A "poem on the solitude of power" according to author Gabriel García Márquez, the 1975 novel The Autumn of the Patriarch (original Spanish title: El Otoño del Patriarca) is a flowing tract on the life of an eternal dictator. The 297-page book is divided into six sections, each retelling the same story of the infinite power held by the archtypical Caribbean tyrant.
García Márquez based his fictional dictator on a variety of real-life autocrats, including Jairo Pinilla of his own Colombian homeland, the Generalissimo Francisco Franco Bahía of Spain (the novel was written in Barcelona), and Venezuela's Juan Vicente Gómez. The product is a universal story of the disastrous effects created by the concentration of power into a single man.
The book is written in long paragraphs, each a single sentence. The general's thoughts are relayed to the reader through winding sentences which convey his desperation and loneliness alongside the atrocities and ruthless behaviour which keeps him in power.
One of the books most striking aspects is its focus on the godlike status held by the protagonist and the unfathomable awe and respect with which his people regard him. Dictators such as Stalin, Franco, and Trujillo managed to hold sway over the populations of their respective nations despite internal political divisions because of the mythical aura which surrounded their persons. García Márquez symbolizes this with the discovery of the dictator's corpse in the battered presidential palace; the newly-liberated subjects are unable to identify the body of a man whose image has marked their entire lives because they are unable to see him as a human being (hence: "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead").
The Autumn of the Patriarch incorporates a variety of real-life incidents interwoven with the fiction created by García Márquez. The expulsion of the Roman Catholic Church from Mexico in the mid-19th century is played out here in exaggerated proportions, as are the constant political games played between military and political leaders under Latin American juntas. García Márquez mocks the practice of bestowing high military ranks on the young heirs of autocrats and the overspending of their families and cronies. A frighteningly accurate portrait is drawn of the intelligence director who soon directs the general's every move and constructs and apparatus of terror and political repression.
This last portrait is one of the most compelling: "Advisers" have often marked the corruption and descent into oppression of some of Latin America's most outstanding dictatorships. Rafael Trujillo's Dominican Republic carried out dozens of assasinations and terror campaigns against Dominican exiles under the direction of intelligence chief Johnny Abbes García, and Peru under Alberto Fujimori was corrupted down to the last congressman by SIN chief Vladimiro Montesinos.
Among García Márquez's most haunting and realistic novels, The Autumn of the Patriarch must be read by anyone wanting to understand the phenomenon of caudillismo or gain a perspective into the mindset of a nation living under oppression.
A translation is available in English, published by HarperPerennial of HarperCollins and translated by Gregory Rabassa.