Gabriel García Márquez – ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ (1975)

Summary

Over the weekend, the vultures picked through the mesh wire protecting the windows of the Presidential Manor, so that on Monday morning the city awoke from its lethargy of centuries to the smell of rotten grandeur. Only then did the band of men dare to enter the house, where they found his body, face down on the floor of his office, though it was impossible to recognize his face, even after chasing away the vultures, and in any event no one there had ever actually seen him in person,  they had only seen his official portrait, which even in the year of the comet was already considered inaccurate.

That was the first time that they had found him dead.

None of them had ever seen the President in person because for a long time now his faithful servant and perfect lookalike Patricio had attended public ceremonies playing the role of the President. Patricio had already survived six assassination attempts, and had grown accustomed to living a life that was not his own. He even had access to the President’s concubines and was authorized to use them as the President himself did, while the president would visit his mother under the protection of his faithful friend General Aguilar, or while away the hours playing dominoes with other dictators from neighboring countries, all of them now dying in the nursing home he had built for them, and where they had arrived as refugees, overthrown by the people of their respective nations, each one escaping with nothing more but his life, his military honors and a suitcase full of public funds. The President offered them his hospitality so that he might every day remind himself that he was not and would never be one of them, paying no heed to the filthy rumors spread by the opposition that the only reason he continued to rule was because British and American investors found it convenient.

There were so many rumors: the disappearance of 2000 children that the Red Cross and the United Nations looked for but could never find, the night he called all the generals together to a great banquet and when the main course was brought out on a platter it was the treacherous General Aguilar, baked to a golden crisp, fourteen medals of honor pinned to his uniform and a sprig of parsley in his mouth. Having signed official documents with a thumbprint for as long as anyone could remember, at a very advanced age he learned how to read from his wife Leticia: Leticia Nazareno, large of breast and flat of foot, the only women who had ever managed to get him to take off his saber and all his medals and his pants and even his golden spurs before bedding her, so that it could truly be said that of all the women he had had, the only ones who had ever seen him naked were Leticia Nazareno and his mother on the day he was born.

The death of his mother initiated a new century of scandal and confusion, people from all over the country flocked to see her painted body lying in state, the news had spread that her soul defied the laws of nature, and an industry of holy relics grew up around her body overnight. The President wanted her canonized as a saint, and an archbishop was invited to attest to the proofs of her sanctity. When the Archbishop discovered that all the witnesses to her sanctity had bribed, the President proclaimed his defunct mother a civil saint and declared war on the Vatican.

The second time that that they found him dead, the body was in the same office, lying in the same position and wearing the same clothes and had also been picked over by the vultures. The only difference was the group of men who found him: so many years had passed that no one among them was old enough to remember how it had been the first time, all they knew was that no evidence of his death was decisive, for there was always another truth behind the truth, although they knew by now that the first dead body had in fact been that of his faithful servant and perfect lookalike Patricio, the same Patricio who had also told the President about the rare beauty of a certain Manuela Sanchez, who lived in the neighborhood of the howling dogs. The President had all the dogs shot, so that he might visit Manuela unmolested. He brought her  compasses and snow globes and quartz paperweights and other gadgets, overwhelming her house with gifts, until one night Manuela vanished into the piles of useless objects, and disappeared forever. He never found her again, he was heartbroken,  he wanted to die, but it had been foretold that he would never die of love, but rather peacefully in his sleep, sometime between the ripe old age of 107 and 232.

 

Excerpt (my translation)

He stayed on alone in the deserted house of his absolute power, we would find him sleepwalking, stumbling among the devastation wrought by the animals with no one to command unless it were the blind, the lepers and the cripples who were not dying of disease but rather of age among the weeds and the rose bushes, and yet he was so lucid and so stubborn that whenever we reminded him that he urgently needed to put his inheritance in order, he only responded with evasions and postponements, for he would say that thinking about what the world will be like after one dies was just as pessimistic as death itself, because when I am dead, he would say, the politicians will return and dole all this out stuff just like they used to do, you’ll see, they’ll come back and distribute it among the rich people, the priests, and the Americans, and nothing for the poor, of course, because the poor will always be fucked, and the day that shit is worth something the poor will be born without asses, he would say, or else, dying of laughter, he would joke that for the three days he would be dead we didn’t need to carry his body to Jerusalem to bury it, settling the matter once and for all with the argument that it didn’t matter if something wasn’t true before, it would be true in due time.

He was right, of course, for there was no longer anyone who could question the legitimacy of his story, no one would have been able to prove or disprove it when we weren’t even capable of identifying the President’s body, there was no other nation than the one he had made in his image, with its space changed and its time corrected according to the designs of his absolute will, reconstructed by him in the grey fog of his memory as he wandered around lost in that house of calamities where not a single happy person had ever slept, while he tossed grains of corn to the chickens who pecked the ground around his hammock and exasperated the servants with orders to bring him a glass of lemonade with crushed ice which he would then leave untouched, to take that seat out of that corner and move it to this one and then to put it back again, satisfying in this petty way the dying embers of his enormous addiction to power, passing the leisurely hours of his command in patient excavation of the ephemeral moments of his distant childhood while he nodded off to sleep in the shade of the terrace, waking up with a start when he managed to capture a memory that formed a piece of an infinite puzzle of the nation as it had been before his rule, that great and illusionary nation, without shores, a kingdom of swamps and slow rafts and cliffs even older than him, when men were so brave that they hunted crocodiles with their bare hands, driving a stake between their jaws, like this, he would show us, and shove his finger against the roof of his mouth…

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