October 19, 2021
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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 34
Author: Isabel Rodríguez Vergara, Ed.
Title: Colombia: Literatura y Cultura del Siglo XX


In accordance with my theory on satire in Gabriel García Márquez, it might be said that in its narrative technique The General in His Labyrinth—like The Autumn of the Patriarch—belongs to the dialogical genre, in Bakhtinian terms; that is, it is told in dialogue to arrive at the truth. This contrasts with monological technique, which claims to possess an established truth. In The General the dialogical principle, appears by means of the juxtaposition of various points, which move the reader to form his  own opinion. The text, thus, becomes an ideological event aimed at seeking and proving the truth. All the characters contribute to an understanding of the personality of the Liberator while attending his death as a public spectacle, a fiesta.

In the final section of acknowledgments in The General in His Labyrinth, García Márquez first mentions Alvaro Mutis as the originator of the idea of writing a book on Bolívar, and then makes sure that the reader knows about the inexhaustible supply of historical texts that he read before counterfacing them dialogically. These  historical documents cover Bolívar’s entire life before the period on which the novel centers: his last trip on the Magdalena River fourteen days before his death in Santa Marta, Colombia. García Márquez plunders these texts, not unthinkingly but arranged so as to show his vision of the Liberator. This “tyrannical” documentation—as García Márquez himself puts it—is skillfully amalgamated with the outrages of the novel in such a way that the naive reader cannot distinguish what is history and what is fiction.  In his eagerness to prove his historical accuracy, the author quotes texts and historians of various nationalities that are concerned with his book in one way or another, such as the Colombian historian Eugenio Gutiérrez Cely and the Bolívar scholar Vinicio Romero Martínez, who contributed some data for the novel; he also mentions poets, geographers, linguists, typographers, and other specialists who reviewed his book thoroughly to ensure that his text is the result of rigorous review of his historical data.2

What is the point of writing a novel about Bolivar, when libraries are full of information on this American myth?  The idea was first born, according to the author, of an old wish to write about the Magdalena River: “I traveled the Magdalena River eleven times, back and forth,” he confessed to María Elvira Samper. “I know every village and every tree on that river. I thought the best pretext for writing about the river was that trip of Bolívar’s.”3  Then he started to become interested in the character, read every biography imaginable, and found him very familiar, as he says  in the same interview, “He was like many people I know in Venezuela, in Colombia. He was very Caribbean. I started to like him and feel great compassion for him. Above all, I got furious at what they had done to him.”  The idea of presenting a Caribbean Bolívar is a  transgression of the “official history”—the received version in Latin America even though that image already existed marginally in minor historial narratives and in an anonymous portrait found in Haiti.4  The Caribbean personality allows García Márquez himself, and perhaps also his friend Fidel Castro, to take part in the narration. In the same interview, he claims  that he wrote the book in order to try to explain to himself what all that history was, since his vision of Bolívar was the  one given in Colombian schools.

He refused “out of respect for the Liberator,” to promote his novel in Bolívar’s villa with women dressed up as Manuelita. And he adds, “The  General was written, among other reasons, so that they won’t continue doing such things to the memory of Bolívar.”  His final reason for writing a novel on the Liberator is political, a desire to promote a knowledge of the history of Colombia. To do this he plans to create a Foundation “to write the true history of Colombia . . . , not the official history, so that they  will tell us in one single volume what this country is like and what a novel is like. But I insist: not only Colombia, but all of Latin America, needs to be reexamined. Both The General and the Foundation are attempts at finding the roots of everything that is happening today in Colombia.” This means that the author considers his novel an authentic biography of the General, contrary to the official version and also much more entertaining because it is a novel: it is a rewriting of the history of Bolívar.

The Autumn of the Patriarch was written from this same  analytical perspective—as an explanation of the phenomenon of dictatorship—except that its narrative technique is more daring and experimental. If in Chronicle of a Death Foretold the contrast of “journalism” and “fiction” is obvious, in The General that contrast is between history and fiction. The difference is one of degree rather than of kind: writing entails selection, organization, signification or the production of a meaning.5

The text of The General leaves no doubt that the writer is also “inventing,” in spite of his insistence that he is basing himself on “reality.”   But without going any further into the problems this raises, let us turn to the text.

Divided into eight parts of almost equal length, the novel clumps together volumes of historical material and years of the Liberator’s life under the pretext of fictionalizing his last days, which have been little or badly documented. Its  technique  allows for a superficial reading that leaves out the narrative elements leading to other structures that would evoke a metaphorical meaning. The pseudo-historical technique turns the novel into a historical parody. This impression of strict historicism, which often dramatizes contradictions in the General himself, his aides, his women, and other “characters” that surround him, helps to create the impression of a monologue, that of an omniscient narrator, on the careless reader. But hidden behind that apparent linearity, as in most of García Márquez’s fictions, are social and political comments. As we shall see.

