on May 22, 2002
One of my good friends is the person whose opinion I trust most when it comes to books and literature. And, I'm happy to say, we usually agree on what's good and what's not so good. Although my friend loves Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "The General in His Labyrinth," however, is one book my friend didn't like and I did.
"The General in His Labyrinth" tells the story of the melancholy and sad final journey of General Simon Bolivar, fondly known as "The Liberator" in many South American countries. Bolivar is the man who drove the Spanish from the northern part of South America during 1811-1824, even though the local aristocracy chose to fight against him. In the end, he became a sad and defeated man, old before his time and burdened with the knowledge that his dream of a unified South America would not be realized during his lifetime.
Although Bolivar is revered in much of South America (and the world in general), his final days were quite unhappy. In this book, Garcia Marquez takes us along with Bolivar on his final cruise along the Magdalena River from Colombia to the sea. Bolivar was sad, disillusioned, in shock from the after effects of an assassination attempt and suffering from an unspecified illness; in short, this mythic man had become old at the very young age of forty-six.
After Bolivar had been denied the presidency of Colombia he decided to spend his final days in Europe, far away from political strife of any kind. But Bolivar wouldn't have been Bolivar had he not given his life to the people. His dreams of living in peace in Europe were dashed when the government that replaced him failed.
It didn't take years of history to make Bolivar larger than life. He was larger then life to those who knew him intimately as well as to those who knew him only by reputation. And no wonder...he possessed a terrible temper, a extraordinarily passionate nature and his political and leadership abilities were virtually unsurpassed. Everyone paled next to Bolivar, in life just as (almost) everyone pales next to him in this book. (His enemy, Santander, and his commander, Sucre, are two notable exceptions. His lover, Manuela Saenz is also a well drawn character, but Bolivar's valet, Jose Palacios lets us know that, other than saving Bolivar from assassination, she was really nothing special, just one more lover among very many.)
I read, in a interview with Garcia Marquez, that the voyage along the Magdalena was chosen to be fictionalized since this was a little-known episode in a very publicly-lived life. Personally, I think it was a wonderful choice. The voyage was one that was no doubt filled with melancholy and nostalgia and no one writes of melancholy and nostalgia, especially South American melancholy and nostalgia, as well as does Garcia Marquez. This is a book in which real memories become confused with the hallucinations of delirium, a confusion that is only enhanced by the descriptions of the steamy jungle interior. The floods, the oppressive heat, the epidemics that Bolivar and his weary band of supporters encounter only serve to enhance "The Liberator's" own physical decline.
I also think that showing us Bolivar, not at the height of his glory, but at what was no doubt one of the lowest points of his life, was also a wonderful choice. Bolivar was, apparently, a man of contradictions. He was flamboyant and mythic, yet ultimately tragic; he could be elegant in public matters yet coarse in private; he was obviously a genius at strategy, yet his last days were filled with the incoherence of illness. And, all along the way, through this maze of contradictions, Garcia Marquez never loses sight of the one driving force in Simon Bolivar's life: his desire for a unified South America.
I also love the way Garcia Marquez twists and folds the narrative of this book until the reader isn't quite sure what's real and what's fevered hallucination; what really happened and what didn't. Of course, Garcia Marquez is a master at just this sort of narrative and he really outdoes himself in this book.
In the end, Bolivar, himself, decides that South America is ungovernable; it is, he declared, a land that will inevitably fall into the hands of tyrants, both large and small. Sadly, Bolivar's prophecy seems to be, at least in part, true. And, even more sadly still, although the world has come to love and rever "The Liberator," "The Liberator," himself, died a sad and defeated man.
on August 4, 1997
Having read The General in his Labyrinth for the
fourth time, I am still amazed by the story, and
way it is told.
This is the story of the last days of Simon Bolivar
the liberator of South America.He is dying of consumption,
old before his time. He leads a sad and noble group of loyal soldiers
and retainers through the wilds of Nueva Granada. There is no
hope - the General is not wanted any more, having watched the
liberated continent fall in upon itself and fragment. Having
taught the people separatism, the tired General is powerless
to stop the inevitable.
