I want to talk today about one of the best books I've ever read. "The General In His Labyrinth", by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; what draws me to the book is not the prose or storytelling or the artistry – though it is, as always with Marquez, impressive to the highest degree – but the allegorical significance of the story of the great general's final flight down the Magdalena river and to his death.
It's important to contextualize this, so I'll begin with a brief overview of central and south America in the late 1940's and early 1950's, when Marquez was in his early to late adulthood. It was a time of massive social and political upheaval: the promise of the apocalypse of World War II was that all nations would be freed from the yoke of imperialism, of control, and of dominance.
Promises Broken, Promises Kept
Central and South America were swept up, like many former colonies of the dead European empires, in nationalistic fervor in the aftermath of WW2. First came Guatemala, in revolution from 1944 until 1954. In one of the first of many to come in the new imperial world order, the United States undercut this Democratic outburst and stoked a coup in operation PBSUCESS.
One after another, across Central America, the story was the same: the Left would rise and attempt to seize proper organs of power, and in the course of doing so grab the attention of the United States. At which point nothing was off the table: from disinformation to propaganda to assassinations and support – both overt and covert – of right wing militas.
This was the world that Gabriel Garcia Marquez grew up in, and I think it's a world that he spoke to, through the persona of Bolivar.
Marquez's labyrinth was that promise, the idea of working towards a better tomorrow. Not only did this movements fail, but they failed completley due to outside malefactors; it's one thing to see a popular left movement fail because of a lack of planning, or a lack of public will, but to see it kneecapped and left for dead by the most powerful empire in human history: that is another matter completely.
So Marquez did what he does best and wrote. He wrote about the General, and about his life. His successes yes, but also his failings, his spiteful, angry final days, and his flight from all that he had built. It's a wonderful story on its own merit, but the story of the ultimate folly of human ambition in the face of powers larger and more vast than ourselves, that's the real heart of the story for me.
And just like Bolivar, the insurgent and youthful Left would be cast aside, a husk of its former self, left to wander and finally die among the swamps and turns of time.