Gabriel García Márquez: Labyrinths of Love and History By: Palencia-Roth, Michael, World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma, 01963570, December 1, 1991, Vol. 65, Issue 1: 54-58.
MLA International Bibliography


After his first surprise best seller, Cien anos de soledad (Eng. One Hundred Years of Solitude), burst on the literary scene in 1967 and transformed a group of writers (Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jose Donoso, and others) into a phenomenon known as "el boom," bringing him and them worldwide fame, every work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been published to great fanfare and has been widely reviewed. The books under joint discussion here, El amor en los tiempos del colera (Eng. Love in the Time of Cholera) and El general en su laberinto (Eng. The General in His Labyrinth),[1] have been met mostly by laudatory reviews in all three Americas. Differences in the reception are generally of tone and enthusiasm. In North America the reviews, though almost all positive, usually have been elegantly detached and even scholarly.[2] In Latin America both the praise and the criticism have been more passionate. "A chain of repugnant and sick sexual passions," fulminates Francisco Lemos Arboleda in El Pais, a Colombian newspaper, in late December 1985, on greeting El amor en los tiempos del colera. In his opinion, the novel is "pornographic" and not worthy of being compared with "the immortal Maria," a nineteenth-century Colombian novel. Though Maria mostly mimics breathy and exclamatory French romances, in the eves of many Colombian critics and ordinary readers Maria's author, Jorge Isaacs, is untouchable. Every Colombian, however, seems willing to take on Garcia Marquez. When the subject is a continental hero like Simon Bolivar, the contentious voices, pro and con, are multiplied by many from the rest of Latin America. El general en su laberinto occasioned fierce national and even continental debates after it was published on Garcia Marquez's sixty-first birthday (28 March 1989).

At first glance, Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His labyrinth could not be more different from each other. The first chronicles the undying love of an octogenarian, Florentino Ariza, who, having loved Fermina Daza in her youth, secretly worships her for more than half a century, and then courts her a second time after her husband dies, triumphantly consummating his passion on a riverboat during a trip on the Magdalena River. The novel celebrates, therefore, the vitality possible in old age, love over despair, health over sickness, life over death. The second novel deals with a much younger but much sicker man, Simon Bolivar, who, one day in May 1830, having renounced the presidency of Colombia, embarks on his final journey down the Magdalena. In The General in His labyrinth despair, sickness, and death inevitably win out over love, health, and life. The first novel deals with ordinary people, the second with a continental hero. The first comes out of the writer's imagination, its sources being his life and memory as well as his observations of older people in love, including--Garcia Marquez has said--his own parents. The second, though born, of course, of Garcia Marquez's imagination, comes also from the library. A thoroughly researched book, its sources are documents, letters, histories, and biographies. Indeed, somewhat like a graduate student before his dissertation committee, the author proudly parades his research efforts in a three-page afterword entitled "My Thanks." Here we find out, among other things, how Garcia Marquez learned to take notes, how his friends in many countries helped him with his research, and how he double-checked his facts and eliminated anachronisms, all in the interest of accurately depicting Bolivar's "tyrannically documented life" (272).

Historical accuracy is not an idea one usually associates with fiction, much less with an author like Garcia Marquez. Let us not be misled, however, by the scholarship of his afterword to consider The General in His labyrinth uniquely "realistic" among Garcia Marquez's works. He has always been--as he has repeatedly insisted--a realist. That is, he portrays life as he has observed it and as he believes it to be. Moreover, in seeking the enduring patterns behind the detail, he agrees with the Aristotelian conception of poetic truth. For Aristotle, poetry, since it deals with universals, possesses the deepest kind of truth. Such a spirit of poetic truthfulness has certainly moved Garcia Marquez in The General in His Labyrinth as well as in such major works as One Hundred Years of Solitude and El otono del patriarca (1975; Eng. The Autumn of the Patriarch), works which presented recognizably "true" though undocumented pictures of Latin American life and of the Latin American dictator type.

This poetic realism is also, in a somewhat different style, the mode of Love in the Time of Cholera. The book reads like a nineteenth-century novel in the grand narrative tradition. That anachromistic approach allies Garcia Marquez with masters like Defoe, Fielding, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, and even the early Thomas Mann. Such narrative traditionalism upset some Latin American reviewers, wire somehow expected Garcia Marquez to write something stylistically daring and innovative. Critical expectations are fickle. Earlier, when The Autumn of the Patriarch was published, critics were disturbed because it was too innovative, too different from One Hundred Years of Solitude, a work that some expected him to rewrite forever.[3] Love in the Time of Cholera may differ stylistically from much of the previous fiction by Garcia Marquez; but it focuses on one of his most enduring themes, love, and the story that it tells is bold, touching, and finally exuberant.

