“José Palacios, his oldest servant, found him floating naked with his eyes open in the purifying waters of his bath and thought he had drowned”. And so begins ‘The General in his Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. First published 1989.
Simon Bolívar, a brilliant military tactician who liberated much of the continent of South America from centuries of Spanish rule, died at the age of 47 in Santa Marta, Colombia on Dec 17, 1830.
After liberating South America he was exiled by a new government of politicians who previously had fought alongside him. He was capricious, they were pragmatists.
He was already sick when he left Bogota. At the time it was thought to be tuberculosis but studies since have shown that it could have been arsenic poisoning from water or food that he was consuming. He traveled by land and river to the coast of Colombia and spent his final days emaciated, coughing and bed ridden. Garcia Marquez called it a difficult book to write because it is ultimately a tragedy.
In the book Bolivar is called ‘The General’. He is more often known as “El Libertador,” or ‘The Liberator’ and revered in Latin America. Countless town and village squares in Colombia and Venezuela are named after him, as is the country of Bolivia.
The language of the book is extraordinary. The poetry of the sentences obscures the history lesson. Real people and real moments are talked about amongst other imagined moments that readers of Garcia Marquez will know and love.
In my mind it falls into the category of ‘travel book’, because I feel like I could hand it to someone or recommend they read it and they would have insight into the people of Latin America beyond the ‘must sees’ and ‘must does’. .
Some way into the book there is a summary of Bolivar’s military activities. He is talking to his manservant José Palacios –
“This is another night like the one in San Juan de Payara” he said.
“Without Queen Maria Luisa, sad to say”.
José Palacios understood the allusion all too well. It referred to a January night in the year 1820 when the General and two thousand troops had come to a remote spot on the upland plateaus of the Apure in Venezuela. He had already liberated eighteen provinces from Spanish domination. He had created the Republic of Colombia out of the former territories on the Viceregency of New Granada, the Captaincy General of Venezuela, and the Presidency of Quito, and he was at the same time its first president and the commander in chief of its armies. His ultimate hope was to extend the war into the south in order to realise the fantastic dream of creating the largest country in the world: one nation, free and unified, from Mexico to Cape Horn”.
This history then drifts into others – of a battle where the troops starved and deserted and another in Orinoco where they ate the horses instead of each other. At the time of these battles, which happened prior to this last journey he looked
“… like an exotic vagabond guerrilla. He wore the helmet of a Russian dragoon, a mule driver’s espadrilles, a blue tunic with red trim and gold button and carried the black banner of a privateer hoisted on a plainsman’s lance, the skill and crossbones superimposed on a motto in letters of blood …”
Bolívar and his officers and armies liberated South American from the Spanish. (This is one of my summaries of 500 years of history in one paragraph). However, during Spanish rule the continent had been divided into various Vice Regencies and different governmental regions. They answered to Spain in more or less direct ways, and there was rivalries and factions between the Viceregencies depending on where their allegiances lay in Spain. So it was not pretty to start with.
According to Bolívar’s vision, the outcome of the wars of independence was going to be a single Federation in South America – similar to what ultimately happened with the USA. But it was not to be – the allegiances were still complicated and Bolívar himself as well as being terminally ill was capricious to the end.
In reading that Bolívar was given slaves as presents we also find out that he was immensely wealthy in his own right. But by the end of his life, according to the book he was virtually penniless. There were landholdings willed to his relatives but compared the wealth that he was born with there was very little left. He often funded his operations including battles with his own money.
On the other hand he plundered. Alongside each history of a battle is a story about a woman, and more often than not a lost treasure.
“She [Josefa Sagrario] gave him her gold. “for your wars”, she said. He did not use it because of his scruples regarding treasure earned in bed and therefore ill-gotten, and he left it in the keeping of a friend. He forgot it. After the attack … only then did he find the gold, along with her name and date, in his memory”.
José Palacios is his long suffering confidante and attendant and features throughout. We find out that that he was given to Bolívar when Bolívar was eight and that he was never legally emancipated. He is described as follows:
“There is great power in the irresistible force of love”, [Bolívar] sighed without warning. “Who said that?”
“Nobody”, said José Palacios.
He did not know how to read or write, and he had refused to learn, with the simple argument that there was no greater wisdom than a donkey’s. But on the other hand, he could remember any sentence he had ever heard, and he did not remember that one.
“Then I said it myself”, said the General, “but let’s say it was Field Marshal Sucre”.
Manuela Saenz was the love of Bolívar’s life and the one who is always left behind.
“Manuela asserted herself with a determination that could not be contained and with none of the hindrances of dignity …”
“Early the following year he left her again, to complete the liberation of Peru …”
“… when she returned to Peru in pursuit of the love of her life, she did not need lessons from anyone on how to hold her own in the midst of a scandal … At first Manuela did not live at La Magdalena, but she came and went as she pleased, through the main door and with military honours “.
