Book Review: The General In His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

general labyrinthHere again is another book about death. I apologize for reading such morbid books recently, especially around the holiday season, but there you are. It can’t be helped.

The General In His Labyrinth is a departure from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ typical subject, or so I am told. His writing style, normally in the magical realism world that’s become so celebrated from South American and Spanish authors and that he brought to its current pinnacle with One Hundred Years of Solitude (it’s on my to-read list), departs here from that and ventures into the real world, with recorded history and demonstrated fact.

Or so it appears on the surface. The General In His Labyrinth is purportedly a retelling of General Simon Bolivar’s final voyage, a melancholy journey down the Magdalena River. Garcia Marquez narrates the General’s political triumphs and failings, his conquests both military and romantic, his recollections of his friends, enemies, lovers, plots, battles, and travels. But we learn in the author’s afterword that he ‘was not particularly troubled by the question of historical accuracy, since the last voyage along the river is the least documented period in Bolivar’s life.’ And so thus we discover that this book, perhaps, is no less ‘magical realism’ than Garcia Marquez’ other works, and no more bound by fact than the invented characters in his otherworldly stories.

When I first read that line in the afterword, I’ll admit I was a little bitter. ‘What have I learned, then?’ I asked myself, as I had originally picked up the book in the hopes of learning more about South American histories and politics. I hadn’t realized I was reading, essentially, a work of fiction. But in the time since I finished the book, I’ve come to appreciate it more for what it was. After all, it’s a great story about a great man, and there’s enough history and biography worked into the book through the General’s reminiscences that, though I may not have gotten the lesson I expected, I certainly am much better informed about South American history than I was previously. (That is to say, still not that well-informed.)

It’s a story that moves as slowly as the waters in the river the General is traversing, and indeed I almost wonder if Garcia Marquez did not write it with the intention of making it feel as though by reading the book one is also taking a gentle voyage down a slow and meandering river. You can almost see the waters lapping against the shores, the villages along the riverbanks, the mosquitoes and the hot sun on your skin and clothes.

There are many things that make this book special, but I’ll focus on three of them.

First is the General himself. He is dying, and as a dying man he relives his life, which was truly one of the grandest I can imagine; a
man whose life should stand on par with that of Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ghengis Khan, Julius Caesar, and all the other immortal conquerors of history. It was full of war, love, betrayal, and power, and these things are perhaps the elements that make the best stories. But it’s not simply the General’s recollections that make him an interesting and charismatic figure. His eccentricities through his illness, his fiery temper and vicious sarcasm, his love of dance and beautiful women, the way his men worship him and protect him as he descends into death – all this and more makes Simon Bolivar one of the richest and most complex characters I’ve ever read about. He is, truly, stranger than fiction.

Second is Garcia Marquez’ writing. I had never read anything of his before, and this was a lovely introduction to his style. Of course, it’s coming to me through a translation, as I don’t read Spanish. But Garcia Marquez’ prose is as simple and elegant as anything I’ve ever read. Full of the wisdom that, I imagine, can only come from those who have lived life and seen the world, his writing plumbs the depths and illuminates the heights of one man’s soul, and brings the world around him vividly and powerfully to life.

And third, finally, fittingly, is the last passage in the book. The book is beautiful, elegant, and interesting, but nothing made me really love it until the last line. I could read it over and over and over again. I could read it one hundred thousand times and it would still be powerful. It alone was worth everything else. There is no better reason to read this book than to have a context for the final passage, one of the most magnificent closing lines to a novel I’ve ever read.

I give it four out of five stars, but that last line gets a hundred.