In My Father’s House

On the 8th December 1982, the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez delivered his speech to the Nobel committee who had awarded him that year`s prize for literature. It was called “The Solitude of Latin America” which alluded to his magnum opus “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and also focussed upon the themes that inspired his singular work. He argued that Latin America had a unique history which was often neglected by the wider world.

His novels read like wild flights of fantasy with little resemblance to the real world, but Marquez insisted that his fiction was a reflection of the strange and magical figures that shaped the continent. One familiar character that reoccurs in his novels is the dictator. Dictators were unfortunate features of the postcolonial world.

In Marquez`s milieu these often deluded patriarchs wield almost supernatural powers over a demoralised and beaten populace. The Spanish dominated and ruled over central and southern America for three centuries. In the wake of their retreat a series of revolutions and counter revolutions occurred, creating a bloody atmosphere of near pandemonium. Mexico, for instance, was historically a tempestuous country.

The Mexican people endured lengthy periods of violent instability, before and after Spanish colonisation. Before colonisation they developed legends and superstitions and venerated patrician talismans. After colonisation Catholicism was absorbed into society but it was infused with these older, polytheistic beliefs.

In this fevered atmosphere it was easy for narcissistic dictators to win the trust of a nation. These dictators cultivated a paternalistic style of government and were experts in manipulating the religious sentiments of the population. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was one of Mexico’s most notorious dictators.

The General was a shameless opportunist but was still revered as a messianic style figure by most of the country. When he lost his leg in a battle against the French he made a demand that it should be preserved as a relic, and later interned in an elaborate funeral ceremony. This unbelievable demand was granted.

The ceremony went ahead in Mexico city. It must have been an extraordinary sight to witness this huge religious procession attended by military dignitaries where a leg (sealed in a crystal urn) was buried in a plot decorated with the Mexican flag. This was just one example of how he managed to create his own image as a nationalistic and religious cult leader.

However there were older Mexican traditions that now seem gruesome to modern western people. One Mexican figure was so revered by his courage in battle that his followers wore parts of his flayed skin, partly as devotion but mostly to ward off evil.

These fantastical stories imbue the work of Marquez and illustrate how societies in flux seek populist leaders. Tragically there are many countries that still succumb to the promises of men with obvious delusions of grandeur. It seems that even in the so-called civilised world people are reduced to a child-like level of thinking and elect leaders presenting themselves as saviours and fathers, when in fact they are egoists with self serving interests.

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