El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch) by Gabriel García Márquez
Published in 1975
Gregory Rabassa Translation
Genre: Latin American literature, Colombian literature
“Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.”
If you decide to read The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, it is a good idea to become familiar with the above sentence because it will be referenced again throughout the book. Creating a weaving, non-linear narrative on power and its fallacies, García Márquez brings a flowing and poetic character study to life. This book is not an easy read, but finishing brings about its own reward for those who are able to make it through the depths of description and its maniacal lack of logic.
An unnamed president is discovered dead and vultures break into his room before people can get in. What follows is a twisting tale that details the death of an impersonator of the president; the real president allows a faux funeral to be held and watches how people react to his death before revealing himself and executing those who tried to profit off of his passing. The president’s followers keep secrets from him; he believes his rule is perfect and that he is beloved across the nation when in reality the people are beaten down and cowed into submission to create this illusion. Those who follow his orders create a second reality by falsifying newspapers and television broadcasts in order to keep him suppressed while they act in his stead.
The plot circles back upon itself multiple times which makes it a difficult book to put down and come back to without losing the thread of the recollection. It is non-linear in its storytelling and there isn’t much of an overarching story because it is an extended character study that is muddled by unreliable narration from a constant rotation of perspectives. There seems to be a disconnect between the president’s perceptions and reality as we see some reasoning for how he acts, but it is often based on his own delusions; determining which is real and delusion, however, is a daunting task for the reader to complete.
García Márquez uses long, drawn out sentences that lack traditional dialogue and proper punctuation to create a narration that is akin to someone rambling. Memories do have transitions, but these segue vaguely due to what comes off as a character’s free association. The narration is a bit disjointed due to the fact that it switches point-of-view invariably at random (at least, I couldn’t/didn’t try to find a pattern), and this can complicate the reader’s understanding of who is being addressed when coming upon a line such as “he tells him.” The story also appears to take one step forward and two back in time; it covers much of the president’s life except for his origins and keeps the reader from getting too close to the truth of reality.
Though the format of The Autumn of the Patriarch is initially jarring, I quickly became drawn into the story and characterization of the eponymous character. The novel is about power; the president uses his power to remake the stars, to bring his mother to sainthood by force, and takes whomever he wishes as a lover. The president struggles with the paradox of his power since it is still trapped within the confines of those who execute his orders.
Rabassa’s translation is evocative and communicates the sentiment of the work across successfully. The word use is fantastic with descriptions of gross or uncomfortable situations being told in a way that is visceral and effective. The writing craft showcased in this book is one of the most attractive aspects about it and makes up for the esoteric execution. I did enjoy this book once I came to be used to the format; but it was definitely a challenge to find a thread to hold on to. I would have given it a higher score because of the mastery of the prose, but, despite being well-written, it is still an intimidating read and one that I cannot recommend as readily as others.
Verdict: 3 narration rotations out of 5
Recommended for: Readers looking for a challenge, people who like poetic verse and word choice, fans of non-linear storytelling, and fans of García Márquez’s writing.
Not recommended for: Casual readers, people who dislike poetic verse or long-form poems, fans of linear storytelling, or those who like a consistent narrator and point of view.