I cannot tell a lie: I don’t think that I’ve ever been as glad to finish a book as this one. It was a difficult book anyway, and my choice of reading platform was disastrous. I was reading it on an e-reader and then had to swap to a tablet when the e-reader kept crashing (I suspect that the size of the file is too big for it).
Why so difficult- apart from the technology? Because it is the same story told six times, with variations between each telling, and because there are very, very few full stops. You could go pages and pages without a pause. In this regard, it is similar to the short story ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ that I read earlier this year. But a technique that was quirky and interesting in a short story became suffocating in a full-length novel. I found myself thrashing through the text, as if I were drowning, waiting for somewhere to take another gasp of air. Because I was reading it electronically and the table of contents in such a large omnibus edition did not go down to chapter level, it was not easy to flip through to find where the chapter ended, for fear of losing my place – I’d never find it again. In fact, I didn’t know where the book itself ended, and as the next chapter started up with the same story again, I began to despair lest I never reach the end of this book.
But I think that that’s how Garcia Marquez wanted you to feel. The story is about an unnamed dictator in an unnamed Caribbean island, who just does not die. Well – he does, ostensibly, in the first chapter where he engages a double to deflect any assassination attempts, and the double dies as a result. But in the succeeding chapters, his death is foreshadowed, but he just doesn’t die. In a decrepit palace that is invaded with creepy-crawlies during the night, the Patriarch wanders from room to room, locking up the house, playing dominoes with other old dictators that he has imprisoned, raping the young women in the women’s quarters until he finally falls asleep on the floor, his arms cradling his head, only to wake up again the next morning and do it all again.
His country is submerging into debt and decay, and he is kept in power by his debtors, after they have pillaged the nation, causing him to even sell them the sea. He is uneducated and he forces the church and the people to deify his mother after she dies. Although impotent against his international debtors, he has absolute power within his own country, ordering mass deaths at will. But he is fearful of losing his power, which is why this lonely figure wanders the house at night.
I read this story as part of a course that I am doing through Coursera called Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Between Power, History and Love, delivered in Spanish. Of course, I read the book in English: my mind just boggles at the thought of translating such complex sentences! After hours of translating, I worked out what the lecturers were saying, and their comments certainly added to my enjoyment of the story, but also highlighted to me how much is lost when reading an author who makes so many references to other (Spanish) texts. I would never have picked it up, but the book pays homage to and subverts at least two other texts: Christopher Columbus’ account of the discovery of the Americas, and a poem ‘The Triumphal March’ by twentieth-century Nicaraguan poet Rubio Dario. Well- both of those would have just slipped right past me!
The other point made by the lecturers was that this book, one of three ‘historical’ novels by Garcia Marquez, was published during the 1970s. The Patriarch is not named, but he could be any one of the dictators who have emerged from Latin America, and continued to do so when the book was published ( Pinochet in Chile, the Dirty War in Argentina etc). It is part of a genre of Latin American ‘dictator novels’, but Garcia Marquez’s Patriarch is none of them and all of them.
Worth reading? Yes – but be prepared for a really difficult read. And buy or borrow it as a real book. It’s just too hard to read electronically.