Thursday, February 24, 2011

Portrait of a Dictator under House Arrest

When the man who held the veins and arteries of an entire nation in his clenched fist was at the peak of his power, he was said to dominate entire rooms with the sheer force of his will. There was a presence about him, what observers of his rule called ‘a powerful charisma of thought and mind’. He compelled brave men to follow him and young women to throw themselves upon his royal mercy. His bones were wreathed in muscle, and his speeches set the audience aflame with nationalistic fervor. His helpless listeners were caught in a windstorm of force and firepower. Everything he was, everything he did, carried with it the surety of a man born to command.

His tower has long since collapsed into faded rubble. The vines of democracy and populism grew, inch by inch and year by year, until yelling mobs brandishing black-market Kalashnikovs were pouring through the gates of his palace. In a desperate final act, the dictator addressed the mob from a marble balcony high above the great plaza, reaching into their hearts and minds as he had done so many times before. But his words were swallowed up in the roar of the crowd, and that night the palace of gods and kings was put to the torch.

Unlike many of his compatriots, fellow heads of state overthrown by their oppressed majorities, the dictator lived to see the rise of a new government. A firing squad under the hot South American sun would perhaps have been more kind. The man who had controlled an entire nation by sheer force of will was wadded up and stuffed in a small house in the mountains, surrounded by the soldiers he had once ordered to war. There, under lifelong house arrest, he would live out his days, far from the public eye and mind.

Today, instead of a horde of Soviet-issued fighter jets, the dictator's air force consists of a plastic jetliner he wants to give his niece. His armies, fatigued and camouflaged, are two dozen creaking valets and an elite corps of grumpy old nurses. His palace shakes in the heavy wind that blows out of the Pacific Ocean in the fall, and his mighty roof leaks with the spring monsoons. There's a weathervane on the roof in the shape of an eagle, one majestic talon pointing north, that's rusted now and squeaks in the wind. It's always twisting around in the middle of the night, that soft little eeech eeech eeech that flits around the house until it reaches his bedroom window and bats at it all night long. He wishes the damn thing would just break off and fly away already.

He doesn't have a lot of visitors, not friendly ones anyway. The youthful captain in charge of his guard tells him they pick up a maniac every week or so, struggling and spitting and trying to get just a little bit closer to the house. Let me set us free, they howl, fighting off the corporal of the guard and clutching at their makeshift guns. Let us be rid of him. Once the dictator tried to talk to the man, a smouldering leftist student who had fought at the Universidad del Sud in the last days of the regime, tried to convince him and persuade him as he had always done. His speeches stumbled through the air between them and died before they reached his furious audience, victims of the man's helpless rage. The dictator went back to his house afterwards and lay on his couch for eighteen hours, losing himself in episodes of Tom & Jerry

The dictator's back aches when he's on his feet for too long. His booming voice is now just a squeak, after a bullet tore through his larynx during the escape from the Presidential Palace. He likes to garden, even though his hands shake when he digs a little hole for each seed and, quivering, drops it into the rich soil. Once he made banana bread for all the guards, with bananas he'd grown on his own trees. The soldiers laughed nervously and took a polite crumb. He doesn't do that anymore. 

His niece is visiting next month. She's just turned seven years old, and he'll lift her up and swing her around like he always does and give her the plastic toys he bought for her. The captain of the guard left some candied cherries for the dictator to give her, too. Kids love them, he said. Trust me. The dictator smiles and takes the candy, looks at the little red buttons in the box. When his niece gets here, he'll go out to the garden with her and they'll plant one or two. Little candy trees sprouting in the backyards. Kids love those. 

The dictator cinches up his waistline-he's got a potbelly that keeps on growing no matter what he eats-and walks to the window. Outside, sergeants are patrolling the wall around his country house. Step, step, turn, salute, turn, turn, walk away. Back and forth, endlessly back and forth in military rigamarole. There are times when the dictator wants to shout at them, to scream until they come scurrying to the parade ground in front of his palace, to exhort them until their ears bled and their fists shot skyward in the national salute, mouths wide open in the soundless shout, "Viva le Presidente!" There are those treacherous mornings when he wakes from a dream of martial grandeur, a dream of the days when he was a tower amongst men and a rock of the regime, when all the land and all the people bowed to his will and groveled at his whim. The days when he could be a leader of men, send brave young boys off to die with love in their hearts, oh yes, he remembers those days. But then the dictator swings his old, arthritic legs out of bed. He hears the endless clip-clop of the guards on the ramparts, step, step, turn, salute, turn, turn, walk away. And on the roof, the rusted eagle squeaks. Let it fly away, the dictator wishes silently. Let it leave me in peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment