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Unhappy Dictators

The Autumn of the Patriarch

by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Harper & Row, 269 pp., $10.00

Reasons of State

by Alejo Carpentier, translated by Frances Partridge
Knopf, 311 pp., $10.00

Latin America has long worn two conflicting masks. One expresses charm, gaiety, sentiment, a mood of comic opera and a long-running belle époque. The other suggests torture, massacres, tyrants, and endlessly trampled constitutions. Are the masks connected? Is the first a consolation for the second? Does the second rely on the frivolous complicity of the first? Different countries require different answers, perhaps, and there is a more immediate difficulty, formulated with cold and humorous clarity in Conrad’s Nostromo: how to get both masks in focus at once, how to treat many Latin American governments with the seriousness their atrocities deserve?

This is not an outsider’s question, the result of our ignorance and our inability to tell one general from another. It is a native’s question about the politics of charades, military or civilian, and often lethal either way. An anonymous voice at the end of García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch (published in Spanish in 1975) wonders whether the novel’s central figure, the legendary dictator of an unnamed Caribbean country, “is only a figment of the imagination, a comic tyrant”; and a tyrant himself in Carpentier’s Reasons of State (published in Spanish in 1974) thinks of Latin American history as an unreal suspension of time:

it was the same procession of uniforms and frock-coats, high English top-hats alternating with plumed Bolivian helmets, as one saw in second-rate theatres, where triumphal marches of thirty men passed and re-passed in front of the same drop curtain, running when they were behind it, so as to be in time to re-enter the stage shouting for the fifth time: “Victory! Victory! Long live the Regime! Long live Liberty!” …Time at a standstill…just as a watch returns to the time it indicated yesterday when yesterday it told today’s time….

In his longevity—he dies, it is said, at an age “somewhere between 107 and 232 years”—García Márquez’s patriarch recalls Franco, or more precisely a whole series of Spanish jokes about Franco (one of them had Jackie Kennedy contemplating marriage with the then moribund general “because she didn’t want to be a widow again”). In a uxorious moment he recalls Perón. William Kennedy, in The New York Times Book Review, suggested that for other dictatorial details García Márquez was thinking of Stroessner of Paraguay, Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Juan Vicente Gomez of Venezuela, and Rojas Pinilla of Colombia. In Reasons of State, Carpentier’s dictator-protagonist calls Mexico’s Porfirio Díaz his “double” and learns that the New York Times of the day—between the wars—classes him with Rosas of Argentina, Estrada Cabrera of Guatemala, and once again Juan Vicente Gomez of Venezuela. Taken together, these names represent a century and a half of autocratic rule scattered over the Spanish-speaking world, and the question asked by both of these remarkable novels is, how were these men able to make themselves so needed, and more important, how is a country to do without them, and to keep their future avatars from coming back? They are the malign royalty of a whole culture, clarifiers of countless fears and hopes and hatreds: hence their fascination even for those who detest them.

Tamed, in The Autumn of the Patriarch, they sit in a rest home for deposed dictators, playing dominos, and feebly remembering where and how they went wrong. But free and in power, they are altogether more formidable, foreseeing fathers of their people, and unforgiving butchers of children who step out of line, ahead of every game mounted against them. They can swell to overwhelming dimensions. “There was no other nation except the one that had been made by him in his own image and likeness,” a voice says in The Autumn of the Patriarch; and again: “he was the only one among us who knew the real size of our destiny.” And the same voice, hushed by the tyrant’s command over a whole national reality, records the loss even of the desire to see the tyrant die:

we had even extinguished the last breath of the hopeless hope that someday the repeated and always denied rumor that he had finally succumbed to some one of his many regal illnesses would be true, and yet we didn’t believe it now that it was, and not because we really didn’t believe it but because we no longer wanted it to be true, we had ended up not understanding what would become of us without him, what would become of our lives after him….

Given the striking similarity of interest in these two novels, further similarities become predictable, simply because they are part of the historical subject. There is a good deal of blood-shed in both books; the dictator outwits would-be usurpers again and again; we see him lonely, unloved, betrayed, dead. García Márquez seems gorier than Carpentier—“the man with the machete took Poncio Daza into the banana groves and cut him into such thin slices that it was impossible to put his body back together again after it had been scattered to the hogs, poor man”—but he is also more fanciful, and a scene in which a conspiring general, “stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs,” is served up for supper to his co-conspirators probably owes more to García Márquez’s classical reading than it does to history.

