death" - some grieving, some celebrating. When he reappears he takes typically brutal action against the latter. So it is not surprising that his subjects are cautious when he dies a second time. He has magically lived longer than a normal mortal. Can he die?

The book focuses on the Patriarch after his first death, in the autumn of his years to his end. Of course the book moves backwards and forwards in time without warning, as you would expect, but a portrait of the old man evolves as layer upon layer of story are applied. The story is at times grotesque (but no more grotesque than reality, as the stories of dictators like Idi Amin or Caligula or Pinochet show us). The cruelty of the Patriarch is likewise all too true to life. People are tortured, killed and disposed of. The shocking fate of several thousand innocent children, whose only crime was to have drawn the numbers of the lottery that the Patriarch always won, is perhaps the hardest to take. 
At the same time there is a crude gallows humour about the book, which at once relieves and heightens the horror. Some of that humour comes from the Patriarch himself: 
the day shit is worth money, poor people will be born without an asshole. 

The book reveals that the Patriarch came from a poor background, and there may have been a time when he had some sympathy for the underclass. He is set up by the British as a puppet and then they abandon him and the island. He doesn't use their departure to restore the island's fortunes but to plunder them as the British did. Towards the end of the book we learn that the Americans too have exploited the country and brought it so much into debt that they demand and get the sea surrounding the island in payment. This is magic realism as political comment as well as an exploration of the psychology of the individual. 

This is an amazing book. Whether it is a pleasurable read is another matter.

This review is my first contribution to the Magic Realism Bloghop 2015. I am planning two more posts on this blog and there are plenty more posts on the hop to be enjoyed (see below).


Malcolm Campbell said...

Might take a pass on this one.


Eilis Phillips said...

Thanks for this, I started reading Autumn of the P. a while ago but kept getting way laid. You've persuaded me to hunt it out again!

Anne Fenwick said...

I don't know if I'll find it fun exactly, but I might have a go at this one. I quite like interminable sentences and the psychology of not very nice people.

Anne Fenwick said...

I don't know if I'll find it fun exactly, but I might have a go at this one. I quite like interminable sentences and the psychology of not very nice people.

leighpod said...

This sounds like committing to Joyce. Challenging --- and worth the plunge I think.

leighpod said...

Sounds quite challenging. I might just take the plunge!

Stephanie Barbe Hammer said...

Thanks. I'm going to have to take a look.

Alan Yuri said...

I don't seem to be able to put this book down. If you like poetry, go ahead at once!