August 24, 20197:00 AM ET
Paperback, 16 pages purchase
When President Donald Trump declared that he wanted to buy Greenland, reactions turned swiftly from hilarity — he can’t be serious — to appalled embarrassment when it became clear that he was.
In the midst of it all, one could hear the ghost of Gabriel García Márquez chuckle.
Gabo, as the late great Colombian writer was known, wouldn’t have been in the least startled by the U.S. President’s sense of entitlement. On the contrary, buying an island nation would come across as rather tame compared to the audacious real estate transaction that takes place in his 1975 novel The Autumn of the Patriarch, where the United States buys the Caribbean Sea from a tinpot tyrant and ships it off to Arizona, leaving behind an enormous crater of dust.
The nameless dictator — known only as the Patriarch or the General to his subjects in an equally nameless Caribbean country — is one of the great grotesques of modern literature. The novel itself stands out as a scathing critique both of the ravages of power and the ruthlessness of capitalism. Complex, confusing, and magnificent, its labyrinthian sentences mimic the paranoid labyrinth that is the dictator’s diseased mind; Gabo called it “a poem on the solitude of power.”
The dictator starts life as an unschooled soldier, but one with an “extraordinary instinct for power.” The British, who recognize a colonial puppet when they see one, help put him on the throne, and the Americans keep him there. Altogether monstrous, with enormous elephantine feet, smooth girlish hands, and an enlarged testicle that he softly caresses, the only person he loves apart from himself is his mother. Otherwise, he rapes his concubines, pursues a beauty queen whom he never wins, changes the clocks and the seasons, orders 2000 children to be deported in boxcars and then blown up with dynamite, and serves up an enemy on a silver platter “stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs.”
In short, his 200-year reign is a prolonged and sanguinary opera buffa marked by slaughter, torture, and ultimately bankruptcy. It is the latter which leads to the sale of the sea: The American ambassador comes calling to collect the ballooning debt, and bluntly tells him “either the marines land or we take the sea, there’s no other way, your excellency.”
How can anyone buy a sea, much less transport it to Arizona? The dictator thinks it impossible, but he hasn’t bargained on America’s dazzling technological wizardry. The gringo engineers show up “with gigantic suction dredges” and get to work, resulting in one of the most hauntingly beautiful passages in the novel:
Good coward that he is, the anguished General hopes the people will rise up to drive the Americans away, but the people know better. They have protested before and been mowed down by the General’s guns, so they stay put at home. Plus, after enduring two centuries of the dictator’s depredations, the sale of the sea is just one more in a long list of insanities.
The gringos take not just the salty water but “the flora and fauna belonging to said waters, its system of winds, the inconstancy of its millibars, everything.” They leave behind “only the desert plain of harsh lunar dust” and — in a nice comic touch — the lighthouse, which flashes away uselessly like a “fantastic starlike firefly,” driving the dictator mad. Equally comic is the wind machine that one ambassador presents him with to make up for the lack of sea breeze — a realistic detail characteristic of García Márquez’s writing. As the dictator walks through his gloomy mansion, he is cooled by “the cross currents of the tardy trade winds and the false mistrals from the wind machine that Ambassador Eberhart had given him so that he would not think so much about that bad business with the sea.”
The novel itself stands out as a scathing critique both of the ravages of power and the ruthlessness of capitalism.
García Marquez wrote the novel in Barcelona during the last throes of General Franco’s rule, but Franco wasn’t really the role model. For that, he foraged closer home, and was spoiled for choice. His monster is a glorious mythical composite of all the monsters who have ruled different parts of Latin America. Like his nonfictional predecessors, he has total control of the media, and lives in a world of news that is as obsequious as it is fake. He crowns himself “general of the universe,” and ultimately believes that he is — not the Chosen One — but God himself, and names his son Emmanuel.
Convinced that “he alone was the nation,” his rotting body becomes an embodiment of the body politic. When it begins to exude a salty fluid and sprout crustaceans and polyps, he is convinced that the sea is returning. “Seas are like cats … they always come home,” he tells an American named Johnson, who is unfazed by his optimism.
When the dictator finally dies, the wind machine lies abandoned in the corner. The only breeze that wafts out of the palace is the one fanned by the flapping of vultures that feed on his corpse. It is a warm, foul scent, but for a country awaking from the “lethargy of centuries” it is the scent of freedom.
The sale of the sea — and all its teeming flora and fauna — will endure as a brilliant satire not just of a ruler drunk on power but, equally, of American capitalism run amok. Both maladies, it would seem, are alive and well.
Nina Martyris is a literature-focused freelancer. Her writing has appeared inNewYorker.com, The Paris Review Daily, The Guardian, NPR and elsewhere.