The General in His Labyrinth
Collected Novellas (Leaf Storm, Nobody Writes to the Colonel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold)
Love in the Time of Cholera
In Praise of the Stepmother
The War of the End of the World
Some years ago a society of malcontents planted a large bomb under the roadway leading from Colombey-les-deux-Eglises to Paris. They exploded it almost on time, and blew up, instead of General de Gaulle, a car full of his bodyguards and secretaries. The general emerged from his undamaged vehicle, surveyed the carnage with a professional eye, and said simply, “Dommage. Une belle sortie.” In effect: A fine opportunity wasted.
Simón Bolívar, known simply but sufficiently as the Liberator, also suffered from a script writer with a bad sense of timing. Gabriel García Márquez, with more than a few touches of his novelist’s art, has improved on history by changing the account of Bolívar’s last months from a slow-paced and solemn funeral procession into a panorama of heroic achievements culminating in sardonic and embittered failure.
The General in his Labyrinth begins at the very end of Bolívar’s unimaginably adventurous and frequently triumphant career, and lets just enough of its past brilliance shine through to lend pathos and perspective to the slow, inevitable present. When he died in 1830, at the age of forty-seven, Simón Bolívar was penniless, unemployed, and fiercely unpopular; after trekking in the name of liberty through thousands of miles of jungle, fighting hundreds of battles, devising and escaping from plots beyond number, and wearing himself down to an emaciated skeleton, he had resigned all his offices, and was about to leave the lands he had liberated from colonialism. For the moment, he could not get a passport, or enough money for his passage to Europe.
Officialdom still spoke of him with great respect, but the functionaries could barely conceal their eagerness to be rid of him, and his last little cadre of loyal officers had to surround and protect him from mobs of embittered citizens, who wanted to assassinate him before he left Bogotá for the coast.
It is hard to imagine a loftier title than the one he had been given by popular acclaim, and was to bear through the last bitter years of his life. He was the Liberator; millions of people owed their freedom to Bolívar, including those who now scrawled obscene graffiti about him on the walls of his residence, and threw feces at him from around corners. It would be hard to imagine a more ignominious dismissal from the stage of history than his last days at Bogotá. That would have been the moment and those the circumstances to satisfy his bitter sense of historic irony—a fine opportunity to ring down the curtain.
Instead, he left the capital early one morning, traveling muffled up amid his retinue to avoid notice. A few faithful officers accompanied him, but the last faithful mistress was left behind to keep a keen eye on the government. They rode cross country to Honda, and from there on barges floated down the Magdalena River toward Cartagena, the seaport. En route there were contretemps and humiliations for the general. His English aide-de-camp was so much more handsome …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
What De Gaulle Really Said December 20, 1990