KNOWN in his own lifetime as ``The Liberator,'' the Venezuelan-born aristocrat Sim'on Bol'ivar (1783-1830) was largely responsible - along with Jos'e de San Mart'in - for freeing Spanish South America from colonial rule. He served as president of the first republic of Colombia, turned down an offer of the presidency of Peru, furnished a constitution and a name for the fledgling republic of Bolivia, but spent his last days watching his dreams for a united South America unravel amid the conflicts of nationalism, factionalism, and personal rivalries.
``How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?'' Bol'ivar was heard to ask, lying on his deathbed, out of popular favor, prematurely old at the age of 47. His exclamation furnishes the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez with the title and theme for his most recent novel, which follows the last year of the general's life and his final voyage along the Magdalena River to the sea.
It was the river voyage rather than the historic accomplishments of Bol'ivar that first engaged M'arquez's interest, he claims, and certainly anyone who has read ``Love in the Time of Cholera'' will remember the central importance of the river voyage in that remarkable novel.
But where the aging and ageless star-crossed lovers in that story seemed to recapture their beginnings as they approached the voyage's end, the general's last voyage is a story of a man going nowhere: a man caught in the labyrinth of history and in the labyrinth of his own confusion.
What M'arquez has chosen to write is not a story of achievements, but a litany of loss and frustration. Up until the end, Bol'ivar clings to the hope that it is still possible ``to start over again on the right path'' and at the last moment, turn loss to gain, defeat to victory: in short, to transform the labyrinth of thwarted hopes into a pathway to a vision made real.
But for the most part, he is overcome with somber thoughts that too often prove prophetic: ``America is ungovernable, the man who serves a revolution plows 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 color and race. ...'' He warns of dangers from the powerful neighbor to the north, worries about the corruption of political discourse and the perils of getting too deeply in debt.
Although M'arquez's portrait of Bol'ivar in his physical decrepitude has caused some shock among Latin American readers accustomed to more heroic renderings of the Liberator, the general of this novel emerges as an admirable, if erratic, character. He is a man of scrupulous honesty with regard to funds, but also a very generous man. His dream of a united South America - if not quite as altruistic and farseeing as a philosopher king's vision of utopia - is portrayed as a sign of statesmanship rather than megalomania. The general is shown to be a womanizer, but we are led to understand that reports of his amorous exploits have been, as the saying goes, greatly exaggerated.
Having chosen to portray the general's life retrospectively, M'arquez naturally makes use of flashbacks. But he does not use this technique to provide a full-scale version of the main events. He is not really engaged in revising history with the polemical vigor of a Gore Vidal, although he has been criticized for some historical inaccuracies, which he says were difficult to avoid.
Bol'ivar's political positions seemed to change under the pressure of circumstances, and M'arquez is less interested in ferreting out the twists and turns of his viewpoints than in piecing together a portrait of a man's lifelong struggle to integrate his own identity and the identity of his native continent. Insofar as Bol'ivar does not achieve this great task - and insofar as it remains an unrealized dream to this day - this is a novel about stasis. The difficulties of writing a novel about stasis soon become evident: Nothing ever seems to happen, and when it does, change proves illusory. There is no climax, no beginning, no middle, and no end but the pointless interruption of death itself.
M'arquez manages to hold our attention by a succession of beautifully written scenes that vividly evoke the precise feel of given moments in the general's life - whether of a thrilling romantic assignation from his past or a feverish night in the present. But moments like these do not constitute momentum, and the reader, however captivated by M'arquez's hypnotic prose, is likely to feel the lack of narrative drive.
In some sense, ``The General in His Labyrinth'' is a novel about the impossibility of making history, about the irrelevance of history's long cycles to the brief, never-to-be-repeated cycle of an individual human life. It's a prevalent theme in Latin American literature, traceable, perhaps, to the great 17th-century Spanish playwright Calder'on's insight - ``life is a dream'' - and amplified by centuries of political upheaval without much in the way of clear-cut resolution. But it is also a theme that has universal resonance.