Book Review, Historical

The General in his Labyrinth written by Gabriel García Márquez

200px-Garcia_marquez_general One of the most enigmatic, heroic and tragic figures of all time is ‘The Liberator’ – Simon Bolivar. He tried to achieve essentially what any conqueror of continents try to achieve, except for one significant difference – not seeking an empire of conquest or loot, he wanted to free the continent of its Spanish rulers and unify the continent. It was a highly idealistic mission which almost became a reality.

His life reads almost like a fairy tale with an imperfect ending, the whirlwind story of an underdog who with his rag tag army of freedom fighters toppled a giant but could not keep the flock intact after the common enemy was thrown out. It is a very human story of a military genius who like Hannibal could scale the Alps and take the fight to the enemy but could not complete his dream only due to human weakness and folly

This story is about the last few days of this man. Days, when his glorious cavalry charges and his improbable victories have already receded into history and he has become an object of derision for some people and an object of pity for others. His liberating army has scattered around the continent and civil war is raging in many parts of the continents he had set free. Cities, where he was hailed as the Liberator only a few years ago, turn their back to him. Only a handful of faithfuls stay with him. Fewer still believe and understand what he tried to do. The Liberator is physically wasted, prematurely aged due to the demands made on his body over the years and is being set adrift by the world he helped create. He is racked by the injustices done to him and he bemoans the infidelity of his erstwhile comrades especially Santander and he bemoans the fate of the continent and in his deepest despair questions the uselessness of it all. Only one thing still stays with him – his indomitable will and his readiness to spring to action at a moment’s notice

The story is as much about the great man – his eccentricities, his simon_bolivar_by_tovar_y_tovar_zitat1achievements, his superhuman courage as it is about the time he lived in, a time, a century of great ferment, a century of revolutions around the world. Bolivar is both the man who covered himself with glory with single minded, almost god-like dedication to his cause and the man who was full of inner contradictions. He was the man who trusted some people like children and who could be the fearless general in battle, a man who gave away his wealth who asked for it and also the man who can give the order to kill as easily. It is the sum total of everything that made up Bolivar. All of this is presented in the story, though as flashbacks. The time that the story is set, the sun is setting on Bolivar and on the ruins of his dreams…

It is a lyrical prose about an old man’s last days. The fact that the old  man is one of the greatest figures in history does not detract from the universality of the story. Every man has his glory days and at the end, every man seeks the same things that Simon Bolivar wanted. The best thing about the way Marquez has written the story without any embellishments on Bolivar. When he is pathetic, he is shown to be so without apologies or excuses. When he shows the traits that made him one of the most feared man on a battlefield, it is simply stated as a fact. That leaves us to concentrate on the man himself as he faces one enemy he cannot ride to battle – death.

It’s a book that lends itself to a lot of contemplation – about history and the men who make it and what happens to every man when their glory is past. This story about Bolivar is about one way in which such men live the last days – things which are not easily recorded in history since we like to remember our heroes unblemished and perfect. This simon_bolivarstory is about when each one of us becomes human and all too mortal.

Beautifully written, the words flow easily and the most difficult emotions are expressed easily. The man who is Bolivar and the men and women around him comes out beautifully in the pages. Awareness about the history of the period is not necessary as the story reads as an allegory. It is at once a homage to a great man and a poignant story of old age



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