The other people described in the book, particularly his entourage that accompanied him on his last journey were an extremely influential group of people in later life.
Colonel Wilson –
The son of Sir Robert Wilson a general who had fought in almost all the wars of Europe.
“… [after] he finished his studies at Westmister and Sandhurst, his father had sent him to serve the General. He had been his aide-decamp at the battle of Junín, and he was the man who carried the frist draft of the Bolivian Constitution on muleback from Chuquisaca to La Paz along three hundred and sixty leagues of narrow precipice”.
“After the first few leagues he had moved back from his usual position to ride beside Colonel Wilson, who knew to interpret the gesture as an invitation to forget the grievances of the gaming table and who offered his arm, as if he were a falconer, for the General to rest his hand on. In that way they made the descent together, Colonel Wilson moved by his courtesy and the General using his last strength to struggle for breath but sitting unbowed in the saddle. When the steepest stretch was over he asked with a voice from another century:
“What do you suppose London is like now?”.
Wilson would later be British chargé d’affaires in Lima, and then in Caracas, closely involved in the political and military affairs of both countries.
Field Marshall Antonio José de Sucre, who
“not long after his twenty-ninth birthday had commanded the glorious battle of Ayucucho, which destroyed the last Spanish stronghold in South America”, and then of course had a city named after him in Bolivia.
He is quoted as saying “It’s destiny’s joke. It seems we planted the ideal of independence so deep that now these countries are trying to win their independence from each other”.
Sucre stepped back from power to spend more time with his family, although he is described as the calmest and wisest person in the Republic and the best person to take up the Presidency.
Don Agustín Jerónimo de Iturbide y Huarte, Prince Imperial of Mexico was the son of the first Mexican Emperor Agustín I of Mexico, the heir apparent to the First Mexican Empire and a member of the Imperial House of Iturbide – known throughout the book as Iturbide – was one of his aides-de-camp;
Jose Maria Carreño, another of his insiders was briefly the President of Venezuela
Early friend and later nemesis Santander is described as “the second man in the movement for independence and the first in the legal codification of the Republic, on which he imprinted forever the stamp of his formalist, conservative spirit”, then the narrative takes up the story of Santander and his exile in Paris for his “unproved complicity in a plot to assassinate the General”.
The descriptions of the geography that the party travels through and along are written in poetry, but in summary the cold is depressing and the heat is oppressive.
“An officer found The General ‘wrapped in a barracan cloak, with a rag tied around his head because he could not bear the cold in his ones during the hellish noonday heat, and too weak even to chase away the hens pecking the ground around him. After an awkward conversation interrupted by outbursts of dementia, he said goodbye to his visitor with dramatic pathos:
“Go and tell the world how you saw me die covered with chicken shite on these inhospitable sands”. He didn’t die during this episode – he bounced back and became the President, but the bring us to the cabin, with the heat and the delirium.
Light is described as “the aluminium light of noon’.
The path of a river – ‘this was the time when the river (in Mompox) had begun to change course with an irreparable disdain that would become total abandonment by the end of the century”.
“Soledad was well named; its solitude consisted of four burning, desolate streets lined with the houses of the poor, located some two leagues from the place once called Barranca de San Nicolas, which in a few years would become the most prosperous and hospitable city in the country and would later be name Barranquilla.
Garcia Marquez’s reveals himself slightly when he describes Barranquilla which played a big part in his life.
Bolivar’s last days
It is not spoiling the story to say that The General dies at the end, because afterall it is a story about his last days. The journey continues up the River Magdalena, meandering its way with the General as he completes his last journey.
“Coming back from a visit to a silver mine six leagues from Honda he goes for a swim in a river, where he “swam for half an hour without tiring, but those who saw his scrawny ribs and rachitic legs did not understand how he stayed alive with so little body”.
“General”, pleaded Montilla. “Don’t go”
“The ship is in port,” he said
“There will be others,” said Montilla
“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “They’re all the last one”.
“Dammit,” he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”.
Garcia Marquez won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. His style is called ‘magic realism’. According to reviews, this is because his grandmother told him stories the supernatural, ghosts and the out-of-ordinary in an ordinary, matter of fact voice. Thank goodness for his grandmother – Garcia Marques is my favourite author of all time.
Apologies for the length of this post. A shorter version would have been ‘you should read this book, its awesome’.
There are more reviews of my favourite ‘books about countries’ on the website here.
If you liked this blog, don’t forget to recommend it to your friends and / or subscribe to Agatha Bertram’s enewsletter. Enewsletters are sent once every two to three months with blogging highlights that you may have missed.
You can also keep up to date on Instagram and Facebook – links below.
Leave a Reply