The first concern aroused by the text, as I mentioned above, is the relationship between history and fiction. García Márquez told Samper about his desire to show a Bolívar different from the one presented in the official schoolbooks, and specifically mentioned Henao and Arrubla’s or O’Leary’s, which describe him as having “a penetrating voice, like the sound of a bugle.”  He adds, “Now I start thinking of all those boys and girls who come out of school. I don’t believe they have the least idea about Bolívar.”  And then he goes on to say that the lack of documentation about the last years “allowed me to write without much limit on my imagination. What a pleasure! I could make everything up! . . . The fact that there were no documents made me feel comfortable. The fact that it was a novel let me get into Bolívar’s mind. But I have reached the conclusion that I have written a biography of Bolívar, in the sense that I believe that is his personality.”

But, at a superficial level, what is history and what is strictly fiction in the novel?  As with the dictator in The Autumn of the Patriarch, García Márquez builds up his character’s psychology, personality, and behavior on the basis of a multitude of documents. They are pure fiction, as are all the women in the novel except Manuela Sáenz.6  The dates, the allusions to battles, the disputes with other historical characters such as Santander, are documented in history books. In that sense, and although María del Pilar Rodríguez Santamaría has compared the General to Aureliano Buendía,7 I find a closer parallel with the patriarch—the product of García Márquez’s readings on all possible dictators. And yet, if the dictator was generated in the image of a mythological being with infinite power, like that of the biblical patriarchs, the figure of the General, a character that is glorified and wields enormous power, was born, according to the author, from a remark of the young Bolívar, “I will die poor and naked.”8

The General of the novel is also a Caribbean Bolívar—as García Márquez likes to think of himself—who walks around his house naked and sleeps in a hammock, in contrast to the European and aristocratic image of many of his busts and to the description of respectful historians. The author makes this clear in his interview with Samper: “That is the Bolívar, rocking himself in a hammock, naked. That’s the way we are on the coast. But historians have repudiated this anecdote. Look, everything that historians consider false was precisely what I found exciting and what gave me an exact image of Bolívar.” The General in the novel recalls the painting of the Haitian Bolívar (frizzy hair, dark skin, a mustache, and bulging eyes). Not only does Bolívar appear nude in the Caribbean style, but his features, his language, and his behavior are those of a mulatto. Minor historical sources support this transgression of García Márquez’s. Gerard Masur, for instance, claims that the Liberator’s great-great-grandmother María Josefa was a mulatto, and the historian Salvador de Madariaga comments, “[Bolívar] could not have had access to the innermost soul of the Indies if his family had not absorbed, perhaps more than once, black and Indian blood.”  As  is well known, the so-called Genius of America was suckled by a black wet-nurse, Hipólita.

García Márquez knows Bolívar’s through all his readings and has formed his own “carnivalized” image of what the Liberator should be like. He intends to demythicize his image, even though the text is respectful and reverential. This demythicizing is achieved by humanizing him: by presenting him naked, bad-tempered, a womanizer,  a good dancer, contradictory, and above all a Caribbean mulatto. “It is a pagan image,” as Fidel Castro said in Caracas, and indeed that is just what García Márquez  wanted.

What technique does García Márquez use for the presentation of the General? In spite of the apparent linearity of the novel and the autonomy of an omniscient narrator, the author does not get into subjectivities about what Bolivar is thinking. As with most of the personality of the patriarch, he presents him through the characters who surround him, especially the women who have “the privilege” of knowing him intimately. The dialogue of all these voices in counterpoint combines to make up the contradictory traits of this character who is mythical not only in Colombia but also in the rest of Latin America.

At the heart of the novel is an issue I cannot fail to mention: the incompatibility between Bolívar and Santander. The novel presents the same antagonism between these two characters as is described in the “official history,” though with some fictional details. The terms of the dispute are explained by García Márquez as a result of the “genetic rivalry” between cachacos and costeños that he deals with so often in his other works. Cachacos and costeños are the natives of the two Colombian coasts. Santander (a cachaco) ends up being thrashed in the novel: the author’s vengeance is aimed at the Santanderistas. García Márquez, who considers himself a Bolivarian, identifies himself with the General to such an extent that he endows him with features of his own personality, such as his ill temper and his non-defeatist philosophy toward death, according to what he told Samper. For instance, his bad temper is thus shown in the novel: “On the day he found the General hurling biblical curses . . . Doctor Gastelbondo was amazed once again at the revivifying power of rage. . . . the physician’s attempts to calm him were futile” ( 219, 220).

