In Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles, Colombian author Alfredo Iriarte wrote hilarious, grotesque biographies of nine Latin American dictators. The following chapter narrates the heartwarming tale of Bolivian dictator Mariano Melgarejo and his equine sidekick Holofernes. A profile of Alfredo Iriarte can be found here in the current issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
How to Govern in an Inebriated State: Mariano Melgarejo
. . . Melgarejo,
drunken beast, spittle
of betrayed minerals,
beard of infamy, horrible beard
on the resentful mountains.
—Pablo Neruda, Canto general
Certainly anyone might think that constant inebriation is not the ideal condition for the prudent and discerning governance of a country nearly as vast as Colombia. I couldn’t say whether it is or not. But what I can say with certainty is that the illustrious general Mariano Melgarejo governed Bolivia from 1864 to 1871 without experiencing a single moment of sobriety.
Melgarejo was a half-breed of humble birth, the illegitimate son of a destitute village woman and a wealthy neighbor who abandoned her after getting her with child. When the bastard was born, the father grew sentimental and returned to the side of the mother, whose indigence had left her faced with the dilemma of whether to take to her heels or to suffocate the infant with a malodorous pillow, thereby providing Heaven with a new little cherub. When the father arrived at the crib’s side, however, he found the baby so hideously ugly that, appalled at having sired a toad, he beat a hasty retreat, spewing all manner of blasphemies.
Harassed by penury, the mother opted for a solution midway between flight and infanticide. She wrapped the child-monster in what rags she could find and went to a convent of charitable sisters. There she identified herself by name—Ignacia Melgarejo—gave that of the heartless father—Cástulo Valencia—and implored them to accept the infant. The nuns took the baby in, but when they removed the rags and saw the repulsive vermin that had been foisted upon them, the first thing they did was to call the chaplain to exorcize him and judge whether or not he had a soul and could receive the purifying waters of baptism.
The pious priest looked at the child and stifled his retching. Although unable to control his horrified expression, he pulled himself together, verified the child’s sex, aspersed him with holy water in case he was possessed by demons, and in the end decided to baptize him with the saintly name of Mariano and the mother’s surname. The chaplain left, but not without first soothing the nuns by assuring them that although the babe was a bit ugly, his resemblance to God was to be found in his little soul and not in his fleshly wrapper.
Nonetheless, the nuns didn’t quite buy it. They cared for the little monster as he crawled and then succeeded in pulling himself up onto two legs. But they eventually gave in to the revulsion the infant inspired in them, a revulsion intensified by the incurable coprophagia he persistently exhibited. Thus in the end they decided to transfer him to a squalid orphanage nearby. There the boy grew up among society’s most sinister detritus, and there he began to learn and practice with startling precocity all the most unspeakable vices of which human beings are capable. In that appalling environment he learned to read and write badly, and also developed an iron musculature from lifting heavy stones and hurling them in all directions, to his playmates’ terror. This sturdy constitution served him well in the brawls he often incited, starting with punches and kicks but frequently switching to a blade or garrote as well, when the circumstances of the scuffle recommended it. In addition, a wild black beard, which had covered most of his face from an early age, served him as a psychological weapon.
Of course, young Melgarejo had not the time, let alone the inclination, to acquire a basic education, to the point that, already President of the Republic, he once declared while holding forth on the art of war before a considerable audience that Napoleon had been a much more deft and experienced strategist than Bonaparte, and that the liberator Simón Bolívar’s gravest error had been not to ally himself with Atahualpa to defeat Hernán Cortés.
Beginning in his years at the orphanage, the future dictator displayed signs of what were to be the two most noteworthy constants of his life: an irresistible proclivity for consuming navigable quantities of alcohol, and a turbulent, vicious, wrathful temper that had spurred him innumerable times to easily, and even with ghoulish pleasure, murder with his own hands. As a young man, his military career already underway, he became involved in any number of insurrections and conspiracies. In one of these, undertaken against the dictator Isidoro Belzú, he was apprehended and condemned to death. Belzú took pity on him and offered him clemency. No one ever discovered whether, when a few years later Melgarejo perfidiously murdered him, the ex-dictator had time to rue not having crushed the viperling’s head when he’d had the chance.
