His name modulated into that of a country, but he dreamed of uniting an entire continent. At one point he was president not only of Bolivia but also of what are now Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. He has been the subject of much stilted painting, of thousands of pompous statues; the object of endless hagiography and heroic rhetoric. He is the Liberator, in this novel simply called the General until the end of the first chapter, when the full roll-call of his name is solemnly performed: General Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios. Simon Bolivar for short.
Bolivar was born in 1783, in Caracas, to wealthy aristocratic parents. He studied in Spain, fervently read Rousseau, witnessed Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor. He liberated half Latin America from the Spanish and entered legend by the time he was 40. He ran into trouble with local caudillos and various forms of separatism, and watched his hopes of continental integration irremediably crumble. He was suspected of Napoleonic ambitions, failed to reject the idea of a monarchy as emphatically as a republican should, and there were attempts to assassinate him. A cruel slogan was written on the walls of Santa Fe de Bogota: Ni se va ni se muere. He won’t go and he won’t die. He resigned the presidency and left Bogota in May 1830, making a trip down the River Magdalena into the tropics, ostensibly on his way to take ship for Europe. He died near Santa Marta, on the Caribbean, in December of that year.
Garcia Marquez’s novel recounts those last months of Bolivar’s life but includes memories of earlier times. His fictional Bolivar makes all kinds of splendid phrases – ‘Superstitions are harder to uproot than love,’ ‘America is half a world gone mad,’ ‘Despair is the health of the damned’ – but even the historical Bolivar sounds at times like a character invented by Borges, since his last words are supposed to have been ‘How shall I get out of this labyrinth?’ Or perhaps invented by an imitator of Borges, someone more dedicated to the explicit and the theatrical – a Borges deeply involved with the European Romantics. Bolivar is almost too much of a good thing for a novelist, and Garcia Marquez never quite decides what to do with him. He avoids the deadpan ironies of his earlier work and the skilled compilation of clichés which marks Love in the Time of Cholera. He is trying for simple flatness here, and gets it, slipping only occasionally into the sogginess of phrases like ‘mists of solitude’, ‘the fragrance of spring’ or ‘the bitter breath of insomnia’. Such touches are slightly less purple in Spanish than they are in English: but purple (and feeble) nevertheless.
This novel prowls around its central character and is always good on Bolivar’s gestures and physical condition.
The colour of his skin had gone from pale green to mortal yellow ... His bones were visible under his skin, and he could not focus his eyes. He must have been aware of the hot stench of his breath, for he was careful to speak from a distance and almost in profile. But what struck them most was the evidence that he had lost height ...
There is a terrible pathos in the sight of this aged man of 47, his body literally consumed by political history – the suggestion of allegory being all the stronger because no one knows what is wrong with him. A lesion of the lung, one doctor says. Malaria, another claims. A urinary disorder, say still others. There are moments, too, when the novel takes on a weirdly placid, hallucinatory power, as if a nightmare were being run in slow motion. ‘Absorbed in the magic of the river, dying, in defeat’: those are the cadences not of regret or heroism but of a fading self, the music of disappearance.
Bolivar sees a woman at night in his encampment. She is singing a popular song under her breath: ‘Tell me it’s never too late to die of love.’ Almost certainly there is no one there, and Bolivar’s servant, in later life, is said to be still unable to decide whether the woman was... Whether she was real or not, is what we expect, but here comes a swerve entirely characteristic of Garcia Marquez at his best: ‘whether the vision that night in Puerto Real had been a dream, a hallucination or an apparition’. Interesting options, but the real doesn’t even get a look in.