Garcia Marquez was inspired to write Love in the Time of Cholera, he tells Marlise Simons in an interview published in the New York Times Book Review (7 April 1985), by something he once saw: an elderly couple, very much in love, happily dancing on the deck of a ship, oblivious to their surroundings. This image took root in his mind, much like other images which inspired previous novels: a man on a porch in the Colombian city of Barranquilla, waiting for something (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba [Eng. No One Writes to the Colonel]); a small boy being taken by an old man to see a block of ice, exhibited as if it were part of a circus sideshow (Cien anos de soledad); an incredibly old man alone in a presidential palace, which is full of cows (El otono del patriarca). From that image of the dancing couple Garcia Marquez created a story about passion eventually reciprocated, a reflection on old age much in the spirit of Simone de Beauvoir's 1970 work La vieillesse and in the manner of Tolstoy's reflections on death and dying in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and a meditation on the art of love.

Let me list the ways--some of them, at least--in which Garcia Marquez portrays love in this novel: love between old people, love between adolescents, love between an old man and a young virgin, love with prostitutes, love as infidelity, epistolary love, platonic love, interracial love, masochistic love--in fact, almost every kind of love except (so complains Enrique Fernandez in his December 1986 review in the Village Voice) homosexual love. In this Colombian Kama Sutra Garcia Marquez even mentions some unusual sexual positions, though he does not describe them: that of the angel on the rack, or that of the chicken on the grill. In some senses also he has produced a taxonomy of love through brief descriptive phrases: love is, for example, a cataclysm, a martyrdom, an instance of madness, a pain in the heart, a rebirth, a fever, a disease, an attack of cholera (these last three showing, in part, how "love as illness" is one of the controlling metaphors of the book). These and other details point to a fundamental quality of this novel. Unlike Jorge Isaacs, Garcia Marquez does not envelop love in a haze of sentimentality. We come away from Love in the Time of Cholera convinced that, indeed, this is what love must be like--or can be like--at age eighty or at fifty, at forty or at twenty, convinced that Garcia Marquez has sounded the depths of the human heart.

For all its surprising freshness in the Garcia Marquez canon, Love in the Time of Cholera nevertheless shares thematic preoccupations with previous works, especially the theme of old age. But there are significant differences. The secret of a good old age, believes Colonel Aureliano Buendia in Cien anos de soledad, is an honorable pact with solitude.[4] In Love in the Time of Cholera the secret seems to be the ability to love. In earlier works old age itself is a time of wisdom, as in the case of Ursula Buendia, or a time of terrible power, as in that of the deathless dictator of El otono del patriarca, or a time of decrepitude, as it is in the story of the old man with enormous wings. Before Love in the Time of Cholera Garcia Marquez had not depicted old age very positively. Its zesty portrayal in this novel leads Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria to conclude that it is "not only a great book, but one of the few optimistic ones to have come along in many years."[5]

That optimism, that zest about sexuality and love in old age, has bothered some critics uncomfortable with the idea of physical passion between people whose skin is no longer tight, whose hair (what there is of it) no longer shines, whose bones may now creak with arthritic pain, and whose eves can no longer see clearly. That, however, is precisely what Garcia Marquez describes in the last fifth of his novel, and the pages devoted especially to the consummation of the passion between Florentino and Fermina are poignant, magisterial, and unforgettable. Moreover, behind the description of that and other loves in the novel lies a deeper love, a love of life itself. It is an attitude which, simply, says "yes" to life and to all that it may bring.

The "yes" becomes a "no" in The General in His Labyrinth. "Let us go," the general tells his trusted servant Jose Palacios on the very first page of the novel, "as fast as we can. No one loves us here" (in the Spanish, "aqui no nos quiere nadie")--words which the Liberator had apparently actually spoken many times in his life and which have also been attributed to his final delirium.[6] Bolivar may indeed have died from tuberculosis, as is generally thought (the exact cause of death has never been established conclusively enough for some people), but for Garcia Marquez, Bolivar really dies from a lack of love. Despised by many of his countrymen, abandoned by all but a few aides and associates, left--during the final seven months of his life--without even the companionship of his longtime mistress Manuela Saenz, Bolivar had no choice but to die of a broken heart. Historically and medically, there may be another explanation. In the world of philosophic universals and poetic truths, however, love, or its lack, can kill.