The novel is divided in eight parts and its procedure is very similar to that of The Autumn of the Patriarch. In every part the agony of the Liberator is described from different points of view, his withdrawal from power and his trip to Europe are announced, and at the end his death is described. The technique of The General in His Labyrinth is not new to García Márquez either. The characteristics of this hero, so mythicized in Latin America, are shown through the people around him from different perspectives and time periods. The author juxtaposes these comments, leaving the role of historian to the narrator. The latter claims to know the “true story,” which he interpolates in a few sentences in the course of the narrative. The historical events of the past—such as the glories of the Liberator, his battles, his success with women, his manners, his tastes—are constantly set against the fictional occurrences of the last fourteen days of the General’s life, creating an open dialogue between history and fiction.

The novel opens in Santa Fe de Bogotá, on a rainy Friday, in the midst of an insurrection of the General’s political enemies, who want him put on trial. The noise of the shouts outside his home is tactfully explained to him as a party in his honor: “Things must be very bad and getting even worse for me if this could happen only a block from here and they could make me think it was a fiesta” (14). The Liberator is sick, prematurely old at the age of forty-six, close to death, and always accompanied by his faithful servant, José Palacios. These scenes are juxtaposed in each part and fit together like a puzzle. From the beginning of the novel there are previews, in the form of long sentences that complement each other and are finished at the end of the book. Frequent flashbacks transgress the notion of linear time, transporting the reader to past epochs in order to complete the biographies of the characters or tell of the General’s former glories; as these pile up, one has the feeling that this is not a book on Bolívar but the book on Bolívar. In the first section, for instance, José Palacios finds Bolívar naked and helpless in his bathtub, but still ready for the often-mentioned trip to Europe: “Let’s go as fast as we can. No one loves us here” (3). This sentence is finished later, on page 7, where we read, “The entrance and the corridors around the interior garden were held by hussars and grenadiers, the Venezuelans who would accompany him to the port of Cartagena de Indias, where he was to board a sailing ship to Europe” (7, 8).

The narration fluctuates in time between past and present to describe the General’s physical appearance and his mood: “months before, while putting on a pair of chamois trousers he had not worn since his Babylonian nights in Lima  . . .” (4, my emphasis). Manuela Sáenz, his faithful lover for eight years, reads him a book of Lima gossip. The biography of this woman closely follows the “official history” that is juxtaposed to it in the narrative, and is expanded in each of the parts of the novel; this procedure is used with all the other characters who surround the Liberator in his last days. Immediately after this, the focus shifts to the General, his exploits in war, his invulnerability, his unconcern about walking around without an escort. Alongside these lofty qualities of the hero are placed, in the next paragraph, the lowly details of a sick and decaying body: his habitual constipation, his fever, his insomnia, his lying face down in bed vomiting, his delirium, his “burn[ing] in a bonfire of fever . . . farting stony, foul-smelling gas” (10).9  From the glorious General the story descends to the dethroned General: “Instead of Palomo Blanco, his historic horse, he came back riding a poor bald mule with trappings of straw, his hair had turned gray and his forehead was furrowed by passing storm clouds, and he wore a dirty tunic with a torn sleeve” (15, 16). This was not the first time that the General had been sunk in poverty. During the southern wars of liberation, a British naval officer met him by chance north of Lima, lying on the floor of a wretched hut with a piece of cloth tied around his head  to protect himself from the cold: “Go and tell the world you saw me die covered with chicken shit on these inhospitable sands” (16). The General also finds himself poor, unpaid, and writing one of his last letters, the one in which he relinquishes power.

The narrator, adopting the position of  historian and thus as possessor of the truth—as he often stresses in the novel—proceeds to pass judgment on the opinions of the Liberator’s friends after gathering all the historical facts: “The truth was that even his most intimate friends did not believe he was abandoning either power or the country. The city was too small and his own people too punctilious not to know the two great flaws in his dubious departure: he did not have enough money . . . , he could not leave the country before a year had passed without the permission of the government” (14, my emphasis). Besides, on previous occasions, “he had gone to the extreme of leaving a house empty in order to feign his departure, and it had always been a clever political maneuver” (14). The General has lost credibility, not only among his immediate aides but also among his political enemies, to the point that “his repeated renunciations of power had been incorporated into popular song” (14). And yet the hero of the historians is not demythicized.  García Márquez humanizes him without divesting him of all the greatness he considers him to deserve. The author said to Samper, “That exaggerated and sacralized cult of Bolívar is nothing but an atavistic guilt feeling over those who treated him like a dog. But I still believe that Bolívar, beaten down and ruined like that, is much greater than what they’ve tried to sell us.”  “The truth” about Bolívar that the historian presents is his own ambiguity: the doubts and contradictions of the “official” history, which are also found in the novel. Among these are his inclination towards monarchy and totalitarianism and his discord with Francisco de Paula Santander (in which the author is clearly vindictive against the Santanderistas) and with Jose Antonio Páez. He emphasizes his gift of prophecy in matters such as the relationship between Latin American countries and the United States, and the danger of incurring external debt. The narrator shows the General’s ambitions, the many friends he had in his days of glory and the few at the end of his life, and at the same time he synthesizes several years of permanently questionable history.

