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 and imposing than the Liberator that the gifts and compliments were sometimes addressed to the wrong man; in some little river towns, word had not yet arrived from the capital of Bolívar’s resignation, so that he was still addressed as the President. Most of the state banquets, however elaborately prepared, went uneaten because the Liberator, who for twenty years had destroyed his digestion with jungle food, could absorb nothing but a few spoonfuls of cornmeal mush.
On the other hand, old comrades in arms turned up every so often to exchange memories, sing songs by jungle campfires, and join in cursing the government. Bolívar even encounters, to the great benefit of García Márquez’s narrative, a lady out of his own romantic past. She was an Englishwoman named Miranda Lyndsay, whom he had met years before on the island of Jamaica. Shortly after their encounter, she proposed an assignation—at which, however, she limited their contact to an occasional kiss and promises explicit enough to keep him with her all night long. When he got home next morning, he found that the bodyguard assigned to watch over him had slipped, in his absence, into Bolívar’s hammock, and had there been assassinated with multiple stab wounds. On this last journey, Miranda Lyndsay, who had saved his life fifteen years before, turns up to ask a favor in return, which Bolívar was able to grant.
There is so much fantasy in the reality of this climactic journey of a dramatic life that García Márquez has been able to forgo very largely his own vivid inventive powers, and piece together his story from the fully documented biographies, of which there is an almost overwhelming number. All this time the little flotilla of barges is understood to be making slow progress down the Magdalena toward the sea, and Bolívar is understood to be intent on sailing for Europe as soon as a promised passport and some much-needed cash should arrive. Both did in fact arrive while he was staying in the town of Turbaco, just outside Cartagena, and so did a number of possible vessels; yet the general rejected them all, and lingered still, to the great impatience of his entourage, who were all men of action. Evidently Bolívar’s ties to South American intrigues—one, particularly, for seizing control of Venezuela, marching on Colombia, and launching a new war for reconquest of all the recently liberated countries of South America—were too hard to break.
Discounting major differences of time and circumstance, this manic passion of the Liberator for freeing yet again all the countries he had recently freed for the first time reminds a reader of Márquez’s hero in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who after losing a whole cycle of disastrous wars is still ready to put aside his ancient pains, join with a few surviving graybeards, and embark on a whole new set of campaigns. About this point, heroic determination starts to look like simple mania.
Since The General in His Labyrinth has little strong action, its ending contains few surprises. Its mode is elegiac, not explanatory. A reader who pauses a moment for reflection is bound to wonder what possible advantage there would be for South America if all the different tribes, cultures, linguistic and national groups were united, as Bolívar dreamed of doing, in a single national state. That, as he says, was his unwavering lifelong objective, and no man could have striven after it more heroically. But it was too much for flesh and blood, and in the end one is struck with sympathy for a crude, cruel graffito that appeared on the walls of Bogotá during the days of Bolívar’s last hesitations: “He won’t leave, and he won’t die”—it was a tough thing to say about the founder and greatest national hero of Colombia. But he had been a torment to the popular conscience long enough. He had in him more than a streak of General Patton’s creed that a man’s civic duty is never done as long as he’s alive: it was the human thing to rebel against him.
When he broke the South American sound barrier with One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, García Márquez was almost forty years old, and while he has continued to write new fictions, he has also drawn on his earlier work in his recent publications. The Collected Novellas, just published, includes three stories, one dated 1955, one 1961, and one 1981. The last is the impressive Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which already appeared as a separate volume in 1983.1 Both Leaf Storm and No One Writes to the Colonel recapitulate material used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. No doubt there’s a strong sense of economy at work here, as is most apparent in one instance when the same story is reprinted in two different forms. But another consideration is that all the stories of García Márquez are submerged in time and interwoven with allusions back and forth in time. Very frequently the narration glances forward to what a character will recall some time in the remote future about an event that hasn’t yet occurred. Prophecies, intuitions, and omens of the future create a web of interrelations as intuitive as anything in Balzac. Though it’s not an integral part of this strange and wonderful landscape, Márquez’s lament for Bolívar will stand at its center, even as the indomitable, egomaniacal Liberator bestrides the Andean community to this day.