The General in His Labyrinth seems to me to be a labyrinthine summation in historical fiction of certain of Garcia Marquez's long-standing obsessions and ever-present topics: love, death, solitude, power, fate. Love is but one of the themes that link this novel with previous books. In interviews the author calls attention to some of those links. It is as if, increasingly conscious of the geographic and historical unity of all his previous work, he wishes to make sure that readers understand how intimately, despite appearances to the contrary, The General in His Labyrinth is related to all the other fiction. "At bottom," Garcia Marquez tells Maria Elvira Samper in an important interview published in the Colombian weekly Semana (20 March 1989), "I have written only one book, the same one that circles round and round, and continues on." In that same interview he seeks to ground The General in His Labyrinth in the world of his previous fiction.

El general is more important than the rest of my work put together. It demonstrates that my work as a whole is founded on a geographic and historical reality. That reality is not that of magical realism and all those other things which people talk about. When you read [this novel], you realize that everything else in some way has a documentary, geographic, and historical basis that is borne out by El general. It is like El coronel no tiene quien le escriba all over again, but historically grounded this time.[7]

Such an avowal of the novel's ties to the past goes hand in hand with numerous details which proclaim its kinship with prior fiction. Like the Patriarch, Bolivar was a dictator (indeed that was one of his official titles for a while) with the power to give absolute commands which were actually carried out. That power was first consolidated--and believed in by others--in 1814, when Bolivar ordered the mass execution of all the captured royalists in the Guayra; and yet, throughout his career, while reveling in such power and not hesitating to use it, Bolivar stated his distaste for it. Such an ambivalent attitude made him into that most contradictory of leaders: the unwilling despot. In this he resembles Colonel Aureliano Buendia, reluctant hero of Colombia's civil wars and never more ferocious a warrior than in his battles to secure peace. Like Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Bolivar escapes numerous assassination attempts, seems to lead a charmed life, and is destined to die of natural causes. Like Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Bolivar believes the wars he has waged to have been "fruitless" ("guerras inutiles" in the Spanish; 13) and the "disillusionments of power" ("los desenganos del poder"; 13) to have been many and overwhelming.

Some phrases either call attention to previous works, both fictional and not, or sound as if they have been lifted from them. Such intertextuality is evident when Bolivar, on coming into a room, is "surprised by the scent of the guavas lying in a gourd on the windowsill" ("sorprendido por el olor de las guayabas expuestas en una totuma sobre el alfeizar de la ventana"; 113). (El olor de la guayaba is the title of a book of reminiscences and conversations between Garcia Marquez and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, published in Barcelona by the Editorial Bruguera in 1982.) The following sentence from The General in His Labyrinth could well have been written for One Hundred Years of Solitude: "Fourteen years of wars had taught him [Bolivar] that there was no greater victory than being alive" (27). The General in His Labyrinth even ends with a sentence whose final rhythmic phrases recall One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Then he [Bolivar] crossed his arms over his chest and began to listen to the radiant voices of the slaves singing the six o'clock Salve in the mills, and through the window he saw the diamond of Venus in the sky that was dying forever, the eternal snows, the new vine whose yellow bellflowers he would not see bloom on the following Saturday in the house closed in mourning, the final brilliance of [the] life that would never, through all eternity, he repeated again. (267)[8]

Such a resemblance is intentional, of course, and it seems to me to be a canny message to his readers: "Look," Garcia Marquez seems to be saying, "the story of Bolivar is of a piece with that of the Buendias, and both are the story of Latin America itself."

