Memories of a Senile Elephant

The Autumn of the Patriarch By Gabriel Garcia Marquez Harper & Row, 269 pages, $10.

OVER THE WEEKEND the vultures got into the presidential palace...

(Stop, what happened over the weekend?)

...and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.

The first ten words of The Autumn of the Patriarch announce that Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written another novel of the epic dimensions and otherworldly imagination of A Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez' narrative is as ordinary yet startling as the seasons. The shaping powers of Autumn introduce themselves in the first sentence of the book as effortlessly as in nature: Time--arrested, slowed, kneaded by memory and chance, centuries disturbed like dust, recalled like a dream; Power--huge, inevitable, mysterious even to its wielder; Death--arriving at an unex-pected moment, as a carrion bird or in a penitent's garb; and, finally, the rituals of everyday life, expressed in the prepositional phrases, uncapitalized, unpersonified, that begin the book with "over the weekend" and end it with the drawing of the "uncountable time of [the patriarch's] eternity to an end."

The protagonist of Autumn, a patriarch who is all South American dictators compounded into one, shuffles with his flat feet "like a senile elephant" through his declining years, remembering all that he has sown and reaped, left untouched or blighted. We watch his powers slowly rot over seemingly endless time, and plow with him through strata of recalled events.


A plural interior monologue, the narrative is carried by the currents of a collective consciousness, the consciousness of all those whose lives have intersected with that of the general. After a few pages, punctuation seems gratuitous, and ceases, save for the caesuras of commas. Voices are heard: "we," who dare to go in and find the patriarch dead; "he," with a deceptively small "h," the patriarch; a series of "I's" who speak when their event is picked out by the roving spotlight of Marquez' description.

Each chapter starts at the moment of "his," the general's, death, and spirals back in time. Every episode, like a link in a chain, takes hold of the previous one, circles out on its own, and returns to intersect its point of origin, having established a new anchor in space onto which the next can attach itself. The careful structure of Marquez' surrealistic time has the same natural quality and arresting impact of those first ten words.

READING THIS BOOK is like walking in the dead leaves of an exotic and melancholy autumn. We turn up wet, brown mush, corpses, earthworms, faded brilliance and potential fertility. What we find is sometimes unrecognizable, as is the truth about Marquez' general. His past is buried under so many falsehoods of his own and others' making that all we know of him is the myth.

The images in Autumn form brilliant thematic patterns. In the first chapter we see unforgettably "dead craters of harsh moon ash on the endless plain where the sea had been," we hear "a disaster of hoofs and animal sighs from behind the fortified walls," we smell "the lunar dust-covered rosebuds under which the lepers had slept." Such descriptions return to haunt us, as they do the patriarch; they are fragments of a real or created past, the whole of which we do not know and he has forgotten.

Marquez claims he prepared to write the book by collecting all the true anecdotes about South American dictators that he could find, though, he adds, he purposely forgot them all before he put words on paper. Nevertheless, his portrait of the general seems uncannily true to life as well as to art; and it is precisely the vividness of Garcia Marquez' vision that makes his book so frightening, sad, funny, immediate.

An illustration at random: the patriarch devises a system for beating the weekly lottery. His scheme to fulfill this child-like desire is a transparent cheat any kid could see through. Three blindfolded children select numbered balls from three bags. The patriarch invariably holds the number they choose. (The correct balls are frozen, so the children can feel which ones to pick.)

Symbols of the "innocence" of his cheat, the children bear the consequences of his guilt, and he imprisons them. After a while, the children's captivity becomes an international scandal and the Red Cross is called in to inspect the situation. In a panic the patriarch orders the children shipped to the farthest jungles, put on a steamer and blown up. He then kills the men who executed his order--poor kids, he says.

EVENTS TRIGGERED by the general's power seem inevitable. He endeavors to control all forces, not only all men, that touch his life. Time he orders set forward or back, the course of the stars he commands altered, love he wills--by torture if necessary, and death he foresees precisely.

Ironically, the general is the slave of his own power, unable to control its con-sequences or the mechanisms that set it in motion. Even his casual remarks are interpreted by his police as orders to kill. And, he is at the mercy of time, nature and death like anyone else. In the end, death comes and calls him by a name not his own, but he responds. Faced with the mortality he tried to deny, he finally recognizes another uncontrollable force--love.

The patriarch admits to death his incapacity for the love "we," the people he commands, represent. His efforts to fill that void with the solitary vice of power only produced hollow lies, he admits at the last; cardboard constructions which "we," the people of everyday, soon learned to walk around and ignore, leaving him to act alone on the set built of his barren lust.

The patriarch's autumn ends, he dies, we the crowd rejoice. Politically, socially, Marquez' ending might seem naive. The bureaucracy that will replace the general will be no better. But the book's politics, like its language or imagery, transcend such judgment. Like the Iliad or the Tain. Autumn is so epically true it is unjudgeable. The patriarch is so immense, so all-encompassing, that though mortal, he becomes a fact of nature. And how can an ocean, or a season, be condemned for the death it causes?

Marquez is not merely rooting for "we" vs. "he." Autumn is not a historical picture of a nation oppressed by a man, but a portrait of a man oppressed by his desire for power, finding himself in his old age alone with remembrances of things past.