And so the journey proceeds, punctuated by heat, torrential rain,
fever, delirium, memories of great loves, and despair. The General's
state of mind is conveyed to the reader in the minutest detail. We are
shown the destruction and self-destruction of a once powerful
man,and the effect is one of witnessing death itself, with
its mystifying loss of personality.
Bolivar rants in fevers, paces the floor unable to sleep, and talks
of the agony of assassination attempts, treacherous infighting, a fickle
public, and memories of strong women.He goes from town to town
with his entourage,in turn feted or reviled according to local
He has the protective love of his closest generals, and the dignified
devotion of his servant Jose Palacios to comfort him on his seemingly
ignoble flight.But this journey is the only possible end for a man of
such brilliant but caustic powers.It gives him and us time to think
about the real nature of power, achievement, history and fate.And the
unstated conclusion the General reaches is that even those blessed
with power and influence, even the most rigorous souls will come
to an inevitable stop that will seem at the time to be just like
any other "damn business".
Bolivar says "I'm old, sick, tired, disillusioned,
harassed, slandered and unappreciated" and "despair
is the health of the damned".When at last death
overtakes the General, Marquez closes his story with one
of the most moving scenes I have read in any novel.
("...the heartless speed of the octagonal clock racing
toward the ineluctable appointment at seven minutes past one..")
People who know Marquez for the "magic" novels may be
wonderfully surprised by this exquisitely written book.
The people, the skies, the rains, the nature, the loves
and the sorrows in this book are chillingly real.
Its beauty quite literally haunts me.
on November 6, 2000
"The General in His Labyrinth" is a fictionalized account of the last seven months of the life of Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the liberator of Gran Colombia (Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador) from Spanish rule. Bolivar's goal was to unite South America into a single great country, but there was constant conflict with separatists and political and military rivals, and in the last year of his life he was expelled from the presidency. He left Bogota with an entourage of close friends, relatives, and servants, and his final months were spent in a journey down the River Magdalena, ostensibly to leave the country. A terminal illness (consumption? tuberculosis? his bedsheets are burned and eating utensils are buried after he uses them for fear of contagion) causes him fits of feverish delirium, in which he recalls glorious episodes in his life.
I once read one of Garcia Marquez's earlier short stories, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," and that story and this novel seem to share a theme. They are both about an important or extraordinary figure (in the story, the title character; in this novel, Bolivar) who falls from a state of grace, comes into contact with common people, and must suffer their treatment, be it awe or indifference. I knew almost nothing about Bolivar and the history of South America, but the fact that this fascinating novel made me want to learn more about the subject is a testament to Garcia Marquez's great skill as a writer.
on May 9, 2002
This book is based on the factual story of Simón Bolívar's own journey out of the heart of present-day Colombia towards the Atlantic coast. It is a tapestry of metaphors which underscore the degree to which Bolívar still represents the continent. No man has ever epitomized his homeland in the way that Simón Bolivar embodies the possibility and the tragedy of South America. Even today, every so often, at predictable intervals, Simón Bolívar's tired ghost is pulled out and paraded through the altars of South American politics with the reverence and expectation shown icons of the faith; yet every time, the faithful's hopes of improvement are dashed, as Bolivar's were time and time again in his own life. Hugo Chávez' current attempt to recast Bolívar's native land as the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela", governed by his own "Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement", is but a single example of the way Bolívar is kept restless even two hundred years after his death.
Ill, impoverished, his strength sapped by persistent insomnia, 46-year-old Simón Bolívar and a ragtag group of his last faithful servants and aides start up the Magdalena River on a journey whose goal is as shifting and amorphous as "New Granada", the restless nation of which Bolívar is now the ex-president. His term was marked by upheaval and violence, political backstabbing around him, but little accomplishment. Even the trip's destination is out of his hands, as the congress refuses to grant the tired general permission to leave the country he founded. His political rivals are in power, his loyal comrade General Sucre will soon be assassinated. Worst of all, perhaps, for a man of war, there are no battles left to be won. His life has become typically characteristic of the incurable restlessness that afflicts those men of action who premature retirement leaves without a focus for their energies.