The message goes deeper than this, however. Here, as so often in his work, Garcia Marquez's sensibility is close to that of the ancient Greeks. For him, Bolivar's is a fated life. That sense of fatality is portrayed through the constant use of sentences which foreshadow an end known to us all (e.g., "The last visitor he received the night before was Manuela Saenz, the bold Quitena who loved him but was not going to follow him to his death"; 6), through phrases like "it was the end" (37) and "they never saw each other again" (41), and through such foreshadowing techniques as the repeated appearance of a clock that is stopped at seven minutes past one, the exact time of Bolivar's death. Garcia Marquez also frames the entire novel with an epigraph which might have been written by Homer, Aeschylus, or Sophocles: "Parece," Bolivar writes to Francisco de Paula Santander, "que el demonio dirige las cosas de mi vida." Edith Grossman's translation, "It seems that the devil controls the business of my life," narrows the interpretive range of Bolivar's comment. Bolivar did not write "el diablo" but rather the more suggestive "el demonio." Demonio comes from the Greek daimon, a term with several related meanings. According to Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, "divine power" is one of them (theos is the term usually used to personify a god). More often, daimon simply means "fate" or "destiny," as in "oti daimones thelosin" (what [the] gods ordain). In believing himself to be controlled by the forces of fate, and in submitting to the will of the daimon, the Liberator resembles many of Garcia Marquez's heroes, from the Buendias in One Hundred Years of Solitude to Santiago Nasar in Cronica de una muerte anunciada, (1981; Eng. Chronicle of a Death Foretold).[9] It is worth recalling at this point that Garcia Marquez prefaced his very first novel, La hojarasca (Eng. Leaf Storm), first published in 1955, with a long quotation from Sophocles' Antigone.

The theme of fate is also linked to that of love, and both are related in turn to the image of tile labyrinth. For this "novelist of love," as Eugene Bell-Villada has described him,[10] or this "nymphomaniac of the heart," as Garcia Marquez identified himself in an interview for Playboy magazine (February 1983, p. 178), the lack of love pushes Bolivar to his death. Garcia Marquez uses love also as a barometer of Bolivar's heart and health. Bolivar had the reputation of being a womanizer, and books have been written on the subject (e.g., Cornelio Hispano's Historia secreta de Bolivar); but during his final months of life he was really too ill to add to that reputation. The novelist of love, instead of recounting Bolivar's sexual exploits during those months and thereby straining the credulity of his readers, portrays love mostly through Bolivar's memory. Women, most of them beautiful and almost all of them invented by Garcia Marquez (e.g., the charming Miranda Lindsay) but some not (Manuela Saenz and Anita Lenoit), weave through Bolivar's life like talismanic presences, now protecting him from harm (especially assassination attempts), now comforting him in his solitude. Every few pages Garcia Marquez inserts another woman. Their very presence, since most of them are said to belong to Bolivar's glorious past, allows a labyrinthine exploration of his life before his final journey, and the ebbing of his passion in bed (or in the hammock), as in the episode of the young girl who leaves him in the morning as virginal as she was the night before (18183), mirrors the ebbing of his life. Inexorably, just as the Magdalena River winds its way to the sea, Bolivar is drawn through the darkening maze of life, until at the end, just before his final moments, he curses his inability to find a way out of "the labyrinth" (267)--the first and only time the word is used in the book. There is no Ariadne's thread for him as there was for Theseus, no thread of love--or of hope--to lead him back to life.

This wise book, superbly translated by Edith Grossman, deserves to he read and reread, taught again and again, and written about--as it will be--for many, many years. By choosing to portray Bolivar's life the way he does, Garcia Marquez summarizes so much: the life of a great man, an era, a culture. However, Garcia Marquez has also portrayed himself in portraying Bolivar, and has admitted as much. "I identify myself in many ways with Bolivar," he tells Maria Elvira Samper in Semana. For example, he says that he has "loaned" Bolivar his own "choleric personality, and he [Bolivar] controls his anger as well as I control mine. The truth is that a novelist builds a character with pieces of himself." Those pieces are both biographical and philosophical in this case. Biographically, both Bolivar and Garcia Marquez are men of the Caribbean; both live much of their lives in high-altitude urban areas; both feel nostalgia for their native haunts; both are uncomfortable among "cachacos," a pejorative term for Bogotanos used by those from the coastal regions of Colombia. Philosophically, Garcia Marquez is like Bolivar also, he says, in that neither of them "pays much attention to death, because that distracts one from the most important thing: what one does in life" (32-33).[11] What Garcia Marquez has done in life is magnificent indeed.

Written in the author's maturity, Love in the Time of Cholera has the freshness of someone looking at old places with new understanding. Here Garcia Marquez seems to be rediscovering joyfulness, reveling in the knowledge that old age can have some of the wonderment and passion of youth. In all this, Love in the Time of Cholera is very much like One Hundred Years of Solitude, despite the apocalyptic ending of that book. By contrast, The General in His Labyrinth is written in an elegiac mode, and critics have commented on its lack of humor. It is a valediction, not forbidding mourning. If Love in the Time of Cholera is high comedy, then The General in His Labyrinth is tragedy. If Love in the Time of Cholera is like One Hundred Years of Solitude, then The General in His Labyrinth is like The Autumn of the Patriarch, dark in its mood, somber in its message. Taken together, these two most recent novels demonstrate once again the astonishing range of Garcia Marquez's work and the empathetic flexibility of his mind and heart.

