With the style and eloquent language that earned him the Nobel prize for literature, Marquez weaves a stunning story of glory and despair. Both real history and Marquez' imagination let us enter the world of Simon Bolivar, Liberator of South America, in all his humanity - good and evil. Bolivar drove the Spanish out of South America, dealt with treachery from his own compatriots. Once hailed as a hero, he is now scorned and reviled, and fighting his own demons, he refuses to die quietly. We are given a glimpse of the genius and foibles of the man behind the legend, as we accompany him on his last journey, accompanied only by the loyal remants of his once great army.
There’s no overt magical events, but there is a quixotic feel to the book, even though it was based on true events and it is obvious that Garcia Marquez did extensive research (describing the writings and works of some of Bolívar’s companions after his death, for example). Besides the night and day reactions to the General, his journeys have the sad, inevitable feeling of never happening and never going anywhere. At the beginning, he is constantly talking about leaving with his retinue, but many believe he will never leave. There’s always a reason – someone wants him to stay, he needs a passport. When they finally start out, it is with the plan of reaching Cartagena and taking a ship to London. No one believes this plan, and the General’s attempts to make it believable almost sabotage it even more. With all his appointments, terms as president, taking and retaking various places, his life seems to have a circular or repetitive quality – certainly making the title appropriate. There are a couple instances of disappearing women or ghosts that the general believes he sees, although who can know the truth about that? His legal wrangling over the Aroa mines also has a Kafka-esque or Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce feel.
Bolívar’s character is not always sympathetic, but always interesting. His friends and supporters, like his money, are dwindling and he really is only close to his oldest servant, Jose Palacios. Even Manuela Saez, his lover of years, keeps him at a distance – she made a firm resolution not to be dragged down with him. He’s irascible, stubborn, foolish, and his extreme need to be admired and not criticized moves into slightly unhealthy territory. There are several examples of Bolivar’s cruel or violent actions, but I almost felt there should be more of that. The main contrast is between his former glory and present misery. But this was a good read, and reminded me that I should read more Garcia Marquez.
Marquez weaves a tapestry of Bolivar's life as he struggles against his increasing incapacity and weaknesses, showing him in his prime as political and military master, as a lover and a libertine, as a fighter of outstanding courage, mercy and ruthlessness, and as a man who enjoyed all the material advantages one could imagine, but who was already ready to leave them behind or to give them to friends. The journey of increasing loss and disillusionment becomes a parody of greater and glorious times as Bolivar recalls visiting the same places triumphant and welcomed by all as the great Liberator. At the same time the story illustrates the great human cost of warfare and civil war, not only in the loss of life, but in the destruction of ways of life and whole communities.
Marquez is undeniably a master of language, unfortunately, the story here, such as it is, did not hold my attention or interest.
We meet Bolívar at the end of his life. Having finally abdicated power, he plans a trip to the coast. Ill and dying, even when he travels, he is caught in a kind of stasis. He reminisces, hazily, but not about the significant events of his life - more about his womanizing.
As I see it, the book is intended as a complex, ambiguous portrait of a broken man, who was both admirable and reprehensible in his prime. It intends both a commentary on the human condition, the fickle nature of adulation, and the corruption and troubles of South American politics.
There are moments of brilliance here, but overall I did not feel that the work succeeded. At too many points in the book I wanted more - a depth that I wasn't seeing, more details, less haziness. I didn't feel how or why the character portrayed by Marquez could had ever had the qualities of a leader or an idol. Since the reader doesn't see him at his height; I feel that we cannot appreciate his fall.
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.
Marquez is Latin America’s most famous writer, and in The General In His Labyrinth he chronicles the last days of Latin America’s most famous hero, Simon Bolivar. Breaking with tradition, in which Bolivar is portrayed as a saint-like hero, Marquez depicts him as a sick, tired, weary and bitter old man. He has been turned out of government by his countrymen, and is travelling down a river to the Caribbean coastline with a few loyal aides-de-camp, heading for a European exile.