But there are more subtle similarities too. García Márquez and Carpentier share with each other, and with other Latin American novelists, a strong sense of reality as fiction—a sense which has much to do with the life of these novels, and perhaps with the life of the novel in general in Latin America. Reality is full of fictions in Europe and North America too, but I think we imagine the truth can be found, in most cases, if we really need it. In Latin America the truth is often not only unavailable, it is unimaginable, and unwanted. One of the last lessons learned by García Márquez’s patriarch is that “a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth.” This means that a novel in Latin America, instead of being a fictional imitation of a historical world, or a self-conscious record of the movements of an individual mind, can become an attempt to understand a real world that is all too imaginary by means of imagined continuations of it: the good novels of literature combat the bad novels of life itself.

Even death is a fiction in Reasons of State and The Autumn of the Patriarch. In the first, the dictator pretends to die, so that people will come out into the streets and get shot down. In the second, the corpse of the dictator is twice found lying in the same position, “in his denim uniform without insignia, boots, the gold spur on his left heel.” On one occasion the corpse is not his at all but that of his double, who has long been making his public appearances for him. On the other the corpse is his own, but the uniform and the place of death have been changed in order to accomplish an old prophecy: he actually died in another room and another suit.

Near the beginning of Reasons of State, the dictator announces, rather startlingly, that last night he “fucked a nun of Saint Vincent de Paul,” but we soon learn that he has merely been to a rather specialized brothel. At the end of the novel, as he is dying, he is attended by a real nun of Saint Vincent de Paul. The instance is slight, and playful, but it points in the same direction as the larger manipulations of The Autumn of the Patriarch. In a world addicted to fiction, appearances quickly become realities. “I don’t like myths,” the protagonist says in Reasons of State. “Nothing can travel about so far and so fast in this continent as a myth.”

The frequent and very funny jokes of both writers are also a way of getting at a reality contaminated with illusion. García Márquez’s favorite device is the elegant, unlikely hyperbole. His dictator sells off his territorial waters to the Americans, who literally come and take away the Caribbean, leaving only an ashy plain full of craters. When the electric chair is introduced, in preference to the old inhumane method of execution by quartering, it takes so much electricity that the city’s lights all go out whenever it is used. And in a combination of exaggeration and deliberately banal understatement which perhaps only García Márquez could bring off, the dictator murmurs to his mother as the hundredth year of his reign is being celebrated, “a hundred years already, God damn it, a hundred years already, the way time passes.”

Carpentier’s jokes are slyer and more historical and literary. A group of German sailors playing classical music in the tropics is sometimes interrupted by a rattlesnake:

but it was always seen in time by the cellist, who looked at the ground more than the other musicians, and the serpent died at a single blow given on its spine by the stick of the bow—col legno as it is technically called.

Caruso, fleeing from a bomb detonated during a performance of Aïda, is arrested in the streets of the dictator’s capital for dressing up as a woman and wearing make-up, and the young Nehru, glimpsed in a train in France, says “Cool, cool,” leaving his hearers baffled whether he means cool or coal, since it is cold in the carriage, and the train has just approached a region of coal-mines.

But it is in their approach to the question I raised at the beginning of this piece that García Márquez and Carpentier diverge most widely. Both try to look at both masks together—the charm of operetta and the reality of repression—but they go about it differently. When García Márquez’s patriarch needs to get rid of some two thousand children before they spill the beans on the way the national lottery has been rigged, he has them drowned, and the event is described in this way:

that’s enough, God damn it, he shouted, either them or me, he shouted, and it was them, because before dawn he ordered them to put the children in a barge loaded with cement, take them singing to the limits of the territorial waters, blow them up with a dynamite charge without giving them time to suffer as they kept on singing, and when the three officers who carried out the crime came to attention before him with news general sir that his order had been carried out, he promoted them two grades and decorated them with the medal of loyalty, but then he had them shot without honors as common criminals because there were orders that can be given but which cannot be carried out, God damn it, poor children.

Rather more subtly, Carpentier has photographs of his tyrant’s cruelties appear in the press in the tyrant’s beloved Paris, and only then, only when his fame as the “butcher of Nueva Córdoba” begins to spread in certain social circles, when his posh European friends (mostly characters like Brichot, Morel, and Mme Verdurin, on loan from Proust) start to give him the cold shoulder, does he sense that he may have made a mistake.

But then, at this point, García Márquez and Carpentier are after quite different things. García Márquez is concerned with the truth of myth, since myth is where the two masks can be seen to meet, and his wheezing tyrant, with his flat feet and his hernia, sloping through a decrepit presidential palace littered with cows and lepers and concubines, losing an obsessively loved woman during an eclipse, instituting a campaign for the canonization of his mother the birdwoman, listening indefatigably to radio soap operas whose scripts have been rigged to please him, is a myth come alive.