Among the recent, full-length fictions of García Márquez, less imposing surely than One Hundred Years of Solitude, but adding to the sense of a full novelistic achievement, is a fairly recent book, Love in the Time of Cholera (Spanish edition 1985, English 1988), which might well make the reputation of a writer who didn’t already have a reputation. The book is another rich chronicle of family relations, this time set among the upper bourgeoisie of Cartagena. Fermina Daza, the central female figure if not the heroine, must reconcile a husband—outwardly important and successful as a physician, actually weak—with a lover, who is far from dashing but devoted and tenacious. Her solution is to take them one at a time.
After fifty-one years, nine months, and four days of ardent anticipation, the lover Florentino Ariza finally achieves an exquisite balance of erotic understandings with his hard-bitten honey-bunch. For she is a whiplash lady with a withering tongue and an implacable will—well, almost. When the still-youthful Florentino, after a clandestine courtship, proposes marriage, she takes four months to consider, and then gives him the answer: “Yes, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.” Years later, she eats, without knowing what it is, a dish of which the chief ingredient is eggplant—and finds it delicious. But that’s a García Márquez character for you, sticking like a limpet to a meaningless point of honor.
People needed a lot of backbone to survive in the time of cholera. It was a frightening disease well into the twentieth century, and several times came close to wiping out the city of Cartagena. In the novel it is a constant element of the swampy, squalid Magdalena landscape, but it is a metaphorical doom afflicting a sick society as well. During a pioneering balloon ride over the countryside, Fermina Daza sees corpses scattered along the roads, each with a puddle of telltale white gruel at the mouth; but for good measure each also has a fatal pistol wound in the back of the neck. That may be a glancing allusion to the terrible period of Colombian history (between 1948 and 1958), known simply as the Violence, when people by the hundreds of thousands were slaughtered for no reason that anyone has been able to formulate since.
The region has a dark and bloody history; disease mixes with murder, each befouling the other. It is a major test of the novelist’s craft to handle this awful material without fudging it and yet without rubbing the reader’s nose in it. That the characters, and with them the sympathetic reader, reach a conclusion of qualified and half-exhausted triumph is an even greater triumph for the author. The newly united lovers must be nearly in their eighties; on an endless cruise to nowhere up and down the ravaged Magdalena River, the vessel of their liberation flies the sinister flag that warns of cholera abroad. It is a false signal that removes crew and passangers alike from all contact with the truly pestilent society of the bankside—a kind of precarious safety snatched from the jaws of ultimate danger. They have worn their happiness very much the hard way. And the reader too will have worked for his satisfactions, which by no means diminishes them.
A second and very different South American writer is Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru. Eight years younger than García Márquez, he is a more urbane, and more European. Both men have practiced writing stories in the difficult form of a labyrinth—and from whom could they have picked up that trick but the old master, Jorge Luis Borges? Vargas Llosa is a deft and inventive craftsman—sometimes, it would appear, at the expense of creating character; in addition, his appeal is limited by a sardonic, sometimes sour, view of human nature as cruel and brutish. Reading García Márquez, one is often disgusted, but it is a warm, human disgust; Vargas Llosa, by contrast, is cold, gray, and a bit reptilian in his intelligence.
The present narrative, In Praise of the Stepmother, concerns a congenial family in contemporary Lima, that dark and now mostly squalid city. Living with the elderly sybarite Don Rigoberto and his second wife, the voluptuous Doña Lucrecia, is Alfonso, his near-adolescent son by a previous marriage. Fearing that as an intrusive successor to the boy’s real mother she may be unwelcome, Doña Lucrecia sets out to ingratiate herself with the youngster—in which she succeeds all too well. Don Rigoberto, being a completely self-centered voluptuary—his scrupulously sensual toilet habits are described in agonizing detail, down to the last nuances of a successful bowel movement—one anticipates that the happy threesome will settle down to a congenial, incestuous ménage.
But for some reason the father is not pleased that his lady and his son, Alfonso, have got on so well—or perhaps what he dislikes is the disconcerting frankness and apparent innocence with which the boy describes what they’ve been doing. In short order Doña Lucrecia is discarded. It remains for the maid to discover that angelically innocent young Alfonso has from the first deliberately and coldly seduced his stepmother in order to get rid of her. His ultimate aim (so he says—but by now how can anyone believe a word he says?) is to have the maid and his father all to himself. In one sense, it’s poetic justice. Don Rigoberto is a selfish swine, and his son is no better, morally speaking, than a case of the bubonic plague. So, after a fashion, the moral law is affirmed.