As if assembling a puzzle, the last seven parts of the novel expand, complement, and question not only the character of the Liberator but also the historical labyrinth in which Latin America has existed since the nineteenth century. In a visionary gesture, Bolívar himself concludes, in a letter to his dear friend Marshal Antonio José de Sucre, that after America had been united, “Sixteen million Americans who had just begun their life of freedom were at the mercy of the local tyrants” (18).

The historical events of the novel do not on the surface lead to the transcendent meaning inscribed in its pages. As I mentioned earlier, the principal method used by the narrator, who is supposedly the author himself, is that of a historian, who fills in the last days of the “historical” life of the General from the many historical accounts that have been written.

But a more detailed reading reveals, as in most of García Márquez’s fiction, a symbolic structure that combines religious, social, psychological, and historical elements.10 There is a series of names, numbers, and events that suggest a symbolic mode of writing. Even though they seem at first to be completely integrated into the narrative and masked by its technique of juxtaposition, these pieces can all be arranged together like a puzzle. Characteristics of one person are given to another, like a riddle, until the symbolic reading of the novel is complete. Bolívar is presented through a triple characterization: as a sacred character, as a representative of romanticism, and as a political visionary, whose actions and thoughts extend to and are actualized in the present day. In this paper I shall focus on the sacralization of the Liberator in the novel and mention some of Bolívar’s romantic characteristics. Let us, then study this mosaic that is the text of The General in His Labyrinth.

Let us start with the symbology of numbers.

As I mentioned above, numerology is very important in the novel, because it is one of the symbolic aspects that help us to interpret the text. For instance, the eight parts into which the novel is formally divided, in chapters of almost equal length, suggest the eight years of the General’s love affair with Manuela Sáenz; we read, “She understood this as another of the many homages he had paid to her in the eight years of ardent love” (6). At the same time the number eight suggests a calendar that marks the General’s last hours with the metaphor of an octagonal clock that is stopped at seven minutes past one, the time of his death (267). The allusion to the number three is even more striking in the novel. As early page 1, we read, “it has been raining since three o’clock in the morning,” and, immediately after, “since three o’clock in the morning of the seventeenth century” (4); the General’s garrison had not received their wages “for the past three months” (11); the General jumps up at “past three o’clock,” when he hears Manuela’s carriage (28). The narrator compares the General’s power three years ago with his current situation: “All of this, however, was not even a shadow of the baggage he had brought with him on his return from Lima three years earlier, when he was invested with triple power as President of Bolivia and Colombia and Dictator of Peru” (31). We also read that three months earlier the General had assumed “extraordinary powers of obvious dictatorial intent” (52). While the General was playing “a rooster crowed three times” (64). The obsessive allusions to this sacred number continue till the end of the novel (62, 64, 69, 90, 91, 110, 134, 135, 136, 144, 153, 179, 220, 241, 261). What is the meaning of the constant repetition of this number in the context of the novel?  To explain it, we must make an interpretative analysis of the novel. The number three occupies a vital place in the symbology of the Catholic Mass, as Mircea Eliade found.11 In the novel it represents a symbolic sacrifice aimed at redeeming humankind–that of Bolívar, a misunderstood redeemer sacrificed by his own people. Let us see how this comes about.

The Liberator parodies Christ as a scapegoat who purges and redeems society. A number of elements in the text suggest this parody: vocabulary, expressions, allusions to his age, the final days resembling a Calvary.

Like a supernatural being, the General is in all eight parts, at the same time, dying and surrounded by symbolic circumstances such as rain, fiestas, and the plague. In the last part he dies, a victim of the misunderstanding of the peoples he himself has liberated. In the first few pages of the novel, which take place mainly in Santa Fe de Bogotá—in the rest of the novel the narrator juxtaposes the present with the General’s glorious past in other cities, the memories of other characters, and the historical texts—we already find some clear symbolic references: the constant repetition of the number three, the crowing of the roosters announcing the death of the Liberator (Christ), allusions to Hell. Besides all this, we find the General performing the sacred rite of the Mass; all under the purifying power of rain.12  Let us look in detail at these elements in the text.