The reasons for Melgarejo’s vertiginous ascent to the pinnacles of power were quite clear. First of all, to hinder Don Mariano’s career with even the slightest of obstacles was equivalent to bidding farewell to this earthly life with a bullet in the head. In addition, he always displayed suicidal courage in battle. Of course, it should be stated that such intrepidity had never been the product of a truly heroic character, since in not a few critical moments he gave evidence of a gallinaceous cowardice. The truth was that before entering the melée Melgarejo drank a bottle of rotgut anisette spiked with gunpowder and distributed the wholesome compound among his gallants. The collywobbles provoked by this noble drink cut a wider swath through Melgarejo’s host than the bullets and bayonets of the enemy.
Our protagonist had his own conception of democracy and believed with deep conviction that bringing down his opponents with bullets was a more practical and expedient procedure than the slow and tiresome slog of popular suffrage. Faithful to his political beliefs, therefore, he arrived at the supreme command of the nation using his predilect methods. Once installed there, he improvised a judicious inaugural speech in which he declared that he would govern Bolivia as long as he felt like it and that anyone disapproving of this intention would be beaten to death in the public square. He then referred to the existing national constitution in the most respectful and restrained terms, announcing that he proposed to perform upon it that most intimate of all the hygienic operations man practices on a daily basis, especially in the morning hours. Thus Bolivians embarked upon a new era of civil liberties, democracy, and the reign of law and justice.
Frenzied feasts and binges were celebrated in the palace, at which General Melgarejo presided with his concubine, Juana Sánchez. The Chief Executive and his guests drank cascades of brandy, beer, and, in the wee hours, the habitual anisette and gunpowder that Melgarejo and his comrades imbibed primarily to demonstrate their irrefutable virility and fortitude. But the most unusual element of these sprees was the presence of Holofernes, the President’s favorite horse, whose master had with infinite patience taught him to drink himself into a most spectacular inebriety. While amid thunderous belches the invitees drank and gnawed at the victuals, in one corner of the hall Holofernes drained casks of beer from a special trough that His Excellency’s aides had provided for the happy steed.
Of all the attendees, the two who showed the greatest resistance to the onslaught of liquor and who, consequently, were the last ones standing, were Melgarejo and Holofernes. Once the guests lay in a stupor on the floor, brought down by gluttony and drunkenness, the Supreme Commander’s favorite amusement was to give an order to Holofernes, who, inebriate and swollen with the copious diuretics, would advance toward those fallen in the Bacchic mayhem and anoint them with warm, potent micturitions. After producing these extraordinary downpours, Holofernes would curl sweetly up and sleep it off beside his drenched fellow revelers.
Melgarejo’s hangovers were, as one might imagine, apocalyptic. Very early in the morning, the palace environs thundered with his imprecations and blasphemies, which always formed a disconcerting, inharmonious duet with the plangent whinnies of Holofernes. The servants went into a state of high alert, realizing forthwith what series of importunities was heralded by the notes of that deafening cacophony. Horse and master had awakened assaulted by the crapulent effects of their bender, and demanded in their respective languages (which in truth differed little) an immediate remedy. The lackeys came to their aid in an instant with barrels of beer, at room temperature for the equine and chilled in eternal snows for the satrap. As soon as the blessed stream hit their gullets, the curses and neighs ceased at once. Then came breakfast, consisting of abundant fodder for Holofernes and, for Melgarejo, fifteen fried eggs, fat as pigs, each with its respective mug of chocolate, and dozens of bran rolls. By that time the guests had already awakened and left the palace, struck in their bloodshot eyes by the ferocious high-altitude sun and forced to endure the fetid, sticky dampness that Holofernes’s torrential urinary force had sprayed over their bodies as they recuperated from their carousing.
It is also worth highlighting that during his hangovers His Excellency became especially irascible. Innumerable confederates were shot with a pistol in the presidential office merely for having expressed timid qualms about his sovereign designs. The victim would not yet have fully relinquished his soul when Melgarejo commanded that that garbage be removed from his sight at once. One morning, when the cascades of beer and the ritual breakfast had been particularly ineffective in mitigating the rigors of the morning after, Melgarejo presided at a military parade mounted upon Holofernes, who, unlike his master, was now fully reinvigorated. Then a homeless loony insulted His Excellency’s mother and let fly a pebble that could only find its mark in the groin of the presidential horse. Ten minutes later, the wretched bedlamite had already been dismembered by the sabers of the palace guards.
