By Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman 285 pages
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990
ISBN: 0-394-58258-6

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2009

This dark brooding novel is set in the last 7 months of the life of South American Liberator, Simon Bolivar. After working many years to both liberate South America from Spanish rule and occupation, and to establish a sort of United States of South America, a continent-wide nation, Bolivar is nearing his life’s end.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells us that he isn’t as much interested in the objective details of Bolivar’s last days as he is in helping us understand the feeling tone Bolivar has about his major life work. This is an imaginative and very dark novel, filled with illness, pain, suffering both physical and mental.

Despite the fact that there is little data about this last trip in which Bolivar is attempting to go from Bogotá, Columbia to Cartagena, Marquez creates his imagined version of Bolivar’s physical and mental state. As the title reflects, he is sort of lost in the difficult political and military labyrinth of realizing his dream. Despite the strong turn in 1830 against the notion of a unified South America, Bolivar hasn’t yet given up. He has led the liberation from the Spanish rule, but not the unification of what later has become the nation states of South America. Bolivar’s dream was for a unified single nation with our present day nations being sort of states of the unified continent.

In May of 1830 Bolivar resigned his position as president of Bolivia and Columbia and Dictator of Peru, a position he assumed in 1927. He had great hopes of that being the platform for building a unified state of South America, but when he realized the political reality was moving in an opposite direction, he set off to reinvigorate the unification dream. With 6 of his leading officers he sets off from Bogota to Cartagena to try to get the unification on track once again. Another 100 soldiers travelled in the honor-guard.

But Bolivar, while only 47, is very ill, and the political winds are moving against the concept of a unified continent. From his perspective this is a dark period, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writing of his physical and mental struggles underlines this with passion.

The bulk of this trip through his mental labyrinth takes place on a barge trip which began on May 15, 1930 along the Magdalena River. Marquez’s Bolivar is conflicted. Most of the time his is anticipating his death and expecting the long-term failure of his dream of a unified continent. Yet he can’t quite put down some hope, that if only he can get another last gasp of life, if only he can convince his military and political leaders, then the dream might still come true. On this barge trip he reflects on the failure of his central dream, and the failure of his physical health, even his being itself.

The doctors attending him see this conflict, and how sick he is. Their view is:

“The General had succeeded in deceiving his own body.”

Marquez tells us that the doctors also saw:

“… the physicians attributed as much importance to moral torment as to physical calamities.”

And the military leaders who accompany him are deeply troubled by his indecision and his back and forth positions from announcing his imminent death, to his preparing to enter the field as leader of the unification. The officers are frustrated:

“What they could not endure was the uncertainty he had inspired in them ever since his decision to renounce power, which became more and more unbearable the more he continued to slug his way through this endless journey to nowhere…”

As we know from history, Bolivar didn’t make it and died on December 17th without being able to lead this unification struggle.

The book is a wonderful read, a dark and painful reflection by Bolivar on his life, its successes and failures. As the doctors note, he just can’t escape his own inner demons to get to clarity and accept this failure of both body and the dream of unification.

Interestingly, Marquez, so known for his magical realism, does not use that literary device in this novel. Yet his great ability to shape the reader’s experience by his use of language and words, makes us feel the struggle of Bolivar and his lostness inside his own labyrinth.

A very fine read


Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett