Foiled by Frustration Marquez Chronicles the Last Year of Simon Bolivar's Historic Life

Article excerpt

KNOWN in his own lifetime as "The Liberator," the Venezuelan-born aristocrat Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) was largely responsible - along with Jose de San Martin - for freeing Spanish South America from colonial rule.

He served as president of the first republic of Colombia, turned down an offer of the presidency of Peru, furnished a constitution and a name for the fledgling republic of Bolivia, but spent his last days watching his dreams for a united South America unravel amid the conflicts of nationalism, factionalism, and personal rivalries.

"How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?" Bolivar was heard to ask, lying on his deathbed, out of popular favor, prematurely old at the age of 47. His exclamation furnishes the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the title and theme for his most recent novel, which follows the last year of the general's life and his final voyage along the Magdalena River to the sea.

It was the river voyage rather than the historic accomplishments of Bolivar that first engaged Marquez's interest, he claims, and certainly anyone who has read "Love in the Time of Cholera" will remember the central importance of the river voyage in that remarkable novel.

But where the aging and ageless star-crossed lovers in that story seemed to recapture their beginnings as they approached the voyage's end, the general's last voyage is a story of a man going nowhere: a man caught in the labyrinth of history and in the labyrinth of his own confusion.

What Marquez has chosen to write is not a story of achievements, but a litany of loss and frustration. Up until the end, Bolivar clings to the hope that it is still possible "to start over again on the right path" and at the last moment, turn loss to gain, defeat to victory: in short, to transform the labyrinth of thwarted hopes into a pathway to a vision made real.

But for the most part, he is overcome with somber thoughts that too often prove prophetic: "America is ungovernable, the man who serves a revolution plows the sea, this nation will fall inevitably into the hands of the unruly mob and then will pass into the hands of almost indistinguishable petty tyrants of every color and race. ..." He warns of dangers from the powerful neighbor to the north, worries about the corruption of political discourse and the perils of getting too deeply in debt.

Although Marquez's portrait of Bolivar in his physical decrepitude has caused some shock among Latin American readers accustomed to more heroic renderings of the Liberator, the general of this novel emerges as an admirable, if erratic, character. …