Chris Harman


Myth and magic

(July 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.144, July/August 1991, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The General in his Labyrinth
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Jonathan Cape £.13.99

SIMON BOLIVAR was the ‘liberator’, hero not just of one country but of several. In the first quarter of the last century he led revolts which freed much of South America from Spanish rule.

Marquez has used the last months of Bolivar’s life as the setting for a novel in which ‘the General’, prematurely old and shrivelled by illness, reflects on his past and wonders what he has achieved.

The ‘hero’ whose statue adorns half a dozen great cities is now no longer welcome in any of them. The spectacular successes against the colonial government have given way to bitter and bloody disputes between the victors. He is once again on his way to exile as he dies, driven out by the rival states that have risen in place of his dream of a unified Latin American nation.

Very few successful novels feature major historical figures as the central character – indeed, the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs could claim, with little fear of contradiction, that it was impossible for them to do so. Yet in this novel Marquez carries through the impossible task successfully.

The reason is that the novel is about much more than one man. It is about what happened to a myth whose fate still plagues a continent.

The myth was that if only the slogans and institutions of the French Revolution were transferred to Latin America a great new nation would arise. Bolivar was the man who fought to turn this myth into reality. He was Robespierre and Bonaparte rolled into one as, riding by day and reading Rousseau by night, he led his armies thousands of miles to fight for independence and continental unity.

The myth was not peculiar to Latin America. It was the driving force in the 19th century behind the movements for national unity in Italy and Germany, and behind the successive struggles for Irish independence. But it had a particular force in Latin America because the final goal seemed close to achievement in Bolivar’s time. The Spanish were ousted and republican institutions were established a full half century before the final achievement of Italian and German nationhood, and a century and a half before Spain itself was to arrive at stable bourgeois democracy.

Yet the most modern bourgeois institutions did not overcome the political fragmentation and economic stagnation of the continent. Well into the 20th century much of the countryside still bore the imprint of feudalism and many of the cities were still decaying from their 18th century prime. It was as if vast areas had entered a time warp after being physically cut off from the advances known by Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the institutions of bourgeois democracy became the playthings of rival oligarchies, with corrupt elections interspersed by bitter, bloody civil wars and long phases of military dictatorship.

This is the world of Marquez’s earlier works. In A Hundred Years of Solitude and No One Writes to the Colonel he uses the techniques of what has been called ‘magical realism’ to bring out its absurdities. The reality is so grotesque that only the unreal can describe it. The town that is metaphorically cut off from the world is shown as physically cut off, the stagnation of social life as characters who live for hundreds of years, the loss of control over nature as the rainstorm that never stops.

In his later novels Marquez moves away from many of the magical realist techniques – perhaps because there is always the danger with them that the reader, instead of feeling the horror of the reality, is so enchanted by the elements of magic as to feel a certain nostalgia for it. It is this, and this alone, which ‘postmodernist’ worshippers of the superficial latch onto when they claim writers like Marquez for their school.

In any case, In Evil Hour and Chronicle of a Death Foretold are about people trapped, only too realistically, in a bloody time warped world, and if magical realist techniques are occasionally used in Love in a Time of Cholera its central theme is about the desperate search for personal hope and meaning in the midst of a decaying society.

With The General in his Labyrinth Marquez has moved on from depicting isolation, decay and violence to looking for its source. Bolivar’s ruminations about the failure of his life’s mission are reflections on the plight of the continent today. They are about current realities, not just the past.

Here Marquez’s own politics come in. He was part of a generation of intellectuals who greeted the Cuban Revolution in 1959 as the salvation of Latin America. They accepted the claim of the Cuban leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that they were the heirs of Bolivar and would achieve the goals he had left unfulfilled. Marquez went on, in the 1980s, to become a keen supporter of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Yet the Cuban Revolution went sour and the Sandinistas allowed themselves to be voted out of power.The would be heirs of Bolivar failed as much as the general himself.

Marquez’s general does not know why he has failed. As he looks back on his life he throws up one explanation after another. Perhaps he relied on the wrong army officer on this occasion or that. Perhaps he did not use enough tact in dealing with some key situation. Perhaps it was simply that the mass of people were not good enough to rise to his high expectations and grew tired of him, showing that any attempt at emancipation was bound to be doomed:

‘He began by dictating ... a series of somewhat discordant notes that did not express his desires so much as his disillusionment: America is ungovernable, the man who serves a revolution ploughs the sea, the nation will fall inevitably into the hands of an unruly mob and then will pass into the hands of almost indistinguishable tyrants of every colour and race ...’

There is a hint, but only a hint, of a quite different reason. To placate the oligarchs who dominated economically each great region of the old Spanish Empire, the general had been prepared to butcher some of his most radical supporters.

The General is haunted by what he had done to appease the oligarchs. When he comes to Angostura where he had one of his most radical supporters executed, it is on his journey to exile after those oligarchs reject his dream of continental unity as dangerous romanticism. After sleeping through the heat of the afternoon he wakes to call out, ‘Let’s get out of here. I don’t want to hear the shots of the firing squad.’

In paragraphs Marquez is suggesting, however faintly, that perhaps permanent revolution, reliance on the mass of the exploited and oppressed, is the alternative to the living hell of combined and uneven development.

A Marxist analysis of Latin America would go much further than just dropping such a hint. We cannot expect a novel by Marquez to do so.

The novelist’s approach to reality necessarily is different to that of the political analyst. The novelist gives concrete expression to the contradictory tensions within people’s lives, their emotions and misplaced hopes, and cannot cut through these to focus on political conclusions about the general interaction of social forces. That is why people see a bit of themselves in a great novel in a way they don’t in a great piece of social analysis, even if the analysis offers much more guidance on what to do.

There is another limitation facing virtually any novelist from Marquez’s generation of Latin American intellectuals Their hopes were always placed in members of the enlightened middle classes – Castro, Guevara, Allende or Ortega – liberating the masses, not in the masses liberating themselves. As those hopes collapse, they are more likely to blame the masses than their one time heroes.

The value of The General in his Labyrinth is that it confronts the collapse of such hopes. As such it is an important work by someone who is still committed to the fight for liberation at a time when the fashion is to rejoice in nostalgia and trivia.

Last updated on 11 June 2010