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I'm currently trying to make my way through the usually incredibly dense prose in The Autumn of The Partriarch, where sentences go on and on for pages at end.

Here is the passage I'm particularly having trouble deciphering (emphasis on the full stops mine):

[...] the order was carried out, without an instant of hesitation_,_ without a pause—except for the mortal hour of siesta time, when he would take refuge in the shade of the concubines . He would choose one by assault, without undressing her or getting undressed himself, without closing the door, and all through the house one could hear his heartless panting of an urgent spouse, the craving tinkle of his gold spur, his dog whimper, the surprise of the woman who wasted her time at love in trying to get rid of the squalid stares of the seven-month runts, her shouts of get out of here, go play in the courtyard, this isn’t for children to see, and it was as if an angel had flown across the skies of the nation, voices were muffled, life came to a halt, everybody remained stone-still with a finger to his lips, not breathing, silence, the General is screwing, but those who knew him best had no faith even in the respite of that sacred moment, for it always seemed that he was in two places at once . They would see him playing dominoes at seven o’clock at night and at the same time he had been seen lighting cow chips to drive the mosquitoes out of the reception room, nor did anyone harbor any illusions until the lights in the last of the windows went out and they heard the noise of the three crossbars, the three locks, the three bolts on the door of the presidential bedroom, and they heard the thump of the body as it collapsed from fatigue onto the stone floor [...]

which is composed of one whole sentence sandwiched between bits of two other sentences.

It's going to be a long, long way to the bottom, so brace yourself for the journey. This is going to be a bit lengthy. Thanks in advance for your patience (or lack thereof, I understand if you lose your cool halfway).

So here goes the first sentence (fragment):

[...] the order was carried out, without an instant of hesitation_,_ without a pause—except for the mortal hour of siesta time, when he would take refuge in the shade of the concubines.

  • Now what is this underscore-comma-underscore combination of punctuation? I've seen it being used in many other places in the book. I'll admit I've never across such peculiar punctuation. As far as underscores go, I don't think they're used in non-technical writing at all.

The second complete sentence (and the main one):

He would choose one by assault, without undressing her or getting undressed himself, without closing the door, and all through the house one could hear his heartless panting of an urgent spouse, the craving tinkle of his gold spur, his dog whimper, the surprise of the woman who wasted her time at love in trying to get rid of the squalid stares of the seven-month runts, her shouts of get out of here, go play in the courtyard, this isn’t for children to see, and it was as if an angel had flown across the skies of the nation, voices were muffled, life came to a halt, everybody remained stone-still with a finger to his lips, not breathing, silence, the General is screwing, but those who knew him best had no faith even in the respite of that sacred moment, for it always seemed that he was in two places at once.

There are a number of problematic phrasing here:

  1. I don't get the structure of "his heartless panting of an urgent spouse". Is he the one panting while intercourse with one of his concubines? But why is it described as "heartless" then? Or is it that he is making his "spouse" pant by going too rough on her? It would fit with "heartless" then.

  2. What does "his gold spur" mean? What is even a "spur"? And was his "whimper" dog-like?

  3. "the surprise of the woman who had wasted her time at love in trying to get rid of the seven-month runts". As I understand it, the women of the General had so many seven-monthers at hand (also presumably by him) that no one had any time to try and capture the heart of the General in trying to deal with the pack of babies. I'm inclined to think "runt" means a child here. Looking up the word, I found this definition: "(derogatory) an undersized and weak person", which seems to be the closest match for the word in this context. There's also "small pig/animal, the smallest in the litter". Both of which are incredibly derogatory and what's jarring is that children are referred to with these terms. And why are their stares described as "squalid"? I don't suppose the children here are old enough to be able to comprehend what was unfolding before their eyes.

  4. I don't get the simile of "as if an angel had flown across the skies of the nation". How can it have the effect of hushing people in its literal sense?

  5. "[The] General is screwing" — the use of such an informal word looks out of place.

And last but not the least:

They would see him playing dominoes at seven o’clock at night and at the same time he had been seen lighting cow chips to drive the mosquitoes out of the reception room, nor did anyone harbor any illusions until the lights in the last of the windows went out and they heard the noise of the three crossbars, the three locks, the three bolts on the door of the presidential bedroom, and they heard the thump of the body as it collapsed from fatigue onto the stone floor [...]

  • What are "cow chips" and how do you light them? I don't understand the overall situation here. Why will a lavish dictator have to drive away mosquitoes?
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The underscore-comma-underscore punctuation is unusual, even a little bizarre. I have no idea what it's meant to convey. Keep in mind that you're reading a translation from the original Spanish, where that punctuation might have some significance.

You have some vocabulary questions which a dictionary should be able to answer -- for example, a spur is a metal device which you attach to a riding boot, that you can use to prod the horse to greater speed. Otherwise the poetic language is no more comprehensible to me than it is to you. You just have to picture the imagery to get the sense of what the author is trying to say.

To put it another way: I don't know why the author used these words. He just did, and we have to try to understand as best as we can.

It's also possible these are artistic choices by the translator. Again, you'd have to be able to appreciate the nuance of the words in the original Spanish to know for sure.

I also expect this kind of flowing free-form verbiage sounds better in Spanish than it does in English. As you say, it kind of feels haphazard and unconnected here.

Lastly, "cow chips" is a slang term for cow excrement, which can be used as fuel. Why a wealthy dictator would light fires with that, I don't know. Maybe it's a metaphor?

Honestly, if you want to read a work of dense prose, there are plenty written by English authors to choose from. Unless you're also fluent in the original language, and can compare, reading a translation can often lead to frustration and confusion.

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