On the first page of The General we find the Liberator immersed in purifying waters, in a state of ecstasy and meditation, as in a priestly ritual. Then “the General came out of his trance and saw in the half-light the clear blue eyes, the curly squirrel-colored hair, the impassive dignity of the steward who attended him every day and who held in his hand a cup of the curative infusion of poppies and gum arabic” (3). The cup and the poppies allude to the Host and the wine. Soon the General puts on a chasuble: “he helped him to dry and draped the square poncho from the uplands over his naked body because the trembling of his hands made the cup rattle... he drank the tea in five scorching swallows that almost blistered his tongue, avoiding his own watery trails along the frail rush mats on the floor, and it was as if he had drunk the magic potion of resurrection” (4, 12, my emphasis). The ritual continues in the rain; we read that, “it has been raining since three o’clock in the morning” and the General answers, “Since three o’clock in the morning of the seventeenth century” (4) . The General suggests that he has experienced a purifying process like an endless ritual. As if he were a holy character, nobody knows  the origin of the General’s illness: “They said his illness was a kind of madness caused by the mercurial desert sun” (16). They also say that the state the General is in, “seemed that of a man no longer of this world” (3). Like omens, roosters mockingly announce his death. The General says, “I didn’t hear the roosters.”  “There are no roosters here,” says José Palacios. “There’s nothing here,” says the General, “It’s the land of the infidel” (4, 5). “A rooster crowed three times” (64).13

Also symbolically, this ritual takes place on the anniversary of the sacrifice of Joan of Arc. The text says, “Saturday May 8, 1830, the day that the English shot Joan of Arc with arrows.”14  The allusion to Joan of Arc is also very meaningful in the novel: the author makes us see a parallel between the saint and the General. She became the greatest heroine of the French and was burned at the stake by the English. Just as she was inspired by God to save the French crown, the General seems to have been inspired to achieve the reunification of the Americas. Both perform an important historical role and both become victims of the intolerance of their times.

From the first pages of the novel the General appears as a supernatural being, at once a military and a religious hero, somebody who performs the sacred ritual of the Mass and takes communion as a gesture that redeems his people. Christ dies at three o’clock in the afternoon and his death sentence is announced by cocks crowing three times when Peter betrays him. The parody here is clear and direct: the General will die as a victim, and “he who dies is in a situation similar to that of a scapegoat.”15  Bolívar is, in fact, “a scapegoat” who pays the price that must be paid in order for the life of his people to go on, in order for the community to be reborn in the fecundity of a new, renewed order. We find several allusions to his being absolutely essential, to the Crucifixion, and to the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary, which complete the parodic framework. For instance, the Liberator cannot imagine “what life would be without him” (71); “he spent the night in suspense, crucified by mosquitoes” (my emphasis).16  His very name alludes to God: “Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios.”  He sleeps once with a mulatto woman called Reina María Luisa (Queen Marie Louise), who possesses “the profile of an idol” and a virgin (49), an allusion to the Virgin Mary. Let us also remember that the General rides a mule into the last towns on the journey toward his death, just as Christ rode a mule into Jerusalem. We read, “Instead of Palomo Blanco, his historic horse, he came back riding a poor bald mule with trappings of straw, his hair had turned gray and his forehead was furrowed by passing storm clouds, and he wore a dirty tunic with a torn sleeve” (16). After a few more pages the allusion appears again: “The mule reserved for him was the best of a pack of one hundred presented to the government by a Spanish merchant. . . .” (36). Biblical language is parodied much as in Chronicle of a Death Foretold: “I am no longer myself. . . . To think I am that man!” (126).17  Children surround the General as they once did Christ (155). But, in the same way that the General is mythicized, he is demythicized when his supernatural qualities are contrasted with his lowly characteristics; for instance, the General’s forehead is “seared with fever” (9), and he makes “a superhuman effort to defend himself against the obscene filth of death” (260); he suffers constantly from constipation (9); he vomits blood, shaves his head, and uses foul language, as when he says, “All the rest is bullshit!” (203) or, “Don’t be an ass” (165). This language of enthronement/dethronement is constant in the novel.

