My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Nothing causes a Patriarch to be so much esteemed as his prowess fueled by his great appetite for ambition and power. We have seen these tyrants, these commanding rulers, rise and fall. We’ve even been romanced by them.
As much as The General is great and extraordinary in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of a Patriarch, he is also pathetic, repulsive, and loathsome. This lends to his power and magnetism, yet his rule is the decay of our morals, the degradation of the sense of self and esteem for the people of the country he claims to govern.
There are, loosely, three kinds of tales by Marquez, those that are scintillating and sharp as a diamond, cutting through the morass of the mundane to reveal what is piercingly human and heart-breakingly innate within our nature, whether we are man or woman, rich or poor. Then there are Marquezian tales that ramble aimlessly with rare flashes of brilliance, which surface in isolated occasion but are washed away with ambulatory drudge. Finally, there are tales that combine the two and one must wade through the slough while always on the lookout for that spark of intensity which pierces its way through swampy narratives.
The Autumn of the Patriarch belongs to the second category more than the first or third. If readers like holding their breath for long spaces of time, not knowing when the narrative will allow us to come up for air, then this is the perfect novel. Its not so much a matter of diving deep into an immersive story but rather more like suffering suffocation under a tyrannical presence that will not let up, even after death. Our General’s story becomes tiresome, an endless marathon, running alongside a monster. His machismo drips off the page:
…he fell asleep at ocean lulled by the scratching of the drizzle on the frosted glass of the sleeping potion, but suddenly he awoke with a start, who’s there, he shouted, it was his own heart oppressed by the strange silence of the cocks at dawn, he felt that the ship of the universe had reached some port while he was asleep, he was floating in a soup of steam, the animals of the earth and sky who had the faculty to glimpse death beyond clumsy omens and best founded sciences of men were white with terror, there was no more air, time was charging direction, and as he got up he felt his heart swelling with every step and his ear drums bursting and some boiling matter was running out of his nose. It’s death, he thought (93)….
More of an in-depth character study than a fully realized story, Marquez writes of The General that “There are orders that can be given but not carried out.” This General commands our attention but his pull doesn’t hold strong enough for us to care about his inevitable fall. He may ask us to witness his descent, but we can and will avert our gaze to more pressing and more deserving tales as we should.