One fine day President Melgarejo received the news that the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 had begun. Without hesitating, the general sided with France and declared war on the empire of the Kaiser and of Bismarck. He then brought together his most elite troops in Murillo Plaza and announced to them, not without his habitual stimulant of liquor with gunpowder, that they would depart within a few days, their president leading the way, to join the armies of Napoleon III and give a well-deserved thrashing to the Teutonic aggressors. Melgarejo brought his impassioned speech to a close by advising his warriors that they would have to swim across the ocean. As a sort of colophon, he was insistent in recommending they take great care to avoid wetting their arms and munitions. He, naturally, would ride astride Holofernes, whose swimming skills were unimpeachable.
When the Generalísimo returned to his office, his closest advisors deliberated and concluded that His Excellency had overdone it with the gunpowder in his liquor. As a result, in a show of great recklessness they visited him in order to observe and demonstrate with maps and charts that the dimensions of the Atlantic slightly surpassed his combatants’ ability to swim across it loaded with arms and impedimenta. Furthermore, they pointed out what was to be the most convincing factor in dissuading him from his francophilic enterprise: the risk that the invincible Holofernes might succumb, vanquished by fatigue, once he had reached, for example, the Azores Islands. Melgarejo remained engrossed in the maps and at last conceded. None of the prudent advisors was executed and the President contented himself with sending the Emperor of France ten thousand pesos to buy weapons and provisions. The ungrateful Napoleon never sent his Bolivian ally a single message acknowledging his aid.
Bolivian oral tradition recounts that Melgarejo once invited Great Britain’s chargé d’affaires to the palace with the intention of showing off to his distinguished guest the exemplary discipline of the Presidential Guard. Melgarejo arranged before the English diplomat a line of twenty soldiers facing a balcony whose balustrade had been removed. And so the horrified visitor heard the President order the soldiers to advance toward the balcony. And what was most unbelievable, what paralyzed and stupefied the envoy of Her Majesty the Queen-Empress Victoria, was that, receiving no order to halt, the President’s sentries fell into the void, smashing against the paving stones in the plaza. The diplomat, unable to restrain himself, burst out with harsh denunciations of Melgarejo. The dictator, unaccustomed to anyone showing him disrespect, summoned his sentries, called for a pot-bellied jug full of thick hot chocolate, and, after directing his guards’ bayonets toward the unfortunate ambassador’s gut, forced him to drink the entire contents of the vessel, down to the last drop. The plenipotentiary returned at once to London, and it has always been claimed that he traveled there not by the normal methods of the time but instead, due to the effects of the chocolate, levitated violently and flew across the rest of South America and all of the Atlantic Ocean, thanks to the efficacious thrust of flatu-propulsion.
In 1871, the revolt broke out that would overthrow Melgarejo. It was led by the general Agustín Morales, who was as crapulent and bibacious as his predecessor. Seeing that he was already lost, Melgarejo fled at the maximum speed that Holofernes’s gallop could offer. He headed toward the Peruvian border accompanied by a group of loyal followers whose loyalty, by a strange coincidence, gradually diminished as they noted how exhaustion gripped the fugitive’s loyal horse, and how Morales’s assassins drew nearer, with orders to cut the ousted president and his cronies into pieces and carry their heads and limbs to La Paz for a multifarious instructive display. By the time he neared the border, they all had deserted him. Shortly thereafter, Holofernes expired, whinnying loudly for beer.
Melgarejo reached Peruvian territory mounted upon a shabby donkey and disguised as a mendicant monk. Upon arriving in the capital, he identified himself and announced to the press that Bolivian democracy demanded his immediate return to the presidency. He attempted to organize a plot against Morales but failed for lack of resources with which to arm his henchmen. He died in Lima soon after, murdered by one of his sons-in-law.
Alfredo Iriarte, born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1932, was a public intellectual and journalist best known for his historical essays. His Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles was published in 1986 but remains unknown among American readers. Andrea Rosenberg translates from the Spanish and Portuguese. She can be reached at andrea.rosenberg AT gmail.com.
Published with the kind permission of the Iriarte family
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