As is common in deliberate erotic fictions, the characters in this little fabliau are mostly sexual engines with few other human characteristics. The story is enlivened and extended by two subordinate narratives involving sexuality, to be sure, but not otherwise strikingly relevant to the main theme. The old fable of Herodotus about King Candaules, who displayed his wife naked to minister Gyges and suffered appropriately for his indiscretion, is related in modified form. And there is a brief interpolation in which the Virgin Mary gives a rather bewildered account of the Annunciation. But apart from emphasizing that modes and degrees of hanky-panky have existed through the ages, it’s not clear what end these inserts are designed to serve.
On the accepted scale for porn these days, Vargas Llosa’s little book is relatively soft-core. Maybe it is symptomatic that the reader learns more about Don Rigoberto’s mastery over his sphincter muscle than about his, or anyone else’s, copulative achievements.
From the precocious beginnings of his novelistic career, Vargas Llosa has included in his fictions a strain of cryptic, allusive, and deliberately disorganized writing which, by leaving out a lot of the ordinary clues, challenges the reader to reassemble fragments of the text for himself. Novels like The Green House (1965 Spanish, 1968 English) and Conversation in the Cathedral (1969 Spanish, 1975 English) make a point of not identifying speakers or explaining circumstances; whatever expressive effects may be achieved this way, a reader’s sense of having to struggle through artificial obstacles to achieve a thought not very complex in itself is basically depressing. There’s a special strain because Vargas Llosa does not seem to have a gift for creating distinctive characters or individual modes of speech; nor do his characters entertain ideas of any complexity or outline.
When the narrative is uncluttered by mannerisms, even though it achieves monumentality, as in The War of the End of the World (Spanish 1981, English 1984), the prose has moments of almost embarrassing flabbiness, the expressions are occasionally makeshift. Overall, Vargas Llosa displays a particular flair for macabre violence. The ending of Canudos, the rebel city of War of the End of the World, is disturbingly reminiscent of the scene in Salammbo where the Carthaginians tie up all their captives, lay them out in a row like cordwood, and march elephants back and forth over them till they are all crushed to paste.
If this seems like strong stuff, the Vargas Llosa canon provides a number of small-scale equivalents; and there are occasional suggestions, some more explicit than others, that prostitution and rape represent positive spiritual values. Machismo is by no means an appealing feature of the Latin American life style, and in Vargas Llosa it comes close to being matter-of-factly, if not uncritically, represented. There is a special problem here for South American writers who are less Europeanized than Borges. A vast heartland of jungle lies at the center of South America, and outlying patches of it can be found not only in Lima and Bogotá but at the core of the region’s most artful imaginative achievements. What’s more, the savagery is not something to be excised or deplored; it is a vital element of the culture, a birthmark of ugly authenticity with which writers will be wrestling for generations to come.
Vargas Llosa, then, is not an author for the tender stomach or the sheltered sensibility. His is a dark and cruel imagination, unlighted by a genial sense of humor or more than a glimpse of human feeling. Very likely this dour vision is not simply temperamental, but relates to the fact that Peru itself, as Vargas Llosa sees it, is a dismayingly corrupt and disorganized society. Those who have followed closely the recent electoral campaign, in which Vargas Llosa was defeated for president, may have a better idea than his fiction conveys of what Vargas proposed to do about a scene of almost unmitigated squalor.
For some such reasons, I follow what I take to be the general consensus that García Márquez seems the more lasting writer. But both are clearly strong presences. They are not just “South” American authors, they are writers of the Americas—North, South, and preferably without any limiting adjectives at all.
Each writer has almost a dozen books apiece in English translation, amounting in aggregate to something more than seven thousand pages. If one has not been keeping up with each new publication, it’s no pastime of a sabbath day to read through them, but I know of no presentable shortcuts. For the “Landmarks of World Literature” series, Michael Wood has written a crisp, compressed study of One Hundred Years of Solitude.2 But it’s about only one book, and while it deepens, it doesn’t shorten, one’s reading of that book. Vargas Llosa recently gave a series of lectures at Syracuse University, mostly about himself and his own writings. They are collected as A Writer’s Reality.3 Vargas Llosa writing on himself is downright and sensible. The least satisfactory of his self-explanations are of disintegrated narrations and scrambled conversations, which most need convincing explanation. But the lectures, if they don’t heighten one’s impression of the writer’s originality, give an agreeable impression of an affable personality behind the books.
October 11, 1990