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Garcia Marquez explotes The Liberator's labyrinth


By Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez.

Alfred A. Knopf, 285 pages, $19.95.


GABRIEL GARC'IA M'ARQUEZ' newest novel is a departure in form for the Nobel Prize-winning author. While his previous fictional works were much flavored by Colombian culture, The General in His Labyrinth is the first to draw directly from the tortured and labyrinthine history of the region. The novel tells the story of the final journey of General Sim'on Bol'ivar, known as "The Liberator" in many South American countries.

Bol'ivar led the revolution that rid the northern part of South America from Spanish domination and tried to unite the freed regions into one country. He was opposed by the local aristocracy because "the oligarchies in each country . . . had declared war to the death against the idea of integrity because it was unfavorable to the local privileges of the great families." The failure to realize this dream led to Bol'ivar's disillusionment.

The General in the Labyrinth is the story of Bol'ivar's last days, particularly his last voyage along the Magdalena River from Bogot'a, Colombia to the sea. Disillusioned, consumptive, and reeling from an assassination attempt, he has renounced the presidency of the Republic of Colombia. His plans are to leave the quagmire of political strife and civil wars that followed the expulsion of the Spanish from the region, sail to Europe, and live out his days in retirement. However, the siren call of a people in need, the stubbornness of his own dreams, and the failure of the government that replaces him force his return to the political stage. Bol'ivar is once again on the path to the realization of his desire for a united South America when illness and death end his return.

Even in his lifetime, The Liberator was larger than life. He was known for his passionate nature and titanic temper, as well as for his unparalleled leadership abilities. He dominates the novel much as he would have any gathering he attended. The other characters pale in comparison. Notable exceptions who never actually appear in the novel (except in the remembrances of the General) are Santander, his enemy in politics, and Sucre, his most able commander who is assassinated while the General is on his voyage. Another well-drawn character is Manuelita S'aenz, his mistress who saves him from the assassination attempt.

As Garc'ia M'arquez says in an afterword, he picked the voyage down the Magdalena to fictionalize because it was the least known part of a well-documented life. The reasons were no doubt also thematic. Bol'ivar's final voyage has a symbolic power that the author uses to good effect. The trip becomes one of nostalgia and sentiment for the glories and hope of his youth. As the general and his large entourage float towards the sea through the steamy jungle, the general floats in and out of sickness and delirium, and memories become confused with hallucinations. The attitudes and arcane discomforts of illness and old age play a prominent role in these final days. His illness and its effects on his body are described in detail. The story is concerned with ravages of old age in much the same manner as Love in the Time of Cholera, Garc'ia M'arquez' last novel.

The factual bounds of the life of Bol'ivar have curbed some of the excesses that were apparent in Love in the Time of Cholera. The style in that book verged on melodramatic and the prose was excessively purple. The problem with such a judgment is that this is a review of the English translation of the original Spanish. Garc'ia M'arquez' longtime translator has been Gregory Rabassa. Rabassa translated the author's masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as other books, while Edith Grossman translated both The General and Love. The difference in styles between One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera is tremendous and not easily explained by the time between their respective publications.

Still, the combination of Garc'ia M'arquez' myth-making talents and Bol'ivar's own mythical public persona is intriguing. The dangers of such an undertaking are multiple, ranging from public censure for daring to write about such a reverent figure to an excess of factual information in the story at the expense of creativity. Garc'ia M'arquez succeeds for the most part. Bol'ivar's epic accomplishments and strong character gain immediacy and resonance without diminishing the towering myth of The Liberator.