García Márquez tells the tale in much the way its actors would have lived it: this is the narrative of a delay-prone trip to nowhere, frequently interrupted by social calls, illness, or politics. A few months into the journey, Bolívar becomes an objective of South America's first military coup, as General Rafael Urdaneta overthrows the government and then sends for Bolívar, asking him to return to the presidency. Urdaneta's action is perhaps the first blow struck against Latin American democracy, a mortal wound foreshadowing Bolívar's own demise. Throughout the trip, Bolívar and those around him reminisce about earlier times, about the military campaigns which led Bolívar to glory and brought about the birth of nations, about loyal comrades in arms and treacherous political opponents. In the end, Urdaneta's actions in destroying the political edifice then calling on Bolívar foretell a recurring pattern in the region's politics, just as the cloying disappointment at the end of Bolívar's life speaks of the way the tormented area's hopes for the future are dashed again and again by war and corruption. So much promise, such disappointment.
Some readers will be put off by the novel's profusion of facts and dates, which occasionally interfered with the author's ability to create the dreamlike world characteristic of his other works. Overall, though, through the very nature of its threaded soliloquies and wandering storylines, the work powerfully evokes the turmoil and restlessness, the illness and the frustration that marked the last days of South America's Libertador.
on August 3, 2011
I recently read the author's acclaimed work "Love in the Time of Cholera" and enjoyed it very much. It spurred me to seek out more work by Marquez, hence this and several others that I recently purchased. My second foray into Marquez was "One Hundred Years of Solitude". I was very disappointed in that novel and concerned that I'd perhaps already seen the best he had to offer. Luckily, I followed up with "Love and Other Demons", finding it to be well worthwhile the effort. While not up to the standards of that novel, I nevertheless enjoyed this work.
Marquez's writing is certainly unique in its earthiness. He deals with such subjects as sex, bodily functions and graphic illness as if they are parts of everyday life ... because they are. It is refreshing.
Marquez is also known as one of the leading practitioners of the literary device of "magical realism" in which events are introduced into the story which are quite fantastic (for example, a character being swept away into the sky as though taken to heaven, a rain event that lasts over four years followed by an absolute drought of ten years). This was a major device used in One Hundred Years of Solitude and perhaps contributed to my dissatisfaction with that work.
This work, on the other hand, is virtually a non-fiction work, having as its subject the final days of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of the Americas. The General, at a very unhealthy 46 years of age has withdrawn from political life and announced his pending exile to Europe as he begins his journey in Bogota, floats down the Magdalena River, spends some time in Cartagena fomenting intrigue before his journey (and life) ends in Soledad.
Throughout the odyssey, we witness the deteriorating physical condition (apparently tuberculosis) of the General as we are treated to numerous flashbacks of his fascinating life and adventures. The General is depressed and emotionally volatile as he witnesses the collapse of his lifetime dream and goal, the independence and unification of northern South America into a global super power. Even as the General wastes away, he observes the almost pre-ordained collapse of the fragile union of states and the pending insurrections and civil wars breaking out within them. It is a mess and he is powerless to prevent the carnage, though his very nature leads him to make the attempt.
The author's writing is indisputably beautiful and at times mesmerizing. Much like LitToC, this is a haunting and compelling story, filled with sadness and regret. It is an intriguing look into the mind of one of the most compelling and important figures in world history.
on July 21, 2006
For those of us who have come to love Marquez, this book comes as a slight disappointment. The story of Bolivar's final journey and his relationship both with a myriad of women and with his servant is full of interesting insights and anecdotes, but lacks the kind of beauty, especially in respects to setting and language, that his previous work displays. Maybe it's because he was trying to honor or at least chronicle an important figure in South American history, but the novel seems too confined in scope. Marquez is forced to confine his normally tangential and often beautiful descriptions to the life of a celebrated figure. That being said, this book is still a fascinating read and better than most of the novels on the market today.
