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A Lie is More Useful than Love
on June 29, 2002
This is not a novel with a story, though it is a monstrous tale. It is a fantastic description of the rotten guts of tyranny. Enormous, steaming sentences, reeking with exotic images and jaguar tracks contain a sorrowful epic of the surreal politics of hot, underdeveloped places that know more corruption than justice. Weaving in and out, from one person's thoughts to another's, from one time to a second, with almost no dialogue, no conversation, no quotation marks, but moving from the mind of a general to dictator to "the people" to the female love interest and back again, Garcia Marquez spins a horrific story that is unlikely to be similar to anything you have read before. Maybe you will be satisfied to read this as a `one-off' kind of book that demands your total attention, all your powers of imagination and your determination. It is not a simple novel. I realized that Milorad Pavic, the Serbian author of fantastic tales, owes much to Garcia Marquez, sometimes even images (eggs of a certain day, news-spreading parrots).
The "Patriarch" is the ur-dictator, the tyrant personified, an old man who never steps down, who rules behind a double whose death thus gives rise to a legend of immortality. The dictator's underlings invent Potemkin everything; his palace is full of cripples, blind people, lepers, and domestic animals; he is a monster who, like all the tyrants he represents, cannot love, but only cultivate power. There is his mother, who failed to be a saint, the dynamited clergyman, the roasted general, the nun-mistress, the murdered children, the wife eaten by dogs. Was there anything he did not violate or corrupt ? Garcia Marquez gives one of the best-written pictures of the corruption of absolute power. The dictator is unnamed, perhaps a composite of Colombians, perhaps more. We find Stalin in him, Hitler, Mao, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussain. And the reaction of the crowd, the mass, is the same every time. "The only thing that gave us security on earth," they say, "was the certainty that he was there....dedicated to the messianic happiness of thinking for us, knowing that we knew that he would not take any decision for us that did not have our measure..." In the end, they mourned him---as Russians did mourn Stalin---despite the massacres, the coups and brutal suppressions, the repression of religion, the selling off of every resource the country had---because they had wound up not knowing what would become of them without him.
Brilliant imagery, product of a fantastic imagination, that pours out on the pages, seemingly with endless abundance, can only dazzle a reader. It's a stunning novel whose moral may be that "a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth.." The person who understands and exploits this is the most dangerous type of human being. Unfortunately they exist in all countries and have appeared throughout history. THE AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH is not really a South American, magico-realist novel, though it is that. It is a painting of the human tragedy.