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Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "The General In His Labyrinth": A Book Review And Discussion Of Theme

Updated on June 21, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Playful As Always

Fantasy and Realtiy: The Persona Of Simon Bolivar

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a creative biography of Simon Bolivar, the heroe of many in Latin America. Marquez wanted to show a more human side of the 'great liberator,' the aspects of a man that differ from the conventional portrait. The result was El General En Su Laberinto, the story of Bolivar's last days, as he journeys with his comrades down the Magdalena River, with the intent to immigrate to Europe. However, the general never leaves the continent but instead dies, with a lot of deep sadness and regret. His dream of a united Latin America was never realized. Yet the picture Marquez lends us is not negative either. Bolivar retains his strength and wisdom, his virtue and his human charm. If anything, in this book, it is Bolivar himself questioning his own legend, questioning if he did any good at all. The journey down the river includes many flashbacks, taking the general back deep in his mind to previous events, old enemies, lost loves, and the untold stories of how he arrived to the present point. His health continues to decline, but his spirit remains charged, at times with a lingering fire of his trademark inspiration, at times with anger and dejection. Marquez has lent new meaning to the continent itself, to the importance of Bolivar's true identity, and most importantly, to the necessity of deconstructing political mytholigies that were arranged with pointed motives. Roland Barthes has described the semiological process of myth-making and the importance of understanding how truth and reality becomes conveyed over time in his book Mythologies. The original is forever lost, and in this novel, Marquez attempts to shine light on previously untouched parts of Bolivar and his time. Though presented as fiction and rich with visions and what Western scholars might call 'magic realism,' Marquez shows history as he sees it. Simon Bolivar is a human being, with all the complex extremes, defects, and strengths to which we are all subject. Other writers have pointed to the complexity of understanding Bolivar as well, including the two other books mentioned here: Magic And The State and The Cult of Bolivar. Relative to the ideas of Barthes, The General In His Labyrinth challenges old interpretations by presenting Bolivar as a complex, imperfect human being.

Roland Barthes, in Myth Today, addresses these very ontological questions, studying the process of myth. Myth, here, is intended to describe a semiological process in which the actual truth of historical events (which are always confined to space and time within specific 'contingencies'), is lost in the transition of communication. Outlining a semiological paradigm of signifier and signified, Barthes describes a dualistic where, over time many representations leave all of us further and further removed from the original reality. In regards to Bolivar, this means simply that his actual history, hir actual person, the truth of him, has been irrevocably distorted. More importantly, Barthes notes that this process occurs in degrees, and this mythologizing is at its most extreme when people in power have motives to convey realities in certain ways. Of course, the motives of those in power have changed in relation to Bolivar: at times he was a sacred tool to be wielded, at other times he was the definition of tyranny. Regardless, the tendency was not to focus on the narrative of his life and actual person the way Marquez does in this novel. He was a tool to be used, a medium, or as in the metaphor described in the book Magic and The State, a blank slate of marble, formless, to be shaped by whatever artistic methods best served those currently responsible for creating public reality. And what were Marquez's motives? Accroding to Barthes, man as creator does not involve myth. There is an honest statement about the material being conveyed as original and subjective; myth occurs when the contingent is made to sound eternal, not when the contingent is interpreted subjectively through the lens of a writer like Marquez. As the narrative of El General En Su Laberinto continues, the book less and less begins to seem like it's presenting something purely political; instead, the reader comes to know Bolivar as a person, as the protagonist of any heartfelt narrative, and one cannot help but feel pity as the general continually laments how his political vision never actually progressed that far. In addition, the feelings he has about the historical figures of his time are feelings of an insider, with information that many do not know, secrets and confidences that Bolivar has held inside for his entire life until he pours them out in his final days in a sort of half-hazard, erratic confession.

Dr. Christopher Conway calls attention to the way in which Bolivar has been presented in normative Latin American culture in his book, The Cult of Bolivar in Latin America. Much of what Conway is calling 'the cult' is merely the general consensus to believe only in stories that make the freedom fighter look strong, perfectly heroic, and traditionally masculine and moral. The person that challenges these ideas the most, Bolivar's long-time lover Manuela Sanz, is mentioned in Conway's chapter 4, "A Whore In The Palace." The publication of a historical novel La Esposa by doctor Thorne in 1988 describes Sanz as a promiscous, fiercely independent woman that forever spat in the face of patriarchal norms. As Conway emphasizes, "the novel recounts the story of Manuela's life up until 1828, emphasizing her nymphomania. The illegitimately conceived Manuela is raised in colonial Quito, where moral depravity is the norm" (97). The novel received intense public outrage, as people hated to see the lover of El Libertador portrayed in a way that could tarnish Bolivar's image. Sanz won many enemies during her lifetime for her influence on Bolivar, and yet she did not back down in passive submission the way woman were often expected to do. "The independent and politically active Manuela does not conform to the notion of fragile femininity represented by Maria," Conway writes, noting the pressure to conform to the virginal, pure nature in which the Virgin Mary was understood. Of course, Marquez presents the human element of Manuela and Bolivar, the general's feelings, confusions, regrets. He often revisits episodes with Manuela, and yet he doesn't seem to have come to grips completely with the effect that she had on other people's perception. O'leary tells him at the end of the book that people do not and cannot believe that Bolivar is leaving for Europe simply because Manuela is not accompanying him.

What Barthes calls 'the process of myth,' author Michael Taussig also describes as a vibrant, creative art in his book, The Magic of the State. Those with political motives strong enough, according to Taussig, will mythologize certain aspects of historical heroes with a passion and power so potent on the public's imagination that it is a more contemporary equivalent of what indigenous tribes understood as magic. Statues of Bolivar are carved with a beauty and precision that seeks to make the formless into form and seeks to purport that this interpretation is not of man but of God, or of the Spirit Queen herself that lives still on the sacred mountain as She did in days of old. Marble statues of Bolivar as a great, perfected heroic liberator, eternally strong in marble strength, were placed on the mountain as if to say, this is divine truth. The Spirit Queen was the raw medium of divine force, encompassing both darkness and light, and modern political myth uses both of these aspects of Her depending on their intent. Taussig begins his writing by describing the ability to take something unknown and undefined and turn it into a tangible working political tool. In this case, it is the marble used by a sculptor: "Lustrous and Smooth. Impenetrable. Heavy enough to make the ships creak and toss" (165). Barthes mentions that the original truth of an exact historical event, contingent on time and place, is impossible to recover completely, and it is sometimes lost forever. Impenetrable. It is also powerful, in regards to someone like Bolivar, whose name and memory carries with it the spirit of a people. Heavy enough to make the ships creak and toss. Taussig mentions the a commentary from 1942 about statues of Bolivar: "On days of unrest, on days of alarm, on days of great resolutions, on days of jubilation, the crowd gathers around his effigy, image of the father surrounded by the love and confidence of his offspring" (165). The image here is of a constant hope, an eternal power, and yet Marquez's book presents Bolivar in a way that does not lend itself to inspiration or condemnation, to a perfect hero or of a mediocre man. It is a book about a powerful soul, tormented and still extremely strong even in his decay, but one does not imagine Marquez's Bolivar even wanting people to celebrate an image that is so far from the truth of his human imperfection.

A Statue of Simon Bolivar


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