More than 20 years after first gaining international acclaim with One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez (1928–2014) fulfilled a lifelong ambition in The General in His Labyrinth, an historical novel about the last months in the life of General Simón José Antonio Bolívar, the great liberator and leader of Latin American independence. Bolívar is an almost mythical figure for the Latin American peoples and has been the subject of numerous biographies, but it takes the mastery of García Márquez to narrate the general’s life as a journey through a labyrinthine river voyage, with a plot that dwells on the realistic and tragically human without diminishing the majesty of the life.
Simon Bolívar, or The Liberator—so named because he liberated the northern part of South America from Spanish domination—had a dream of a Grand Colombia, a vast arc of allied nation-states that his populist revolution wrested from the Spanish, starting with the takeover of Venezuela in 1821. After 20 years of wars, which failed to hold together his Grand Colombia, also undermined by Mexican federalists, Bolívar was, at 47 years of age, fragile and debilitated physically, a condition at odds with the extreme ardor and passion that characterized his life and campaign in Latin America. It is at this point in his life that the novel The General in His Labyrinth begins.
The General and His Labyrinth traces Bolívar’s final river journey along the Magdalena River, starting from Bogotá, Colombia, in May 1830, until his death on an estate near Santa Marta in December 1830. On this last voyage, Bolívar revisits the triumphs, passions, and treacheries of his life. His great personal charm and prodigious success in love, war, and politics are evoked and recalled through dreams, flashbacks, and memories, interspersed with his battle against debilitating illness. During this melancholy and tumultuous journey, Bolívar is disoriented, caustic, distressed by an assassination attempt, and saddened by the loss of the presidency of the Republic of Colombia.
The novel is organized into eight unnumbered chapters, which almost correspond to the ports along the river and the thematic threads in the narrative. A major theme is the juxtaposition of the deteriorating physical condition of Bolívar the man and the glorious exploits of Bolívar the legendary hero. In flashbacks that develop chronologically, there appear his major military and political exploits, his great friends, and his significant enemies. His amorous adventures, real and apocryphal, are interspersed and exaggerated with a Rabelaisian relish that recalls the García Márquez of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel’s frame and each chapter are marked by the presence of the seven aides who accompany Bolívar on the voyage—in particular, José Palacios, who identifies with the great man and serves as witness to his floating demise.
At each port there is a stream of visitors who add interest, conflict, and incidental satire. Bolívar confronts a multitude of tribulations including ghastly weather conditions, enemies—Francisco de Paula Santander, in particular—his illness, and his paralyzing desire to return to his former glory. He wanders from port to town to house with his entourage, but he is not always treated with love and admiration.
During the seventh month of his journey down the Magdalena River, the general continues to visit his past life. Through stream of consciousness, the general relives battles, lost loves, and the political campaigns that brought him the greatest recognition. However, because of Bolívar’s illness, his memories become diluted, distorted, and ambiguous. His declining health becomes the focus of his last days, and yet his illness humanizes him. On a journey that is fraught with nightmares, delusions, and fantasy, what becomes clearly evident is the vitality, heroism, and heart of Simón Bolívar.
The General in His Labyrinth is an excellent historical novel that can qualify as a biography; however, it is also a literary labyrinth—a maze to be explored, discovered, and created as one does a life. García Márquez takes the time to present an intricate and detailed study of Bolívar the hero and of the complexity and chaotic world of Latin America during the time of The Liberator. This novel is not a departure for Gabriel García Márquez: It is to some extent a fulfillment of the dream of Colombian greatness in the hero Simón Bolívar and his love for Latin America.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Bloom, Harold, ed. Gabriel García Márquez. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Kelly, Brian. “The Legacy of a Liberator Named Bolívar.” U.S. News & World Report, 07 May 2006, pp. 10–11. Menton, Seymour. Latin America’s New Historical Novel. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.