Monday, May 11, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

 “THE GENERAL IN HIS LABYRINTH” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (El General en Su Laberinto first published 1989; English translation by Edith Grossman first published 1990)

Six years ago, the books page editor of the Sunday Star-Times asked me to write a long-ish review of Gerald Martin’s very long and (as it turned out) rather too worshipful biography Gabriel Garcia Marquez – A Life. I readily accepted the commission as I am not the lad to turn down a book-reviewing job unless the book sounds like complete tosh. There was only one snag, about which I did not tell the editor. I hadn’t at that stage read any of Garcia Marquez’s works.
No problem.
Over the five or six weeks before deadline, I did a crash course on Garcia Marquez, reading seven of his best known novels and two of his shorter works of reportage, before I plunged into the biography. I wanted to be knowledgeable about the chap whose life I was reviewing.
What an experience! I know that Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927–2014), who died last year, was a popular Nobel laureate and was certainly the most famous novelist Colombia ever produced [displacing Jose Eustasio Rivera – look up The Vortex via the index at right]. I know that he ended up as the South American sage, consulted – not always wisely – on all manner of political matters and giving kidding press conferences to journalists. His feud with his fellow Nobel laureate, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, was the stuff of literary gossip worldwide. I was aware that his One Hundred Years of Solitude was sometimes described as the most influential Spanish-language novel since Don Quixote; and his Love in the Time of Cholera came a close second as a Garcia Marquez favourite. Heretic that I am, though, when I came to read them I did not consider them the novelist’s best. My own choice would go to his highly-experimental early novel The Autumn of the Patriarch (with which I might some day deal on this blog) and especially to the robust and complex historical novel about the last days of Simon Bolivar, The General in his Labyrinth.

Here’s the synopsis I jotted into my reading diary:
Known throughout the novel only as “the General”, Simon Bolivar is travelling up Colombia’s Magdalena River, from Bogota to the Caribbean port of Cartagena. The year is 1830. He is on his way to exile in Europe. Although he is only 46 years old, he is wracked with tuberculosis and hence is depicted as an old man pushing his strength to the limits. The journey is arduous, requiring both a strong will and a strong constitution. Even the humid tropical air is an enemy:
The last stage of the journey to Honda was along a heart-stopping precipice through air like molten glass that only physical willpower and stamina like his could have endured after a night of agony.” [p.66 in the Penguin edition – this novel is not divided into chapters.]
 In fact, this journey turns out to be the General’s last, for he dies in Santa Marta before he can embark for Europe.
Much of the third-person narration is presented in flashback, via his memories of past battles, past victories and past defeats. The tone is often elegiac and regretful. His ideal was a united Spanish-American republic after independence was won and the royal Spanish forces had been driven out. Instead, independence has meant the splitting up of the old Spanish Empire into quarrelling separate states. Venezuela has seceded from the proposed grand state of Colombia, and the man who was once called “the Liberator” is no longer so universally respected. There have been plots and assassination attempts against him. His most loyal high-ranking military follower, Field Marshal Sucre is assassinated. Before he dies, Sucre remarks to the General “It’s destiny’s joke… It seems we planted the ideal of independence so deep that now these countries are trying to win their independence from each other.” The General replies dryly “Don’t respect the enemies’ vile remarks, even when they’re as accurate as that one.” (p.18)
 General Santander plots against the General. General Rafael Urdaneta would be willing to hand over power to the General, but the General knows his time is past. Throughout this novel, the characters who stand most constantly by the General are his servant Jose Palacios and the minor figure of General Daniel O’Leary, who later writes voluminous memoirs of the General.
The labyrinth of the title is threefold. It is the labyrinth of memory in which the General is caught. It is also identified specifically with the twisting course of the river, which the journey follows. As the General’s physical condition degenerates, it is also specifically identified with his body and the diseased sinews through which death creeps. The General is in his labyrinth – a journey going nowhere. The General is also aware that he is replaceable, as suggested in the cynical aside:
Someone had told the General that when a dog died it had to be replaced without delay by another just like it, and with the same name, so you could go on believing it was the same animal.” (p,173)
There’s a certain paradox in my appreciation of this novel. It’s possible that if I knew South American history better, I would like The General in his Labyrinth less. When it was first published in South America, it drew cries of protest from those who thought it depicted the great continental hero Bolivar negatively. It was noted that Garcia Marquez freely mixed historical fact with outright fiction, especially as there is no historical documentation of Bolivar’s last journey. However Garcia Marquez showed in a note of thanks (printed at the end of the Penguin edition) that he had put a couple of years of solid research into the novel – as well as allowing the free play of his imagination. He also noted that the genesis of The General in his Labyrinth was an unfinished novel about Bolivar by his friend Alvaro Mutis, who approved of Garcia Marquez doing his own take on the General.
One of the unflattering things about Garcia Marquez’s version of Bolivar is the man’s voracious sex-life. At one point we are told that he had cohabited with 35 women (not counting frequent one-night stands) and had sworn to them all that he loved them eternally.
Once satisfied, he was content with the illusion that he would keep them in his memory, give himself to them from a distance in passionate letters, send them extravagant gifts to protect himself from oblivion, but, with an emotion that resembled vanity more than love, he would not commit the least part of his life to them.” (p.183)
The women in his life include the Englishwoman Miranda Lyndsey and the robust virago Manuela Saenz, who to the very last plots and fights on his behalf. Only towards the very end of the novel do we hear of his short-lived early marriage, which left him a widower at the age of 20.
Story-book superman sensuality is a staple of such Latin American fiction as I have read, but I am fairly sure that in this novel (unlike some of his others) Garcia Marquez is offering a satirical critique of boastful machismo, especially as, in the novel’s “present”, the sexual athlete that the General used to be has been reduced to a skeletal tubercular body.
In political matters that are perhaps closer to the General’s heart than women are, the General is aware that those who call themselves a new “liberal” party are often members of a wealthy elite – so here is the familiar problem of a self-interested bourgeoisie taking over once a war of independence has been won. At the same time it appears that the General’s own ideal of a republic gives little consideration to non-Europeans. Black slaves are taken for granted and there is scarcely a mention of indigenous (“Indian”) South Americans. In the General’s final reflections before he dies, Garcia Marquez has Bolivar say:
America is ungovernable. The man who serves a revolution ploughs 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 colour and race.” (p.257)
Both class prejudice (“mob”) and racial prejudice (“colour and race”) are evident in this disillusioned outburst.
What is clear is that Garcia Marquez is using his historical novel to suggest the origins of all Spanish America’s subsequent woes – militarism (leadership by dictatorial generals); political factionalism; rule by European elites; the division of the continent into petty, feuding states. In all this, I am interested that the church does not come in for more criticism – perhaps because, by the time the novel was written, the church in South America (via liberation theology etc.) had taken a big step towards identifying more with the deprived classes than with the wealthy elite. Bolivar is a Freemason, but the comments on the church, which the novelist puts into his mouth, are relatively benign ones.
Garcia Marquez also uses the imagined historical situation to comment obliquely on the present day. At one point, Bolivar tells one of his generals “don’t go with your family to the United States. It’s omnipotent and terrible, and its tale of liberty will end in a plague of miseries for us all.” (p.223). Elsewhere in the novel, the United States representative at the Congress of Panama is likened to “a cat at a congress of mice”. These are clearly remarks influenced by all the United States’ unwelcome interventions in South America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, seen by Garcia Marquez as yet another of the continent’s ongoing woes.
Partly admiring, but also partly iconoclastic about an historical hero, The General in his Labyrinth is an excellent instance of historical novel as political statement.

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