The Liberator is a sacred character in the divine triad who finds himself in the land of the

infidels, as is said of Christ when he is going to be killed. As a hero, “he believed himself invulnerable” since, “he had fought all his wars in the front lines, without suffering a scratch” (8). “He did not use an escort, and he ate and drank with no concern. . . .” (8). He puts on a chasuble (a poncho) and receives communion from his servant (his acolyte). Helped by José Palacios, the General performs the rite of Mass, represented in the novel as the ritual of shaving: “José Palacios placed the basin of lather on the marble top of the dressing table, along with the red velvet case that held the shaving implements, all of golden metal. He put the small candle holder with its candle on a ledge near the window so the General would have enough light. . . .” (5). At the end of this scene the narrator himself gives us the key to interpreting these pages when he says, “That dawn he [the General] officiated at the daily mass of his ablutions with more frenetic severity than usual, trying to purge his body and spirit of twenty years of fruitless wars and the disillusionments of power” (5, my emphasis). The ritual is concluded when he marks the end of his purification with a gesture of self-sacrifice: “. . . at last [he] took off the poncho and he poured a large vial of cologne over his entire body, rubbing it with both hands until he was exhausted.”18  Then we read, “The only noteworthy change he made that night [of vespers] in the ritual of his insomnia was that he did not take a hot bath before going to bed” (8, my emphasis).19  What these fragments reveal is the use of metaphor and Catholic rites to depict the General as a priest with a purifying mission that is carried out in the Mass at one  level, that of religion, and in political struggle at another, that of history. The climax of the sacrifice is reached when the Liberator turns into a scapegoat.

The novel, as a work of fiction, is revealed through the mirror in which the General looks at himself; in the novel we read, “ . . . for he tried to see himself in the mirror as little as possible so he would not have to look into his own eyes” (5). García Márquez demythicizes the novel as history and history as “reality” when he introduces the mirror in which the General looks at himself. This detail reveals a self-conscious narrator, who is aware that this is a work of fiction and discloses the fact to the reader.

The writing of The General in His Labyrinth amounts to an exorcism in order to purge the historical, religious, and cultural sins of the nineteenth century. Thus, the story of the General rewrites a ritual of purification, not of the General but of all who collectively contributed to his death, in an effort to scrutinize and eventually erase their sins.

Four elements in the novel suggest this ritual of purification: rain, fiestas, the plague, and the parody of Christ. The first element, rain, appears constantly in the eight parts of the novel; it constitutes one of the purifying rituals to which the community must subject itself in order to wash away the contagion of violence, as René Girard suggests.20  In the novel the rain appears like this, “The rain had stopped and the wind no longer whistled through the trees. . . .the drizzle stopped a short while later” (10, 41). The rain becomes a deluge in the third part of the novel: “but rain ruined the fiesta before they even reached the streets of the commercial district. . . . during the torpor of the siesta a black cloud descended from the mountains, settled over the city, and burst open in an instant deluge” (69). In the last part, “the rain became eternal, and the humidity began to open cracks in his memory” (236). The purifying ritual—as a search for truth—will continue endlessly, as this last quotation suggests.

Allusions to fiestas and banquets suggest a carnival in the novel. In each town the General visits they honor him with great fiestas accompanied by food and music. On other occasions, political demonstrations against the General are interpreted by him or his servants as fiestas. It is precisely at the highest pitch of political emotion and dancing people that the Liberator is dying and being sacrificed. “The fiesta itself is nothing but the preparation for a sacrifice that signals at the same time its paroxysm and its conclusion.”21  The text itself dramatizes a Platonic symposium, a dialogue at once ambivalent and familiar during the banquet. Let us remember that this extraordinary situation during the banquet is intended on the one hand to end the violence and on the other to look for truth, to find an authentic and fulfilling way of living. In the first pages of the novel the General is ill in the midst of riots in which his enemies march, shout, blow their bugles, and bang their drums; the General tries to find out what these noises are and when he asks about them he is told, “It’s a fiesta, General. And no one, not even José Palacios, would have dared to explain just what fiesta it was” (12). Later, the Liberator himself declares, “Things must be very bad . . . if this could happen only a block from here and they could make me think it was a fiesta” (14). Besides showing how information is manipulated–a point made several times in the novel—this depicts an atmosphere which fiesta and war are synonymous. Political insubordination against the General implies violence and bloodshed. This fiesta contaminates because the germ of violence is contagious, leading to the disintegration of New Granada. The text reads, “For the accommodation had not only led to poisoned relations with the New Granadans but also infected them with the germ of separatism” (22). The fiesta continues as the General travels to Guaduas (60), and later as he plays cards and loses (64). Part three of the novel opens with a reception for the General, with a band and fireworks, interrupted by the rain that lasted three days and eventually turned into a deluge (69). The splendor of the fiestas that were held in the General’s days of glory is contrasted with the violence of those held during his downfall (75). The fiesta commemorates the sacrifice of the Liberator as a sacred character. We read that while the General was in Barranca, before he arrived in Cartagena, Montilla “had prepared a public reception for the following day. But the General was in no mood for inopportune fiestas” (134). The Liberator stays in Barranca for three days in an atmosphere of carnivalesque farce (of cultural syncretism) during which:

