I think we can agree that Donald Trump has been bad for literary fiction. Many people, myself included, have turned to non-fiction (not to mention gorging on news) to understand how the U.S. elected an authoritarian who orders bombings while eating chocolate cake, calls the army “my military,” lies compulsively, and spends half his time golfing. I, for one, am reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. And it doesn’t make me feel a bit better.
Novels are invaluable for understanding human folly. Consider what Pride and Prejudice says about snobbery and love or The Iliad about war and sex. Imagine what Jane Eyre might teach Betsey DeVos about the perils of piety in education.
Dictators are endemic. Get rid of one, another springs up. Unfortunately, novels that reveal the workings of their minds are rare.
There are great novels about dictatorships. Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral shows how corruption connects all layers of society from el caudillo to the dog catcher. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm capture the war against truth. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America reveals democracy’s fragility through an imagined anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh presidency that eerily channels Trump’s. Still, the protagonists and narrators in these books are citizens, subjects, victims. The ruler is seen from afar. (Not totally, in Conversation in the Cathedral, but the caudillo’s presence is intermittent.)
Why is the dictator protagonist rare? One commandment of fiction is: Thou shalt create a sympathetic protagonist. And dictators are sociopathic i.e. devoid of empathy or remorse by most measures. There is also the problem of knowing the authoritarian mind. Paranoid, dictators live in closed circles, probably known best by their masseuses and hairdressers and security guards.
The one novel I’ve discovered that peers at the world through the tyrant’s myopic eyes is the late Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, written in 1975. And it is truly revelatory. I read the book a few years ago in grad school for an essay on evil protagonists. Rereading it this winter under Trump, I was staggered by how incisively García Márquez captured the toxic blend of vulgarity, sentimentality, brutality, vengefulness, and above all pure self-interest that characterizes the authoritarian personality. Normally we have to wait until tyrants are deposed to wander through the empty palaces, gawk at the gold toilets, and gag over the pits of decaying bodies. García Márquez lets us do it in advance. Everyday we see in the press the instinct to assign a principle, a policy, a philosophy to Trump’s actions, when there is only ego. The book is an innoculation against normalization.
The Autumn of the Patriarch begins on an optimistic note. El general, the dictator, appears to be finally, really, truly dead:
Over the weekend, the turkey buzzards roosted on the balconies of the presidential palace, destroying the wire screens with their pecking and sweeping out the stagnant time inside with their wings, and as Monday dawned, the city awoke from its lethargy of centuries with the warm gentle breeze of a great death and rotting grandeur.”
A crowd breaks in and roams the palace. From here, García Márquez takes us back through his life using his previous “deaths” as landmarks and exposing his mythology as a series of cheap illusions masking unfathomable depravity.
The Autumn of the Patriarch is one of GGM’s most difficult works. Chapters without paragraph breaks, sentences that go on for pages. The protean narrator, alternating between third and first person, swims between el general, his body double, his mother, or the People (as in the beginning), but rarely leaves his side. El general is a grotesque. Illiterate, he walks like a zombie on huge, flat feet. His hands are smooth as a young girl’s or a toad’s belly. He has an enormous testicular hernia, that gives off a slight whistle. His one great talent is longevity, and false reports of his death make him very, very angry.
The dictator isn’t a complex guy, in the sense of having a range of emotions. He wants what he wants and the only way to make that come true is to maintain the illusion of invincibility. A fortune teller said he would die between the ages of 107 and 232 in his office, face down in his uniform. Just in case, he murdered the fortune-teller, “the only being in this world, human or animal, whom he’d done the honor of killing with his own hands in peace or war, poor woman.”
The Origins of Totalitarianism describes the totalitarian mind this way:
The chief qualification of a mass leader has become infallibility; he can never admit an error…Mass leaders in power have one overriding concern which overrules all utilitarian concerns: to make their predictions come true.”
(See Trump’s interview with Time Magazine.)