Bolivar was apparently the George Washington of South America, a military leader, statesman and visionary, but whom I’d never heard of before reading the book. That’s the “problem” with reading it as a Westerner; it’s so peppered with South American history that a foreigner has difficulty understanding what’s going on. It almost felt like a fantasy novel, taking place in a distant and unfamiliar landscape, through countries which may as well be fictional because they don’t exist anymore.
This isn’t an inherently bad thing, of course, but it’s not exactly an accessible book, and I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed it.
When I say that Marquez writes straight fiction, I might be misleading. He is a master of the magical realism style, where the supernatural and fantastic is mingled with the natural in such a fashion as to be accepted as a commonplace. This novel tones down that quality quite a bit, because Marquez is true to the factual information on which his story is based. Still, where he is able, small flourishes of that style emerge, such as his description of Manuela Saenz's entourage, or the rumors of men who walk on birds legs in a remote section along the Magdalena. In all other aspects, his charming writing style remains unchanged. He juxtaposes poignant with vulgar, a wondrous love story can enclose atrocities, and the sentences flow with a rhythm perfect for oral reading. As in other stories, Marquez plays with the flow of time. In this book, he has a convenient justification for the nonlinear chronology: the main part of the book occurs in Bolivar's mind as he reflects on his life, and our minds are notorious for skipping about from one thread of thought to another, irrespective of the time when something occurred. The story cuts about in Bolivar's history at will, spanning entirely different periods of time in a few pages, triggered by the memories passing through Bolivar's mind.
Clearly, much of this interior monologue is fictional, but Marquez took effort to present as realistic a fiction as possible. He used letters and journals, research articles and novels, to compile accurate information about the man Bolivar, a hero in South America. Not only did his background reading contribute to the details such as where he traveled and when, and what he did, but he also used it to guide the conversations and mental reflections in the book. He tried to make his characters speak the way the historical figures did in their own letters. Having read the note at the end of the book and the timeline, I feel that Marquez lived in the man's skin as much as he possibly could, to produce a highly personal story that, while fiction, represents a very real possibility of what might have been.
Like much of his work, this was a fast read for me. The dialogue is believable, and his descriptive passages are always so enjoyable. I do prefer when he writes his fiction rather than fictionalized history, because I love the magical realism touches, and this book was very understated in that department. Nevertheless, it was a good book, interesting and well written, and it taught me about a subject in which I have very little knowledge. I feel that I should do more research on Bolivar and the history of South America, because the topic seems fascinating from the taste this novel provides. I don't know how much is Marquez's characterization, and how much is historical fact, but Bolivar is a compelling person, full of contradictions - eloquent and crude, romantic and reserved, triumphant and despondent. Whether you are a fan of Marquez's skills, or are interested in this time period, consider this book as a good addition to your reading list.
I quit reading about half way through. I found the tone and rhythm to be monotonous and dull. This may be due to the translation, or perhaps it was the author reaching for the despair of the great man. I'm not sure, but it wasn't something I desired to continue to read. There are interesting bits about the people and the places and even the man, that's why I continued reading to the half-way mark. Others may find a great deal of enjoyment in this.
But for all of that, I enjoyed the novelty of this history (coming at it with no real knowledge of Latin American history), and the lively description of characters and events. Up to a point, that is when the narrative brings Bolivar to the sea. I had a sense then that Marquez had grown tired of his subject. He starts to anticipate - in textual references - the timing of Bolivar´s death. One wonders whether he is telling the reader, and himself, ´look, not much longer to go now´. But the description of Bolivar´s death itself was worth the effort to plough through the last sixty pages or so which are otherwise devoted to a commentary on political manoeuvring set against a backdrop of, well..., political manoeuvring. Even Marquez can´t do much with this material, except get the reader through it at a breathless pace which sits oddly against the languid, ambivilent journeying that preceeds it.
It´s hard to know whether this book will please people who know Marquez already as a story-teller (I didn´t). But I enjoyed it as an introduction to both Marquez and Latin American history and will go on to read more of both, knowing that this work is perhaps not the best of either, but a pointer to richer things.