. . . he could not prevent his friends from shooting off rockets until they ran out of powder, or stationing a corps of bagpipers near the house, who would play until late that night. They also arranged for a troupe of black men and women from the neighboring marshes of Maralabaja, dressed as sixteenth-century European aristocrats, to perform with African artfulness their burlesques of Spanish court dances. . . . (135)

In part six of the novel, the Liberator and his retinue have reached Cartagena, where he will stay for a while at the famous Cerro de la Popa. The location of the city and the hill has a connection with sacred symbology that has often been studied in other fictions by García Márquez;22 holy cities were built in the mountains because of their closeness to God. In this sacred atmosphere the General “did not say a word, he did not change his pace, he did not cough, he did not give signs of fatigue, and he had nothing but a glass of port all day” (168). The General is surrounded by “pilgrims” and “the eternal stain of turkey buzzards circling . . . (168). The turkey buzzards are looking for death, not only that of the General but also that of a society whose principles and customs are corrupt. The General’s language also changes into the archaic mode of the Bible when he says, “upon arriving, find out for me where Sucre walks.”23  The population of Cartagena takes to the streets, this time not spontaneously as it did during his glory in Caracas in 1813, but called by an urgent summons. In the midst of this decadent fiesta the narrator describes the social disintegration of a city that “was not even a shadow of what it once had been” (170). The city is in ruins, with no trade, no rich people: “It was impossible to reconcile glory with the stench from the open sewers” (170). However, that night the cream of society gathers to pay homage to the General in an atmosphere of Easter celebration: “Easter lights had been lit in the principal houses, but the General had no illusions because he knew that in the Caribbean anything, even an illustrious death, could be the excuse for public revels. And in fact it was a ‘false fiesta’” (170, my emphasis). The city was really “in a state of war.”  During that “false fiesta” the General pronounces “his final word” (175) and by dawn the house at the foot of La Popa “was a dismantled barracks” (197). Now the General finds himself in hell, but he always remembers, “his paradise in Lima” (212). There is no doubt that the plague has a symbolic meaning in both Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth. It is synonymous with warfare, violence, and corruption. In The General Manuela Sáenz dies “in an epidemic of the plague” (261). The General himself is said to fall ill with cholera (choler?). Horses come down with plague in mid-campaign (48). At the end of the novel the narrator, aware of the army’s loss of credit in the eyes of the people, says ironically, “The whole city was aware of the danger that threatened it, and the glorious Army of the Republic was seen as the emissary of the plague” (238). In a single text García Márquez confronts three things that are similar by analogy: violence, plagues, and the sacred. The first is illustrated in battles, the second in gonorrhea, smallpox, and the horse plague; the third is manifested in the sacralization of the Liberator. René Girard cites storms, forest fires, epidemics, and the injury done by people to each other  as constituting violence, and he adds, “Violence is the real heart and soul of the sacred.”24  The characters in The General suffer political violence, natural catastrophes, and epidemics. To avoid illness it is best to shun contact with ill people. There are thus two types of contagion: that of diseases and that of violence. Between illness and violence, for instance, there are undeniable similarities. The suffering caused by an illness is analogous to that inflicted by a wound. The ill person may run the risk of dying, and so do all who engage in any form of violence. “Death is the worst form of violence that can come upon man.”25  The Bolívar in the novel dies of mysterious, unknown causes. The people are all afraid of catching his illness, and they burn his belongings. But he dies not only of biological, but of moral causes, Bolívar was sacrificed as a scapegoat to purge the guilt of the community and let it go on living. In this novel García Márquez  has suggested the need to rewrite history and recognize that it has always been contaminated by the germ of violence. Since the nineteenth century, the time of the novel, violence has been a constant in the history of Colombia, a history that can only be transcribed in fiction.

In addition to being represented as a parody of God, Bolívar appears as a romantic character and a political visionary. As a romantic character Bolívar wished to transform American reality in his dreams, and he wished his dreams to come true. His dissatisfaction with the present led him to dream of an ideal future. His words are stamped with intuition and prophetic vision. The novel says that, “in his youth he read the Romantics under the influence of his tutor, Simón Rodríguez, and he continued to devour them as if he were reading himself and his own idealistic, intense temperament” (93). The General loves dancing and beautiful women, enjoys magnificence, and is above all a nostalgic character. There are a number of allusions to the General’s work as being like a dream, such as “ . . . his almost maniacal dream of continental unity was beginning to crumble” (97) and, “the General’s dream began to fall apart” (153). In the end he himself says, “But I’ve become lost in a dream, searching for something that doesn’t exist” (221).

