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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.