Gabriel García Márquez: The General in His Labyrinth. Penguin, 1991 285 pages. $19.85.
review by Otto Steinmayer.
Modern Latin-American fiction is remarkable for its use of "magic
realism," which readers of this page have heard much about in the past
few months. Borges invented it, and the "labyrinth" in the title of
Marquez' latest novel makes us think of him.
Marquez made his first big splash in world
letters with the fantastic One Hundred Years of Solitude, in
which he made magic a plausible part of everyday life. In his recent
books Marquez has approached "magic realism" from the other direction,
by finding the magic in what would otherwise remain an afflicting and
stubborn blank of a reality.
You can call The General in His Labyrinth a novel, as Marquez himself does. Yet its material is historical, and I think it works beautifully as history. The central figure is General Simón Bolívar, the great Liberator of northern South America, what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. Marquez recounts the last few months of Bolívar's life, his final journey from Bogatá to his death on the coast in 1830.
History-writing seems to me to have suffered in
the past hundred years. Marxism has been responsible for much dullness
and the dead hand of economics and sociology has lain heavy on our eyes
and souls. Chroniclers of the present and explainers of the past have
been reducing what happens in the world to the blind clash of market
forces, ideology, and sterile realpolitik. It seems we no longer have a
choice about what we do.
But people, living, breathing, weird
people, make the events of history. The same people see those events as
history, no two in the same way. All history is a personal view.
Fantasy in fiction reminds us that life is full of wonder. Marquez'
novelistic history puts the people and the choice back into it.
In elementary school this reviewer was an
unwilling prey to the usual gringo cartoon images of the South. Our
fifth grade socialstudies textbooks devoted a lot of praise to the
abominable United Fruit Company, and South American generals were
supposed to be jokes, brutal windbags in gold-embroidered tunics.
After such ignorance, I was delighted that
Marquez brought me to know General Bolívar, a great genius and a
warm man, much more lovable than the North's glum General Washington,
also much harder working, and at least as talented, and more effective
than Thomas Jefferson: a hero, a sharp thinker, and a great prose
Someone around here has suggested that the very best minds go into politics. That could be turned on its head to be a sarcasm on the feebleness of human intellect, if we consider how little good the people in charge of things have done for the world. But Bolívar certainly had qualities above mere intelligence. Bolivar had idealism, and the temperance not to wish to force the world into his own mold. He had charisma, and the strength not to enchant himself. He had a natural gift of command, and the will to use it strictly in the service of his country. He was the rarest of politicians: a man able to give up power.
When Bolívar knew that his very presence was a threat to his homeland's political stability (lots looking up to him as some authoritarian figure, the Man Who'll Make It All Right, others, inevitably, hating his guts), he started for Europe, though tuberculosis sooned rendered that move unnecessary.
In a note of thanks to the woman who saved him from assassination in Jamaica Bolívar wrote "I am condemned to a theatrical destiny." The General in His Labyrinth looks over much of that destiny. I think that Márquez thinks that Bolívar knew that life is crazy, and that Bolívar was determined to ride out the craziness and do some great good, with glory and fun, at the same time. Fate---or as he suspected, the Devil---assigned Bolívar the role of Liberator and he played it with professionalism and feeling.
Márquez' aim is to "recount a tyrannically
documented life without renouncing the extravagant prerogatives of the
novel." Little material is at hand here, and it is impossible for me to
check Márquez' fidelity to the recorded events, to see precisely
how he has interpreted them. Four and a half pages of acknowledgements
list sources and historians. I have faith that Marquez has written as
accurately as he could.
The historical events that make up The General in His Labyrinth are themselves novelistic. Márquez has the skill to pick from the chronicles the magical details. The first few pages, a recreation of Bolívar's last morning in Bogatá, witness to that. Every man has strange habits; should we accept them, they too seem magical. History does not happen in a dignified orderly way: rain drowns out the parade, stray dogs leap aboard the General's barge, presidents escape assassination because they are in bed with a mistress.
The journey to death---the final scene told by
Márquez sparely and with great pathos---structures the novel.
The sense of decline infiltrates the politics. As Bolívar
becomes weaker, weighing 88 pounds by his end, the republic he worked
to put together breaks up. The euphoria of liberty is followed by power
struggles and bitter faction.
Nothing lasts very long in this life that is a bewildering race between dreams and misfortunes. "Damn it," Bolivar sighs his last words in the novel, "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!" The effort may be tragic, yet history would be worth nothing without the idealism of the Bolívars that is an expression of our dearest hopes for life on this planet.