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
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
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
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. …