Marques remains an international literary treasure, a writer of passion and eloquence whose work defines his generation. Many readers have found his work daunting and given up, but those who persevered discovered a world where magic and passion reigned. With Oprah Winery's choice of Marques's most famous work, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" for her book club, I can only hope that readers will not stop there and will continue on to his other works. "The General and His Labyrinth" would make an excellent stop for those wanting to further explore this author's imagination.
The work follows Simon Bolivar, the liberator of his South America, as he wanders towards an early grave, destitute and nearly friendless. Through this lens Marques examines the idea of loss, futility, dreaming, desire, friendship, and humanity. As a man who achieves so much but ends with so little, Bolivar's life makes an excellent cautionary metaphor for modern society. Readers will find little of the humor this author so cleverly places in his other work, but his style remains both unique and haunting. Marques here builds a complex and perplexing world and when the reader becomes confused, it is because that was the authors goal.
"General" is quite a bit shorter than most of Marques's other works, but his powerful language and masterful imagery rings out from the page. Bolivar has a long and painful trip to take and you will not regret deciding to join him.
on October 7, 2015
I have read this novel in the original Spanish and enjoyed it very much. I decided to re-read it in the English translation. I enjoyed this as well. Edith Grossman has captured Garcia Marquez style very well. The novel relates the last days of Simón Bolívar as he leaves Bogotá for his final stop at Santa Marta. The book is populated by interesting secondary characters. The cadence of the book flows along like the Magdalena River; it is inexorably leading to the tragic end in Santa Marta. In English or in Spanish, the book sings a melancholy but fascinating song.
Master novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez comes through again with another winner with his portrayl of a dying Simon Bolivar. The story is comprised of reflections and anecdotal information on the liberators life, going back and forth in time ,shifting decades with memories of times past and how Bolivar sees the end days approaching. As he travels down the Magdalena River ( a sort of farewell tour) the ghosts of his past surface, including the many loves, his enemies, his allies, his fading dream of unification and those who betrayed him. His memories assault his journey making death nearly a desired relief for the sick and shadow of the great man of vision for Latin America. When reading a historical novel like this one the question arises as to whether the information is factual or purely imagination. I finished reading this book wanting to believe some of the memories of Simon Bolivar were true and accurate to his life. In the end Marquez clarifies this point saying he was not concerned about the accuracies of the final days since those with him left no written record of the final days. However, Marquez does go on to say that he did considerable research(2 years) revealing often contradictory information filled with inaccuaracies while he labored through voliminous documentation. He also consulted with various historians, from several different countries, who are experts on the life of Simon Bolivar to further enrich the exactitude of the novel. Many changes were made from the original manuscript. That said, there are things to be learned from this novel that only the simplicity of historical novels can provide. For furthe exploration of the life of Simon Bolivar it is suggested to read Eugenio Gutierrez Celys "Bolivar Day by Day " or the work of Bolivar biographer Vinicio Romero Martinez. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the writtings of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the life of Simon Bolivar and his dream for Latin America.
on October 20, 2006
Márquez moves slowly through the final chapter in the saga of a great man and historical figure. Sometimes frustratingly so. But I think this may be intentional on the author's part. After all, Bolívar is renowned throughout Latin America for his tireless efforts to free the wayward continent and, when he had accomplished that, to prevent it from falling to shambles. The slow pace of the book reveals Bolívar as the tired soul he had become after so much fighting, so much toil that suddenly seemed to count for nothing. It is not a book about battles for independence or monetary gain; instead it focuses on the constant battle against death and despair.
Most enjoyable of all in the book are the small gems of prescience on the part of Bolívar--whether taken directly from historical documents or imparted on the general by Márquez--in which the old soldier predicts the pitfalls and chaos that will consume his land in the next 150 years. Though it's painful to read the cynical declarations of a man who has dedicated his life to a goal he now realizes is hopeless, these very pronunciations are what sets Márquez's General apart as a realistic and tragic character.
Though I found some parts difficult to trudge through, the book succeeds as a historical narrative, in that it provides insight into an entire continent's evolution through the eyes of one man.