The Anatomy of Tyranny
We all know the stereotype: the Latino military general, with mustache and dark glasses perhaps, his chest colorfully adorned with stacks of medals and/ or ribbons, a man crudely, grotesquely vicious, but also faintly clownish in his role as dictator-in-perpetuity of a mixed-race republic located somewhere in the Andes or the tropics. It is among the primary images of Spanish America held by countless news watchers the world over, many of whom may actually entertain few other notions about the continent’s ways of life. It is a tyranny with connotations all its own, and certain words from its practices and its ethos—words like “junta,” “incomunicado,” “político,” “número uno”—have managed to infiltrate the sidelines of the U.S. political lexicon as well.
It is also a painful, complex, long-standing historical reality all too familiar to the denizens of most Latin nations. As one might only expect, it figures prominently in the continent’s literature. Not accidentally, the book universally considered the foundational prose classic in an independent Latin America—Facundo (1845) by the Argentine journalist, activist, and future president Domingo Sarmiento—is an account of certain aspects of the Rosas tyranny of 1835–52, a work that moreover defies all genre classifications, combining folklore, anecdote, biography, social analysis, fiery rhetoric, and political and military history all in one. Over the past century-and-a-half there have been a host of such works, for the story of a dictator is as much a tradition in Spanish-American writing as is the narrative of the rise of a capitalist—from Howells to E. L. Doctorow—in modern U.S. letters. When García Márquez wrote the concluding lines to The Autumn of the Patriarch, he delivered what is but a culminating instance of a continent’s prime literary subgenre.
García Márquez’s book, let it be said, is among the most difficult and forbidding of novels to face an uninitiated reader, consisting as it does of six unnumbered chapters, each a single paragraph, with syntax growing ever more sinuous and serpentine as the book progresses. By way of illustration, the first chapter of the novel has thirty-one sentences, the third nineteen, the fifth only fifteen, the sixth and final one being made up of a single 1,825-line sentence (in the Sudamericana edition).1 Within any of those extended units the speaker and even the pronoun-subject can shift routinely and more than