The general has, or appears to have, magic powers. Official accounts describe him as “unusually large and having a third growth of teeth.” He once summoned a comet, then an eclipse, to impress a woman.
He also can’t tell when people are fabricating things to make him happy. When he gets the joke, he takes merciless revenge. After his mother dies, a cult springs up “spontaneously” claiming that the corpse does miracles. El general wants her canonized. The Papal auditor refuses, explaining that people are faking miracles. For his candor, the auditor is set on a raft with food for three days. He’s rescued by a passing ship, but all the country’s convents and monasteries are pillaged, and the clerics forced to strip, parade naked to a boat, and sail into exile.
Thanks to his body double, the general survives multiple assassination attempts. When he learns that people have been celebrating his putative death, he goes on a rampage. At one point, he intuits an elaborate plot among his generals to have him confined to an asylum. He lets the generals come to his palace for dinner, where they nervously await their leader, his most trusted aide. At the exact time the leader is to arrive, waiters bring him in on a silver platter, roasted, fourteen pounds of medals on his chest, garnished with cauliflower and laurel, parsley in his mouth. When all the co-conspirators have been served, el general gives the order: “Enjoy, gentlemen.”
The fluvial narration makes it hard to quote the book succinctly. One incident flows into another. Still, the fate of the children who pick the lottery balls depicts the complete range of the dictator’s sadism, narcissism, and paranoia. He arranges to win the lottery every week by chilling the winning balls and inviting children to pick them publicly after telling them to feel for the cold ones. The children can’t go home because they know the secret. So they have to be imprisoned. Eventually, there’s an international outcry over the growing number of missing children, including a telegram from the Supreme Pontiff. Trapped by his own trick, he sends the kids off in trucks at night to remote corners of the country, proclaiming that rumors of a mass kidnapping of children are lies by stateless people. To ease the stress, he grabs a servant collecting eggs in the palace chicken coop and rapes her, though she warns him he’s going to break the eggs, which he does. Further enraged at “another session of loveless love,” he storms off after telling her to “count them up, and I’ll deduct them from your salary.” He hears a chorus of little voices as he falls asleep, thinking they come from the stars, and wakes in a rage, shouting,
no more, damn it, it’s them or me, and it was them, and at dawn he ordered the children to be loaded in a ship weighed down with cement and sent them away singing to the limits of the territorial waters and blew them up with a charge of dynamite.”
When the officials report the done deed, he promotes them two ranks, then has them shot “because there are orders that can be given, but can’t be carried out, damn it, poor creatures.”
How did García Márquez succeed in making such a revolting character someone we want to keep reading about compulsively. (We could ask Shakespeare the same question about Richard III.) He’s certainly not sympathetic. But he is hideously human. We keep reading about him for the same reason we keep reading about Trump. For signs of the end of his reign of horror.
The Autumn of the Patriarch is also a fable or fairy tale, which means it obeys different rules than a conventional novel. Cows roam and defecate freely in the presidential palace. The general ravishes his concubines fully clothed with spurs on when the urge strikes (“Would you turn the flame down on that pot?” they call out in mid-act). He sells the sea to gringos to pay the national debt, leaving a dusty bowl. The general’s peasant mother, Bendición Alvarado, who paints on live birds and prefers the servants’ quarters, hands him a bag of bottles to return through the limousine window because he’s going that way. At a state event, she remarks, “If I’d known he was going to be president, I’d have sent him to school.”
In an essay on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in The Times of London Literary Supplement (Aug. 6, 1954), C.M. Woodhouse, wrote that a fairy tale’s power is that it is written without morality. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. People suffer for being ugly or beautiful. Princes die trying to penetrate the thorn fence around the sleeping princess just because the 100 years aren’t up yet. According to Woodhouse:
A fairy story that succeeds is in fact not a work of fiction at all or, at least, no more so than, say the opening chapters of Genesis. It is a transcription of a view of life into terms of highly simplified symbols, and when it succeeds in its literary purpose, it leaves us with a deep undefinable feeling of truth. And if it succeeds, as Orwell set out to do, in a political as well as an artistic purpose, it leaves us also with a sense of rebelliousness against the truth revealed. It does so, not by abjuring us to rebel, but by the barest economy of plain description that language can achieve and, lest it should be thought guilty of deliberate appeal to the emotions, it uses for characters, not rounded, three-dimensional human beings that develop psychologically through time but stereotypes–puppets, silhouettes or animals.”
