In keeping with the narrative structure of some of his other works of fiction—One Hundred Years of Solitude in particular—the text of The General in His Labyrinth begins with the story’s ending, when General Simón Bolívar is facing the end of his career and life. The reader is introduced to an aging, frail Bolívar, who is a mere shadow of the legendary figure he once was. Against the backdrop of his own native land, García Márquez weaves the fantastic and grotesque into a fictionalized tale of the hero’s last days, bringing to life a very human portrait of this legendary figure and the culture he helped create.
The story takes place as Bolívar travels along the Magdalena River, his journey along which acts as a metaphor for the hero’s psychological and emotional journey. As he follows the river’s winding path, he reflects—sometimes lucidly, sometimes not—on the events of his life and the achievements and failures he has met. Following his resignation as president, the real-life Bolívar had set out along the Magdalena River to travel to the coast and eventually make his way to Europe. García Márquez’s fictionalized version of the hero follows the same path and with the same results: He never makes it to the end of this journey, dying before he reaches the coast and relieving himself of the impossible decision to leave the land of which he is so much a part.
The story speaks to the cultural lore and legends passed...
Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the general of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, was the most renowned leader of the South American struggle for independence from Spain in the early part of the nineteenth century. He envisioned a united and strong South America which would resolve its internal differences and achieve true economic as well as political autonomy. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel about the last eight months of Bolivar’s life portrays this idealism, which motivated Bolivar’s heroic exploits as he led the patriotic armies of liberation. Garcia Marquez’ Bolivar is also a dying man in the last months of his life, a man who is ill, crotchety, eccentric, and bitterly disappointed to see that the newly liberated republics are squabbling and pulling apart. His last effort before he dies of tuberculosis and exhaustion is to propose the reconquest of Venezuela in order to begin reunifying at least the northern states. The General in His Labyrinth is an adroit fusion of historical research and imaginative, empathetic creation: Simon Bolivar is depicted as a vividly human hero, an inspiring leader for the present era as well as for the early nineteenth century. For Garcia Marquez there is no contradiction in a portrait of Bolivar that reveals him as physically depleted, shrunken by illness, barely able to eat, yet driven by extraordinary force of will to keep moving on his journey to the coast and then to Cartagena to plan the reconquest of the subdivided South American states. Bolivar’s greatness of spirit is contrasted with the generals who are still strong in body but petty in aspiration, men such as Francisco de Paula Santander, Rafael Urdaneta, Jose Antonio Paez, and Juan Jose Flores, who have used their power to serve their own personal ends and have divided up the newly liberated continent. As the book progresses, the escalation of Bolivar’s outrage at this fragmentation and his passion for reunification is paralleled by his physical deterioration and increasing inability to implement his desires.
The General in His Labyrinth focuses on Bolivar’s final journey from the capital city of Bogota northward along the Magdalena River to the Caribbean coast of his childhood, where he intends to embark for Europe, disillusioned by his evident unpopularity in Bogota and the seemingly irreversible disintegration of a united South America. By the time he reaches the port of Cartagena, news dispatches cause him to delay his departure. Bolivar is informed that parts of Venezuela are disavowing the separatist government and that a new party in his favor is gathering adherents. As his physical strength drains away, Bolivar concentrates his energies on the realization of his lifelong dream and on
planning, with the authority and power of the commander in chief, each piece of the detailed military strategy with which he proposed to regain Venezuela and from there begin to restore the largest alliance of nations in the world.
Word has come that Antonio Jose’ de Sucre, the man Bolivar has hoped would succeed him in power, has just been assassinated, and it is left to Bolivar himself to organize the unification movement. Circumstances seem auspicious for Bolivar’s success, but as he becomes physically weaker and news from the battlefront becomes more discouraging, he comes to feel that he has “become lost in a dream, searching for something that doesn’t exist.”
Bolivar’s memories of episodes of the past, vividly present to him throughout this last journey, are interspersed with dreams and omens, overlayers and underlayers of times and perceptions. Just before he dies, Bolivar is taken to a country house outside Santa Marta, and the strong odors of sugar processing remind him of his childhood on the San Mateo Plantation near Caracas. The complex spirals of the book’s journey both forward and backward in time are fused in the final scenes of death, birth, and deepest meaning, as Bolivar remembers his wife, whose early death propelled her grief-stricken widower into an unforeseen...