As a political visionary, in addition to his historical struggle as a Liberator and his recognized glories, the dying Bolívar appears in the novel as a self in constant questioning and an ardent critic of European absolutism, perhaps a self-parody of García Márquez. He says, for instance, “The damn problem is that we stopped being Spaniards and then we went here and there and everywhere in countries that change their names and their governments so much from one day to the next we don’t know where the hell we come from” (184). He says of a French visitor that he “has now established himself as the absolute repository of our truth by the act and grace of European arrogance” (123). The General is also self-critical:

From then on, that would be his fixed idea: to begin again from the beginning, knowing that the enemy was not external but inside the house. The oligarchies in each country, represented in New Granada by the Santanderistas and by Santander himself, had declared war to the death against the idea of integrity because it was unfavorable to the local privileges of the great families. This is the real cause, the only cause, of the war of dispersion that is killing us. (202)

And lastly, he is also prophetic in announcing one of the major problems of Latin America today: external debt. Bolívar says, “I despise debt more than I do the Spanish That’s why I warned Santander that whatever good we had done for the nation would be worthless if we took on debt because we would go on paying interest till the end of time. Now it’s clear: debt will destroy us in the end” (221).

The narrative technique of the novel The General is rigorous, and its language  poetic; the history of the nineteenth century is rewritten and poeticized through parodic motifs. It represents an attempt to examine Colombian, and by extension Latin American, reality in search of an exit from the labyrinth.

* Originally translated by Anna Serra.



1. Gabriel García Márquez, The General in His Labyrinth, translated by Edith Grossman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).  Except as noted, all quotations from the book are from this version.

2. At this writing the following reviews of the novel have appeared, all in the Revista de Estudios Colombianos, no. 7, 1989, in addition to those cited in the text: David Bushell, “¿El  primer Nobel bibliográfico?,”33-35; Randolph D. Pope, “Lectura literaria de El general en su laberinto,”  36-38; George McMurray, “El general en su laberinto:  historia y ficción,” 39-44; and Federico Patán, “Una novela de postrimerías,” 45-47.

3. In María Elvira Samper, “Entrevista a Gabriel García Márquez,” Semana, 14 de marzo de 1989, 27-33.

4. See the photograph in “Más nunca en la vida me meto a escribir una novela histórica,” Diners, April 1989,  18.

5. For an analysis of the relationship between history and literature, see Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,”  The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding, eds., Robert Canary and Henry Kozicki (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978) 41-62.

6. Samper, op. cit., 30.

7. María del Pilar Rodríguez Santamaría, “¿General Simón Buendía o General Aureliano Bolívar?” EL colombiano [Dominical] 2 abril 1989, 6, 7.

8. Samper, op. cit., 29.

9. Unfortunately, the English translation does not do justice to García Márquez’s creativity with the scatological, with his “ventosidades pedregosas y fétidas,” in which “pedregosas”—-”stony, in Grossman’s translation—is not normally used to describe flatulence but its suffix evokes other unpleasant things.

10. The symbolic principles of García Márquez’s works have been widely studied.  See, for instance, Graciela Maturo, Claves simbólicas de Gabriel García Márquez, 2nd ed. (Buenos Aires: Fernando García Cambeiro, 1977).

11. See Mircea Eliade, Birth and Rebirth (New York: Harper, 1958) 116.

12. See René Girard, La violencia y lo sagrado, translated by Joaquín Jorda (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1983)  64-65, for an analysis of purifying rituals.

13. For Peter’s denials and the crow of the rooster see John 15:27.

14. Grossman renders this as “the Day of the Blessed Virgin, Mediatrix of all Grace,” which misses the reference to Joan of Arc.

15. See Girard, op. cit.,  265.

16. By translating “crucificado por los zancudos” as “plagued by mosquitoes,” Grossman misses the Christian image.

17. See John 6:35 and 6:48.

18. Grossman reads, “. . . until the flask was empty”—a misattribution of the Spanish “hasta quedar exhausto” to the vial of cologne rather than to the General’s body.

19. Grossman omits “of vespers” in her translation of  García Márquez’s  “noche de vísperas.”

20. Girard, op. cit., 64, 65.

21. Ibid., 128

22. About the sacred symbology of cities situated on heights, Mircea Eliade says:  “Les cités et les lieux saints vent assimilés aux sommets des montagnes cosmiques.  C’est pour cela que Jerusalem et Sion nont pas été submergées par le déluge.”  In Traité d’histoire des Religions, Paris, Payot, 1968,  317.

23. My translation.  Grossman misses the archaic tone:  “as soon as we arrive, find out where Sucre’s gotten to.”

24. Girard, op. cit., 38.

25. Ibid., 39.