The Great Liberator, Garcia Marquez discovered during two years of exhaustive research, was nothing like the one-dimensional hero presented to schoolchildren all across the continent. Garcia Marquez felt obliged to set history straight. So he wrote a novel of Bolivar's last, ambiguous journey down the Magdalena as a haggard and dying man, old at 47, reviled, nearly friendless, with his hopes of a unified and independent Latin America in tatters.
Garcia Marquez's Bolivar is a romantic aristocrat, as myth would have it, but "The General in His Labyrinth" also says that the legendary hero is part black--his is not the long Roman nose that it became in revisionist drawings. His language is vulgar, with a river man's coarseness that has shocked the Latin world of letters. Having lost his wife at a young age, Bolivar fills his nights not only with his well-known mistress, Manuela Sasenz, but also with countless young girls, whom he eagerly takes to his hammock and then discards.
But most disconcerting for a sainted hero is the decrepit state of his body: He is a farting, foul-breathed insomniac who suffers periodic spells of delirium. This Bolivar is full of the contradictions that Garcia Marquez discovered in the 10,000 letters the General wrote over a lifetime. "He changed his opinion according to the circumstances. It was extraordinary to find that there was a human being in this myth that they had created."
Unlike typical Bogota leaders, including his one-time vice president Francisco de Paula Santander, Bolivar was not at all cautious or formalistic. Bolivar was a republican who repeatedly denied that he was tempted toward a monarchy. A visionary gnawed by disillusionment, he wrote at the end of his life: "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."
And yet, in the novel, Bolivar expects to keep on fighting for his ideals. He still dreams of a unified Latin America. "Bolivar has been criticized because he was a dictator," Garcia Marquez says, "because at one point he wanted to establish a monarchy. One sees very clearly that what happened with Bolivar is that he wanted to create a free and united country, and he didn't care how he did it."
Some historians and intellectuals are angered by the book's emphasis on Bolivar's bitter quarrel with the other hero of Colombian independence, Santander. Other critics have dismissed the book as the work of a leftist trying to destroy democratic institutions.
"I haven't tried to destroy anything but to show the man," Garcia Marquez says. "All the veneration and all the respect that he gets as a myth are greater if he is seen as a human being."
THE RIVER THAT Garcia Marquez would have written about will have to wait its turn. He says it will receive ample attention in his memoirs. The Magdalena was a symbol of freedom to the young Garcia Marquez, who left home by steamboat at age 13 to go away to school. It is a source of inspiration to the mature writer who remembers the throaty whistle of the boats and their macho captains.
Born in the small banana-growing town of Aracataca, Garcia Marquez was 8 when he moved with his parents to Barranquilla, at the mouth of the Magdalena. The story of his family is all there in "Love in the Time of Cholera," Garcia Marquez says. Like Fermina Diaz, his mother went to high school and studied piano; his father wanted to be a doctor but ran out of money before he finished school and, like Florentino Ariza, became a telegrapher. Later, he opened a small pharmacy.
"We were very poor, but worse than that, we had pretensions. My mother and father had 11 children, and my father had four more outside of the marriage. Two of those were grown and didn't live with us. When the other two were born, my mother reacted with the usual drama, but then she said my father's blood couldn't be running around out there and she brought them home. They lived with us."
Growing up, Garcia Marquez spent a lot of time with his maternal grandparents in Aracataca. He has said that he learned a lot from his storytelling grandmother. And his grandfather's Caribbean-flavored Spanish helped Garcia Marquez reconstruct Bolivar's style of speaking.
As a boy, he loved comic books--Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates--and yearned to buy them, but they were too expensive. "I realized I had to leave the house because another mouth was born every year. I got the idea of a scholarship. In 1942, Colombia was such a centralized country that in order to win a scholarship, I had to travel 600 miles to take an exam in Bogota. The trip was very expensive. I don't know where my father got the money. I knew I had to pass the test, because I didn't have the return fare."