I recently finished reading Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which features the longest run-on sentence I’ve ever read. It takes up the entire final chapter of the novel. It is 48 pages long.
In Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate at the Stairs, a student at the University of Wisconsin is smitten by an English professor who speaks “thrillingly of Henry James’ masturbation of the comma” during a lecture. Which raises the question: is Autumn of the Patriarch the greatest instance of literary onanism of all time?
If so, it would be on point. The book made me think of a footnote from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in which Junot Diaz takes up Salman Rushdie’s assertion that writers and dictators are natural antagonists. Contrary to the ennobling light Rusdhie’s point of view casts on literary figures, Diaz says the persecution writers suffer at the hands of dictators arises because they are essentially in the same business. “Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like.” In one interview, Diaz called his own novel “the ultimate dictatorship. This shit ain’t realy life, yo. Only one person gets to speak.”
In commenting on Diaz’s novel, Edwige Danticat responds to this assertion by observing that “a lot of dictators, in Haiti for example, have considered themselves writers. No writer of his time was left alive long enough to be as prolific as Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Did Trujillo try to write poetry? I remember hearing that.”
I once read a biography of Andrew Carnegie from which I learned that Carnegie only spent three hours a day actually working on his business activities in the steel industry. He spent the rest of the time writing, and longed for acceptance into a literary and political establishment he spent a considerable amount of time schmoozing. He published in newspapers and magazines, and wrote several books. The book he imagined as his crowning achievement claimed he could lead the way to a new era of harmonious relations between labor and management. The release of this book and the claim it advanced were both undermined by the Homestead Strike of 1892, which the Pinkerton Army and the state militia successfully broke with a display of brute force that damaged Carnegie’s reputation in both public and literary circles in a way that haunted him for the rest of his life.
Diaz, in an interview with Danticat, says that dictators like Carnegie know they don’t really cut it as writers, and that their rivals know it, too. “Many writers discern that this is ever the dictator’s weak point, like the missing scale on Smaug’s underbelly in The Hobbit.” The Autumn of the Patriarch shows that this jealousy is a two way street. The carnival of destruction and excess the “General of the Universe” leaves in his wake is incredibly inventive and intricate. The writing that presents it is gorgeous. Cows wander through the halls of the dictator’s palace. He fathers 5,000 illegitimate children, all of whom are runts born after a 7 month gestation. Their fate seems to be the inevitable result of having been conceived from the emissions of the General’s chronically herniated testicle, which crops up throughout the novel as a metaphor for the larger phenomenon of the General himself.
This Big Ball is emasculated throughout the book, however, by the United States of America, whose support keeps him in power. The US Ambassador manipulates the nameless nation’s debt like a crowbar that pries loose its valuable assets. The culmination of this process is the day the Ambassador finally succeeds in persuading the General to sell the Caribbean Sea itself to the United States. In his review of the novel, William Kennedy sums up this scene in a way that today calls to mind the spectacle of the Deepwater Horizon debacle:
“The United States ambassador orders in giant suction dredges and nautical engineers, who carry off the sea ‘in numbered pieces to plant it far from the hurricanes in the blood- red dawns of Arizona, they took it away with everything it had inside general sir, with the reflection of our cities, our timid drowned people, our demented dragons,’ and they leave behind a torn crater, a deserted plain of harsh lunar dust. To replace the breezes that were lost when the sea went away, another U.S. ambassador gives the General a wind machine.”
Despite the evident force of this criticism of both the US and their local henchman, a certain kind of admiration for both aggressors seems to ooze between the lines of every page. The narrator’s focus on the General is so tight that his criticisms start to sound like the frustrations of a jilted lover. He’s the only one who gets to observe the General as he lies down alone every night behind heavily locked doors. He seems drawn to repeat the image of how the General likes to sleep – on a stone floor with his uniform on, with only his right hand for a pillow. He won’t even take his spurs off. His privileged view of this scene is displayed as a badge of the intimate access that he has to his subject. The result at times seems to be a bizarre kind of identification, doubling and displacement, in which the narrator blurs into the dictator whose autumn he chronicles.
Diaz locates the trump card dictators hold over their literary rivals in the kind of violence Carnegie used to crush the Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania. While acknowledging the literary aspirations and poses of rulers like Trujillo, Papa Doc, and, one might say, George Bush and Barack Obama, (those twin architects of targeted assassination and infinite detention without trial,) he writes that their “scribbling” is just a sideline” to their “real writing, which was done on the flesh and psyches of the Dominican people. That tends to be the writing that the Trujillos of the world are truly invested in, and it’s the kind of writing that lasts far longer and resonates far deeper than many of its victims would care to admit. I don’t think there’s a Dominican writer, past or present, who’s matched the awful narrative puissance that Trujillo marshaled; his “work” deformed, captured, organized us Dominicans in ways we can barely understand, and this “work” has certainly outlasted his physical existence. (And unless I’m nuts, this writing continues to be more popular than the work of any of the competition—me and my peers included.”
Edwige Danticat has a more optimistic take on the contest between the two parties. Placing more faith in the type of vultures that devour the General’s body at the end of his Autumn, she tells Diaz that “even when dictators kill or disappear the writers, though, the writers win. In Haiti we have the case of the extraordinary Jacques Stephen Alexis, one of our best writers, who was killed by Papa Doc’s henchmen in the 1960s. His work has certainly outlasted Papa Doc’s treatises. People have embraced him even more in death than they had in life. Most writers won’t sit quietly by while a dictatorship rolls on—though people in today’s US seem to be missing the clues—and the dictators know that.”
That quote comes from an interview conducted during the presidency of George Bush II. During the campaign to replace him, I heard Danticat voice her admiration for Obama’s memoir Dreams From my Father. When I read the book around that time, I was taken back by the casual way in which he seemed able to toss off degrading dismissals of characters with mental illness. In the fanfare surrounding Obama’s election, it was hard to hold on to the doubts about his judgment these passages raised. But in the wake of this administration’s escalation of drone warfare that kills bystanders in central Asia every day, and the decision earlier this week to authorize indefinite detention of Americans without trial, I thought back to the ability to insulate oneself from the suffering of others that characterized the way Dreams of my Father lumped a mentally ill man Obama passed on the street in Kenya together with criminals, (p. 311) and stigmatized a classmate from his childhood in Hawaii who ended up “in a funny farm.” (p 94.) I wondered whether Danticat’s characterization of a US public and literary establishment who fail to pick up on clues of dictatorship might be more relevant today than one would hope.
John Darnielle has recently said that the new detention authorization essentially gives away “the whole enchilada,” and legalizes a type of behavior we formerly recognized as Stalinism. He wrote that the only decision he could make after that was to resolve not to give money to or vote for the Democratic Party until they reverse their position on this issue. I’m not sure I won’t vote for Obama – whom I shouldn’t single out so personally, it’s really more an expression of larger blocks of power – but if I do, I won’t feel happy about it.
Chris Anders, American Civil Liberties Union: “This is so broadly written, it would become a permanent feature of United States law, so that 10 years, 20 years down the road, any president could still use this power to have the military pick up people and indefinitely detain them without charge or trial, potentially for years, potentially for life.”