This week I’m revisiting one of my favorite books, the famous fictionalized account of the last months in the life of South American liberator Simon Bolivar by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I cannot recall the first time I read The General in His Labyrinth except that it was early in my college career and it opened my eyes to world literature. My notes in the book seem completely unfamiliar — I appear to have fact-checked the book, not just against history but also to spot the moments which are fantasies of the character Bolivar’s troubled mind. Now, I read the book differently. I am drawn to Manuela Saenz, whom the General loves with an incomprehensible depth. What is more incomprehensible is the way that she loves him, despite his pride and his descent, or maybe because of those things. Here is one of Garcia Marquez’s earliest introductions to Manuela:
Manuel read to him for two hours. She had been young until a short time before, when her flesh bagan to overtake her age. She smoked a sailor’s pipe, used the verbena water favored by the military as her perfume, dressed in men’s clothing, and spent time with soldiers, but her husky voice still suited the penumbra of love. She read by the scant light of the candle, sitting in an armchair that bore the last viceroy’s coat of arms, and he listened to her in bed, lying on his back, dressed in the civilian clothes he wore at home and covered by a vicuna poncho. Only the rythym of his breathing indicated that he was not asleep.
Since I last read this book, it has been used many times to describe the descent of a different general, Prevez Musharraf of Pakistan. The New York Times took the book’s title for an editorial calling on American to “disentangle itself from the sinking fortunes of Gen. Pervez Musharraf.” Both the London Review of Books and the Washington Post reuse the novel’s title to headline reviews of Musharaff’s memoir.
I think this is an overly simple trope that belies the depth of Garcia Marquez’s work. Indeed, the novel is about a general in his darkest hours, during the last days of his power. But what is most dark and beautiful here is not the political turmoil, not as simple as the news events that color newspapers’ accounts of Musharraf’s last days in charge. It is about how a liberator gets lost because, even though his days in battle are over, in his final days he is still at war within himself and his memories.
It was a bit of serendipity that I happened to unpack this book from my moving boxes. I am thinking a lot about the lasting impacts of war these days, both for those who commit themselves to war and those who find themselves in its path. Perhaps this is why Manuela intrigues me so much; even though she is not at the fore, she plays such an intimate role in the General’s life, plunged into his wars because of her love and loyalty. It is this personal part of war which is hard to capture in news reports and book reviews, and is perhaps best understood through the lens of fiction, Garcia Marquez’s lyrical account in particular.
Completely apart from The General in His Labryinth, I also spent time last week writing some film reviews. Versions of a review of Chandni Chowk to China appeared in The China Beat and Asia Pacific Arts, as well as a review of the newest Deepa Metha film, Heaven on Earth, which also appeared in Asia Pacific Arts.
(Sorry for the lack of accents in this post — my website needs some work on the back end so they don’t show up as funny characters.)