Picks and Pans Review: The General in His Labyrinth

updated 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Gabriel García Márquez

Contemplatively facing death, General Simon Bolívar, the liberator of South America from Spanish rule, wanders through the pages of this intriguing novel with a mind that is feverishly lucid and a body that is literally shrinking.

Rendered as an almost perverse Don Quixote, García Márquez's fictional Bolívar pursues a dream that is already half realized. By 1830, South America is free from European rule but, because of separatists' revolts, it is not united; Bolívar is both a vilified ex-president and a political fugitive journeying from Bogotá down the Magdelena River toward a European retirement. But for all his historic importance, Bolívar, simply called General in the book, is human, and this story is one of resignation rather than revelation—a combination of personal and political ironies.

Normally such a figure would be ideal for the imaginative gyre that is a García Márquez novel. And indeed this book recalls the author's 1976 novel The Autumn of the Patriarch. This heavily researched portrait, however, is too dour and too diffuse—even Nobel laureates have off projects.

Part of the problem is that the plot lacks mystery, and so García Márquez tries to build intensity through a collage like presentation of the General's dreams, recollections and delusions. As Bolívar makes his way along the river, every stop conjures a different, more glorious moment; stories about his habits and his illness, with details of ongoing political intrigues, give shape to the General's mental labyrinth but propel the story too often in an obvious way.

As the General confesses to a physician near the end, "I've become lost in a dream, searching for something that doesn't exist."

While the book offers some perspective, it is of a particularly dreary variety. Through the General's uncertainty, García Márquez invites speculation on the frailty of idealism and the price of power and of struggle. On his deathbed, the General laments that "the man who serves a revolution plows the sea. This nation will fall inevitably into the hands of the unruly mob and then...indistinguishable petty tyrants." (Knopf, $19.95)

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