University of Illinois, Urbana


  1. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, El amor en los tiempos del colera, Bogota, La Oveja Negra, 1985: translated by Edith Grossman as Love in the Time of Cholera, New York, Knopf, 1990; and El general en su laberinto, Bogota, La Oveja Negra, 1989; translated by Grossman as The General in His Labyrinth, New York, Knopf, 1990. Parenthetic page numbers refer to the Spanish-language editions.
  2. For Love in the Time of Cholera, see, for example, Jean Franco in The Nation, 23 April 1988; Walter Clemons in Newsweek, 25 April 1988; Michael Wood in the New York Review of Books, 28 April 1988; David Castronovo in America, 3 September 1988; and Roberto Gonzalez Eehevarria in the Yale Review, Spring 1989. For The General in His Labyrinth, see Joseph Coates in "Tribune Books" of the Chicago Tribune, 9 September 1990; Margaret Atwood in the New York Times Book Review, 16 September 1990; R. Z. Sheppard in Time, 17 September 1990; Tim Padgett in Newsweek, 8 October 1990; and Robert Adams in the New York Review of Books, 11 October 1990. The exception to the elegant detachment in the reviews is the lively, loosely written, and finally negative review by John Leonard in The Nation, 3 December 1990.
  3. It is possibly that difference that led some Latin American critics to denounce El otono del patriarca on its publication. One critic lamented Garcia Marquez's forgetfulness about the virtues of punctuation ("las virtudes del punto"--Ruben Gamboa, in Handbook of Latin American Studies, 1976, p. 425), apparently himself overlooking such masters of scarce punctuation as Proust and Joyce. Another, Jaime Mejia Duque, delivered himself of a long diatribe entitled El otono del patriarca o la crisis de la desmesura (Bogota, La Oveja Negra, 1975). The length of the criticism about Garcia Marquez's excessive length was itself excessive.
  4. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cien anos de soledad, Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 1967, p. 174. Unless otherwise noted, the translations in this review are my own.
  5. Gonzalez Echevarria, p. 478.
  6. See Jean Descola, Los libertadores, Barcelona, Juventud, 1960, p. 306.
  7. From an interview with Garcia Marquez conducted by Maria Elvira Samper, Semana (Colombia), 20 March 1989, p. 28. The original text reads: "El general tiene una importancia mas grande que todo el resto de mi obra. Demuestra que toda mi obra corresponde a una realidad geografica e historica. No es el realismo magico y todas esas cosas que se dicen. Cuando lees el Bolivar te das cuenta de que todo lo demas tiene, de alguna manera, una base documental, una base historica, una base geografica que se comprueba con El general. Es como otra vez El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, pero fundamentado historicamente. En el fondo yo no he escrito sino un solo libro, que es el mismo que da vueltas y vueltas, y sigue."
  8. "Entonces cruzo los brazos contra el pecho y empezo a oir las voces radiantes de los esclavos cantando la salve de las seis en los trapiches, y vio por la ventana el diamante tie Venus en el cielo que se iba para siempre, las nieves eternas, la enredadera nueva cuyas campanulas amarillas no veria florecer el sabado siguiente en la casa cerrada por el duelo, los ultimos fulgores de la vida que nunca mas, por los siglos de los siglos, volveria a repetirse."
  9. For an analysis of the relationship between Cronica de una muerte anunciada and Greek tragedy, see my article, "Cronica de una muerte anunciada: El Anti-Edipo de Garcia Marquez," Revista de Estudios Colombianos, 6 (1989), pp. 9-15.
  10. Eugene Bell-Villada, Garcia Marquez: The Man and His Work, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 176 ff.
  11. "Me siento identificado en muchas cosas con Bolivar. Por ejemplo, en esa cosa de no pararle muchas holas a la muerte, porque lo distrae a uno de lo fundamental, clue es lo que esta haciendo uno en la vida. . . . [Garcia Marquez le presto al personaje Bolivar] lo colerico, que lo controlaba tan bien como lo controlo yo. La verdad es que un novelista hace un personaje con retazos de si mismo."

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez El amor en los tiempos del colera




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