The characters in The Autumn of the Patriarch are archetypes. (I see them as folk carvings or the fat, stylized bourgeois figures in Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s paintings and sculptures.)
Part of what makes Trump so unfathomable is that he behaves like a parody. Here’s Trump speaking to Maria Bartiromo on Fox News April 12. (Quote excerpted in Erik Wemple’s blog in The Washington Post.)
“I was sitting at the table,” he said. “We had finished dinner. We’re now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it. And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded, what do you do? And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way. And I said, Mr. President, let me explain something to you. This was during dessert. We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.”
The fabulously wealthy Trump clan travels conspicuously and without restraint at taxpayer expense. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner have shamelessly melded public business and private enrichment.
Meanwhile in fiction, el general’s wife, Leticia Nazareño, a nun he kidnapped and forced to marry him, becomes a rapacious First Lady, shopping without paying, telling merchants to bill the palace. Eventually, however, Leticia Nazareño’s shopping pisses off the people more than anything her husband does. She and their son are eaten alive by stray dogs in the market. In revenge, the general launches another round of vicious killings.
The jacket cover of my copy of The Autumn of the Patriarch, a Spanish-language edition published by Random House Mondadori, says the book was written in Barcelona and inspired by Franco. A 1999 New Yorker profile by Jon Lee Anderson say García Márquez’s interest in power stems from a 1957 Venezuelan coup, which he covered as a reporter and described this way:
“The day of the coup, [GGM] went with other reporters to stand outside the door of the room where the Army commanders were haggling over who would be Venezuela’s next ruler… Suddenly the door opened and a general came out walking backward, his gun drawn and pointing into the room, his boots covered with mud.” As he watched, transfixed, García Márquez said, the general crossed the room and, still walking backward and holding his gun out, he went down the stairs and out the front door to the street. Within moments of the general’s dramatic exit, a decision was made in the room: Venezuela’s new leader would be Rear Admiral Wolfgang Larrazábal. “I was amazed that this was how power could be decided,” García Márquez said. “At that moment, something happened.”
This experience didn’t turn him off to power. Far from it. And I think this is the other reason why the book resonates so viscerally. For all the extravagantly surreal and lush prose, García Márquez was “writing what he knew,” another hoary commandment of fiction-writing. García Márquez was a dear friend and admirer of Castro and spent extended periods in Cuba as el Lider Máximo’s guest. According to The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as a Bodyguard to El Líder Máximo by Juan Reinaldo Sánchez, García Márquez was one of only two guests admitted regularly to Castro’s secret villa in Cayo Piedra. Moreover, the recurring gag of the palace cows in The Autumn of the Patriarch, must come from Castro’s own cows, “winched up from the street to the roof terraces with the help of a construction site crane so that he could indulge his great fad of the time,” breeding a new race of high-yielding milkers.
García Márquez was also a drinking buddy of Panamanian strongman, General Omar Torrijos, who—according to Anderson—kept six women on retainer for sex, inspiration perhaps for the fictional general’s habit of jumping his harem of servants, resulting in countless offspring, all sietemesinos, seven-month preemies. The New Yorker profile quotes García Márquez as saying that Torrijos considered The Autumn of the Patriarch his best book “[b]ecause it’s true; we’re all like that.” The connection between power, sex, and exploitation is not exactly news, but it is cringe-inducing to think of García Márquez, Nobel Laureate and moral voice against yanqui imperialism across Latin America, enjoying the dolce vita with his dictator buddies.
