Tim Powers, a fantasy writer I love, talked, in some context I’ve forgotten, about magical realism in relation to fantasy. He said that in magic realism fantastical events happen and people treat it as commonplace but that in fantasy they have, to his mind, the more realistic reaction of being shocked and scared. I think that both reactions can be used to good effect. I thought about that exchange while reading Autumn of the Patriarch. In this novel the fear is baked in. It’s the air the characters breathe. Nothing fantastical can surprise them because it fits so well into the general climate of absurd fear in which they live.
This is the fifth Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel I’ve read, and the one that was the most difficult to get on its wavelength. It took me about 70 pages or so to figure out how to read it and what he was trying to do. Once I did, I really loved it. The prose is designed to disorient the reader. There are page long sentences. It is written in a stream of consciousness style that switches from consciousness to consciousness, often mid sentence. The story, such as it is, consists of life under the reign of a truly heinous Caribbean dictator. He is extraordinarily long lived, and it seems as if his tenure will never end. The people think he dies several times, but he comes back and takes vengeance on any who were happy he was gone. Stream of consciousness is a mode I only enjoy if it serves some function in the work. This qualifies. The switches of perspective from the collective people, to the dictator himself, to his short lived wife, to his mother, to others serve to illustrate the absurdity of life in a dictatorship. It also puts the reader in the mindset of the people for whom fantastical and horrible things have become commonplace. The language induced disorientation also enhances the impact of the crimes of the dictator by putting them in a different context that is harder to dismiss than a more matter-of-fact depiction; for instance, from a news report from a distant land.
Content and spoiler warnings on this paragraph: The dictator keeps a zoo/market in his palace. He has a harem of women who he treats as poorly as the animals. He’s a rapist. He shelters deposed dictators from other countries. He fathers 5,000 children. He rigs the national lottery. He kills the thousands of children he used to rig the lottery. He sells the Caribbean Sea to America (!), which of course takes it to Arizona. His enforcer kills thousands of perceived enemies and brings the heads of the victims to him in bags. He lets his mother literally rot to death.
(End of spoilers)
I am certain that I did not get everything out of this book, and will have to read it at least a couple of more times. It is a 250 page disturbing prose poem to the victims of dictatorship. It is not an easy read either in form or content. But it is very worth the effort.
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