Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The General In His Labyrinth - Marquez Masterpiece

'The General In His Labyrinth' is Marquez's fictional reconstruction of Simon Bolivar's, the liberator of South America from the Spanish, last days. Being an Indian I am not 100% sure of the historical accuracy in the novel,  but people expecting a hardcore historical novel may be disappointed as Marquez weaves his own brand of magic interspersing events and actions that you would not expect in a novel of this genre while maintaining the relevance of the genre also. After all, this is a person who created an entirely fictional village 'Macondo' and in someways made it the center of the physical Latin American world. So, being an outsider I will just give short introduction to this novel, hoping to persuade those who read this post to go out and grab the novel too :)
Simon Bolivar was a one page/paragraph note to me in my ninth standard history class. Just knew him as the liberator of the entire Latin American continent. So generally, in such cases we unconsciously form a mental image of such persons. But all those is shattered here. As the novel begins, Bolivar is person who is seeing his dream of a united Latin America crumbling before his own eyes, his own authority diminished greatly and even hated by many of the countries/people he helped in their liberation. He is also a person who is holding on his last illusion that he may somehow again be accepted by the people and powers that be. But that is not the case and Bolivar finally decides to leave for Europe. The novel then charts his last days through the journey that he undertakes.
The Bolivar we come to know through the journey and flashbacks is not a squeaky white person, but a person with his own failings and faults. He  is obstinate, a bad loser even in card games, someone who uses cologne so much that opponents even accuse him wasting money on it, maybe even a person who aspired to be the complete dictator for the entire South America and we even think that maybe the people were justified in turning against him. But he is also a leader who is so careless with money and has lost his entire inherited fortune and whatever he has earned. In fact he cannot even afford a horse to travel and rides a mule and one who cannot afford a first class travel in a barge and has to travel third class, this a person who liberated an entire continent. He is now reduced to talking about a mine which he says is his and is expecting money from it. Other than him, no one even knows if it exists or not. As the travel progresses, we get to see a nearly completely broken man, who rants and raves against his enemies but somehow seems to have lost the drive that led him to be such a great general in the first place. He is almost like a petulant child who refuses to accept things even if it is right in front of him, hoping against hope that goods things would happen. He sees the complete destruction of what he built and is powerless to stop it. Persons he exiled are returning to the continent even as he is preparing to leave it. People in a town throw dirt at him and humiliate him. They write slogans on the wall humiliating him. The death of a close associate who is assassinated seems to come as the final blow to him and he fully gives up all will to live. The novel ends with the general having a moment of epiphany which is one of the most evocative passages I have ever read (will give that below).
I felt some parallels between the General and  Colonel Aureliano Buendía (Hundred years of Solitude) . Both of them start off with noble intentions, get sucked into doing things that themselves fought against in the first place, are nearly forgotten by the same people they helped and are forever doomed to a life in solitude and labyrinth in the midst of all the people surrounding them.
The following passage right at the end of then novel itself should be enough for someone to read it. This is my most favorite of all Marquez books, much much more than his more acclaimed works.
//He examined the room with the clairvoyance of his last days and for the first time he saw the truth: the final borrowed bed, the pitiful dressing table whose clouded, patient mirror would not reflect his image again, the chipped porcelain washbasin with the water and towel and soap meant for other hands, the heartless speed of the octogonal clock racing toward the ineluctable appointment at seven minutes past one on his final afternoon of December 17. Then he crossed his arms across his chest and began
to listen to the radiant voices of the slaves singing the six o' clock Salve in the mills, and through the window he saw the diamond of Venus in the sky that was dying forever, the eternal snows,the new vine whose yellow bellflowers he would not see bloom on the following Saturday in the house closed in mouring, the final brilliance of life that would never, through all eternity be repeated again.//


  1. Great favourite by Garcia is Love in the Time of Cholera, somehow found it much more intimate than thousand years of solitude...yet to read this one...after your review very tempted...:-)