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Review of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’, The General in His Labyrinth

I meant to read this book many years ago, but never got around to it. In a way, I am glad of that, as it resonates more, I think, the older you get. I came away acknowledging that the author really deserved his Nobel Prize for Literature.

The novel, The General in his Labyrinth is fiction, but not really fictional. It is about post-‘liberation’ South America in the 1840s and the last months in the life of General Simon Bolivar, ‘The Liberator’, who threw its Spanish colonial rulers out of the Continent, but, while dying, saw his dream of a liberated, unified continent broken up into the pieces that make up South America today. 

Like Lincoln, a generation later, General Bolivar’s dream was that of a unified, continent-spanning State that would develop into a major world power; but that was not to be in South America. The landed aristocracy and long distances with only rudimentary roads or other forms of communication proved much stronger than Bolivar’s appeal for continental unity that would make South America a ‘player’ on the world stage. 

After 300 years of corrupt Spanish colonial rule and provincial aristocratic dominance, most colonial leaders saw ‘independence’, not as Bolivar did, but as a road to their own local power. 

Conveniently for the generals who wished to carve out their own national fiefdoms, not long after the Spanish had left, Bolivar and his continental dream both began to die of a wasting disease. He was just 44 and at the height of his fame. 

Garcia Marquez writes about the General’s last weeks as he and his military escort leave Bogota and go down the Magdalena River to the Caribbean coast to await his demise, rationalized as meeting a ship bound to take him to Europe and honorable exile. The reader knows that Bolivar will never make that voyage and the day-to day struggle to survive will come to a predictable end, and, with the General’s death, dies his dream of continental unity.

Garcia Marquez had limited access to records and accounts of the last months of The General’s life, but apparently enough to provide a credible background to his story. He opted for a style of description of the times that took in day and night; the progression of The General’s living conditions and thoughts, dress and even bowel movements is captured as if by an invisible floating ‘camera’ accessible to the General’s actions; sleeping , eating, meeting army officers and broadcasting his moods to his loyal officers as they try to inspire him to return to his mission, while others, seeing his fevered and emaciated frame, realize he can never recover and return to the saddle; thus, their opportunity to take his place is coming soon.

Though Garcia Marquez never refers to it as such, I liked his device and use of an imaginary close-up ‘camera’, which gives us imaginary pictures in the ‘real time’ of the days and nights as the drama moves to its inevitable end; his faithful major-domo, his women and the faithful officers and soldiers, both upriver in the continent and down on the plains near the sea. He has his bouts of energetic action, interspersed with remembrances and plans and reminiscing about those who were faithful and those he could not trust.    

Garcia Marquez inserts colours and animals and blacks and whites who fill up the area around The General’s moveable headquarters and wherever else he goes. He describes the food and clothing and the rudimentary infrastructure so well that you feel you are the photographers in this great drama. 

Will The General recover from the so-called medicine of the day? Did he take this woman admirer or that into his bed as he travels down the Magdalena River from Bogota to the coast? How well did he feel on some particular day? Did he eat or drink, and what? Sign messages and orders? Garcia Marquez’ ‘camera’ tells all.