But then the novel can’t do much more than prowl around Bolivar, hooked as it is on the enigma of his behaviour. It seeks to portray the enigma, not to end it, and thus becomes a picture not so much of a historical figure as of a terminal mood, the bafflement of a man who has become a ghost too soon. Part of the cruelty of the Bogota slogan is that it describes Bolivar’s own state of mind all too well. He isn’t dead but he has no life he can recognise; he can’t go on but he can’t give up. He wants to see – quintessential desire of ghosts – ‘what life would be like without him’. He has resigned so often that ‘when it was time for him to leave he did not even take away with him the consolation that anyone believed in his departure.’ His officer companions are ready to sustain any sort of hardship, even complete demoralisation, but not ‘the uncertainty he had inspired in them ever since his decision to renounce power’. The suggestion perhaps is that one can’t renounce power, only lose it – and even then one still feels its tugs, like the motions of an amputated limb. Or at least that Bolivar can’t renounce power, that as Thomas Mann says in a similar context, we can’t live morally or spiritually from not wanting. We would have to want something else, like Bolivar’s friend and favourite Antonio Jose de Sucre, who prefers his family to the lures of high office. Not that the preference helped him, since he was assassinated on his way home, in that same year 1830.
In some respects Garcia Marquez’s Bolivar resembles Colonel Aureliano Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, in other respects the bewildered tyrant of Autumn of the Patriarch. But most of all he resembles a bit-player who crops up again and again in Garcia Marquez’s fiction, the man who gets lost in the rain and in history (or in one story, lost in time). Bolivar is literally seen here as ‘lost in the rain’, perdido en la lluvia. The rain haunts the novel like a signature, becomes ‘eternal’, represents weather which ‘would not clear for the rest of the century’. The drizzle looks like an image of endless doubt, and getting lost is the story which swallows all other stories, the voracious metaphor which won’t let them escape.
Bolivar is not just uncertainty but certainty gone astray, and all the political thought in the novel seems subordinate to this metaphysical lapse. Bolivar repeatedly speaks of his dream of a united South America, ‘the largest country in the world: one nation, free and unified, from Mexico to Cape Horn’, but the actual desirability of this development is never debated. It is important not because it makes sense but because it is Bolivar’s vision, the map at the end of all his actions. When Sucre suggests to him that the logic of the struggle for independence points toward separatism rather than away from it – ‘It seems we planted the idea of independence so deep that now these countries are trying to win their independence from each other’ – Bolivar’s answer is a witty acknowledgment and denial, but not an argument: ‘Don’t repeat the enemy’s vile remarks, even when they’re as accurate as that one.’ Of course, we shouldn’t expect an argument from Bolivar, but the absence of political interest on Garcia Marquez’s part is striking. He seems too taken with what he calls in a note ‘the horror of this book’.
There is the horror of death and neglect, very well rendered in the novel’s last paragraph: ‘He examined the room with the clairvoyance of his last days, and for the first time he saw the truth: the final borrowed bed, the pitiful dressing-table whose clouded, patient mirror would not reflect his image again, the chipped porcelain washbasin with the water and towel and soap meant for other hands, the heartless speed of the octagonal clock ...’ I need to stop the quotation here before it slides into the sentimentality of an ‘ineluctable appointment’ with death. ‘Heartless’ is already reaching for the easy pathos. But the horror is not only the miserable truth, the decrepit destiny. It lies also in the possibility that Bolivar may not have a destiny, that there never was a historical face in the patient mirror, only the mug of a man of talent, courage and a wild, obsessive idea. Garcia Marquez hints at this thought, but even he is not about to explore it.
Bolivar is said at one point, quite early in his career, to make a ‘hermetic’ remark: ‘I am condemned to a theatrical destiny.’ This is one of the very few places where this excellent translation falters. Un destino de teatro may be a theatrical destiny, or indeed a destiny in the theatre: but it also suggests, perhaps against Bolivar’s conscious intention, a destiny which is only theatre, which will close and vanish when the show is over. The statues of Bolivar all over Latin America successfully bury this worry, but don’t settle it. The labyrinth he wonders how to get out of is the muddle of his last days, the wreckage of liberation. ‘We lost a world, Simon my old friend,’ a companion comments. More precisely, the Spanish says the world was ruined or spoiled, se echo a perder. The labyrinth is not only the ruin of a dream, but also the ruin the dream created and abandoned. It is, in this novel, the labyrinth of the lost, and the General is wrong even to ask how he could leave it. Fortunately history does offer other, less romantically doomed visions of purpose in Latin America.