I revisited this novel after reading the new biography of Simon Bolívar by Marie Arana, because after her factual description of what is known about the last weeks of Bolívar’s life, it seemed only appropriate to see them as re-imagined by García Márquez. I would strongly recommend the combination of books for anyone interested in the life of this most fascinating man.
Gabo is obviously captivated by Bolívar’s story for many reasons. He says that in part he wrote it because of his friend, Alvaro Mutis, also wanting to base a novel on the same story. However, there were clearly other motivations. After all, this part of Bolívar’s life is spent in the region in which Gabo grew up and which he knew so well. Furthermore, the journey down the Magdalena river, albeit in the reverse direction, was a totemic element of Gabo’s own life, marking his exit from the world of his parents and his young adulthood on the Caribbean coast. Not only is the journey described in his partial autobiography but it is also a powerful part of the novel Love in the Time of Cholera.
Gabo’s biographers have suggested that he himself identified with the General, giving him the personality of a costeño (someone from the coast), like him, or at least portraying him as having some of those regional characteristics. But surely it is closer to the mark to say that, as an American from what was originally the massive country of Gran Colombia, he couldn’t have been other than fascinated by Bolívar, who liberated that whole vast area from Spain in the course of only twenty years? And that he chose the period of his death partly because of where it occurred, but also because Gabo has always been fascinated by death, especially those ‘foretold’, as in this case?
What does he bring to the story that a biographer like Arana cannot? First it is important to note that, rather uncharacteristically, Gabo did extensive research on Bolívar in the course of writing the novel, and tried to ensure that it corresponds with what is known about real events. This does, I think, work brilliantly in creating a very convincing portrayal, a biographical work into which strong elements of fiction have been woven. This brings the General to life (or to death, as it were) and gives us a wonderful idea of his personality and emotions as he faced not only own death but also the death of his ambitions for a United States of South America.
There is much more to the novel than this, of course. Gabo also weaves in parts of his history, which Bolívar himself must have been reviewing over and over in his mind as he considered both what he’d achieved and what had been lost. He at least partly examines his relationships with women, and especially with the highly emancipated Manuela Saenz, who like him was a person ahead of her time, who might have been equally at home in the 1960s. He enjoys reflecting on other aspects of his modernity, such as his opposition to slavery and racism. He brings out his wonderful foresight about the fate of the newly independent Latin American, which even in his remaining lifetime had started to become mired in the struggles of rival caudillos. And of course he brings in Bolívar’s deep suspicion of the United States of (North) America, which had come into existence in the previous century and which had already started to declare its hegemony over the whole hemisphere.
But above all he creates a fully rounded personality from what is known about the Liberator. For example, he jokes: ‘Don’t call me Excellency; I’m satisfied with being reasonable’. He’s bitter: ‘What a price we’ve had to pay for independence that’s not worth shit’. In conversation with someone pleading for help in declaring their city’s independence from the regional capital, he replies: ‘Every Colombian is an enemy country’. And his almost final words: ‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?’
Arana provides no evidence that he said those words, so we must presume they were invented by García Márquez. However, in homage to Gabo’s novel, although without otherwise mentioning it, her last chapter is entitled ‘The General in his Labyrinth’.