Correspondingly, the story of The Autumn of the Patriarch is told by a crowd of narrators: a third person (he said, he thought, he shouted); several first persons singular (the dictator speaking; others, usually sycophants, reporting to him); and two or three first persons plural (a chorus of subjects, the people who find the corpse, people who, over the years, have seen or known the dictator). It’s hard to illustrate the resulting texture in brief quotation, but something of it may come across in the following passages:

They had shut themselves up in the quarters for distinguished guests with the personal order that no one is to come any closer than twenty feet to that door because I’m going to be very busy learning to read and write, so no one interrupted him not even with the news general sir that the black vomit was wreaking havoc among the rural population while the rhythms of my heart got ahead of the metronome because of that invisible force of your wild-animal smell….

He was condemned not to know life except in reverse, condemned to decipher the seams and straighten the threads of the woof and the warp of the tapestry of illusions of reality without suspecting even too late that the only livable life was one of show, the one we saw from this side which wasn’t his general sir, this poor people’s side with the trail of yellow leaves of our uncountable years of misfortune and our ungraspable instants of happiness, where love was contaminated by the seeds of death but was all love general sir, where you yourself were only an uncertain vision of pitiful eyes through the dusty peepholes of a train….

There is a wavering of style running through the book, as the above passages, brilliantly translated, also illustrate: a note of what ought to be parody but actually reads like fine writing smuggled in behind the shifts of narrative point of view. What are we to make of “a panic of swallows in the diaphanous December sky”; of the patriarch’s “throne of illusions”; of a phrase like “the intimate tragedy of the solitary military man who was sighing with nostalgia”? García Márquez’s main attack clearly aims at the dangers of all-encompassing myth, at an understanding of the dictator by an imaginative exploration of the type. But he also seems inclined to the more sentimental view, reflected in the slightly too lyrical prose, that it’s really no fun being a tyrant, because a myth is truly alive only for those it’s inflicted on—“the only livable life was one of show, the one we saw from this side”—and inside the myth there is only emptiness and solitude. This strikes me as being rather too close to the view that riches don’t bring happiness.

Carpentier on the other hand is interested not in myth but in history, and his method is to plunge us circumstantially into an earlier period, before, during, and after the First World War. His tyrant is a man of culture, stopping off at the Metropolitan to hear a premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande before he goes home to suppress a revolt, and fleeing to Paris whenever he can. But he becomes, with time, a man of the past, and after a lengthy American-supported reign is deposed in an uprising, also supported by the Americans. The ambassador, wearing his tennis clothes, remarks to the fallen president that the new man, an anarchist theosophist, is “the only man who can clear up the situation.” The tyrant dies in Paris, and is buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse, not far from Porfirio Díaz and close to Baudelaire and General Aupick.

At times Carpentier seems to want to force history into speech too quickly, and some of his dialogues—between the tyrant and a militant student, between the tyrant and a jazz-playing American consul—are too plainly set-ups, frames for talking dolls. But the book abounds with sharp images and sequences: the tropical city booming during the war, skyscrapers built on streets only six or seven yards wide, so that no one can see the carving and the temples and the statues proliferating up there among the water tanks and the elevator machinery; a statue of the Republic, represented as a giant female figure, arriving from Italy and being conveyed to the capital by train, Phrygian cap, shoulder and covered breast, head, shoulder and bare breast, fertile belly and the rest all on separate wagons, “presenting a disconcerting vision of a Form which, although already that of a human body, had its parts displayed in a horizontal series and never achieved a significant totality”; a siege which is raised immediately when the defending general is “bombarded” with 100,000 pesos, but then turns into a bloodbath when a popular leader refuses to accept the surrender; the dictator asked by the American consul whether he figures in the Petit Larousse, and weeping in his downfall “because a dictionary…was unaware of my existence.”

This last scene seems to echo García Márquez’s flickering sympathy for his ogre-hero, but Carpentier is actually doing something more complicated. When our feelings may be flowing toward the tyrant in his disgrace and exile, Carpentier informs us, very casually, of the man’s admiration for Mussolini, then a figure rising in the world. Carpentier wants to turn his dictator into the opposite of a myth: into a historical and human character, mortal, comprehensible, and morally responsible for what he’s done. He asks us therefore to perform an act of understanding which I find highly desirable but very hard to manage. He wants us to hold within a single perspective the careless author of futile massacres and the man who cries because Larousse has left him out. Carpentier himself is clearly able to look at both Latin American masks at once, and we should imitate him if we can.

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