In a critical review of Gerald Martin’s biography Gabriel García Márquez: A Life in the Mexican/Spanish monthly Letra Libres (Oct. 31, 2009), Enrique Krauze draws on García Márquez’s published but untranslated non-fiction writing on Cuba which describe how Castro fêted him with champagne and culinary delicacies. In return, he lent Castro his prestige. Other Latin American intellectuals defended Castro as a lesser evil than American imperialism, but eventually distanced themselves. García Márquez never did. Krauze quotes him justifying his refusal to denounce Castro’s human rights violations: “I can’t calculate how many prisoners, dissidents, and conspirators I helped in absolute silence to get out of jail or emigrate from Cuba in no less than twenty years.” Krauze asks rhetorically why García Márquez didn’t speak out to influence Castro to stop imprisoning people. There’s no clear answer.
Krauze sees the book as almost an apology for dictatorship, a sympathetic perspective. He calls the simplicity and subjectivity of the dictator’s world view in The Autumn of the Patriarch “morally offensive.”
It almost seems as if the dictator has no public life, only private passions. Inversely, the characters who turn around him have no space of their own. Everything they think, say, and do, is public life because it’s in function of the dictator…The same novel that blurs the reality of power and dehumanizes the victims converts the dictator into a melodrama and humanizes the dictator.”
I disagree. García Márquez brings us close to the dictator, but the closer we get the more horrifying he is. It seems to me that whatever moral compromises—and they must have been profound—he permitted himself to pursue his friendships with Castro and Torrijos, at some other level (subliminal or conscious), he couldn’t deny disgust. There is a deep-felt and often explicit revulsion in this torrent of inventive cruelty, as well as a cry of warning about the infinite wiliness of dictators. Toward the end, el general becomes infatuated with an elegant dandy who is, if possible, even more sadistic, and delegates his murders to him. Eventually, even el general blanches at his protegé’s crimes. In response, the dandy says, “Now you have nobody left in the world, general. I was the last.” The tanks rumble up, and it’s the dandy’s turn to be afraid. The general says, “Make no mistake, Nacho, I still have the people.” “The unpredictable old man” gets the last word. He turns the people against his own monster, and they rise up and macerate him.
Does anyone dare to speak truth to power? The papal envoys who investigate the alleged miracles of the general’s mother. And the general’s body double, Patricio Aragoñés, who tells him as he dies from poison meant for his boss, shitting himself and weeping: “…you’re the president of nobody, nor are you on the throne thanks to your own artillery but because the English sat you on it and the gringos keep you there…”
The people are passive and gullible.
The book leaves us at the general’s last moments. He argues with Death that his time isn’t up, that the particulars don’t match the prophecy, that he’s not in his office, face down, wearing his uniform. Death explains patiently that’s how and where he’ll be found. The collective voice of the people gets the last word:
… he was condemned to know life from the wrong side, to follow the seams, fix the threads and the knots of reality’s tapestry of illusions, without suspecting even belatedly that only the right side was worth seeing, the one we see my general, the poor people’s side where we lived our yellow-leaved and countless sad years and our ephemeral instants of happiness, where the germs of death contaminated love, but all was love my general…”
Fairy tales, fables, and myths observe the convention of hero versus villain or give us a redemptive ending. García Márquez doesn’t give us that. The general survives his rivals and dies a natural death at an ancient age. Nothing suggests that the forces of good are about to burst out and initiate an era of prosperity and good fellowship. Too many were complicit in his longevity.
Lack of remorse. Disregard for others’ rights. Impulsivity. A need for control. Predatory behavior. Describes el general perfectly. The same traits characterize a sociopath. We knew that about dictators, didn’t we? Still, it bears rereading.
Julia Lichtblau is the book review editor of The Common. Her work is forthcoming in American Fiction 17 and has appeared in The American Scholar, Blackbird, Narrative, The Florida Review, and other publications. She teaches at Drew University and covered international finance in New York and Paris for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones Newswires. She has an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.