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The General : The scene from the conclusion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's new book, "The General in His Labyrinth" (Alfred A. Knopf, 216 pages, $19.95).

September 02, 1990

The General was so ill when he awoke on December 10 that they called Bishop Estevez with all urgency in the event he wanted to make his confession. The Bishop rushed to the house, and such was the importance he gave to the interview that he wore full Episcopal attire. But by order of the General it took place behind closed doors and without witnesses and lasted only fourteen minutes.

No one learned a word they said. The Bishop hurried away in a state of consternation, climbed into his carriage without saying goodby, and would not officiate at the funeral despite many requests, or even attend the burial. The General was so weak he could not get out of the hammock unassisted, and the doctor had to lift him in his arms like an infant and prop him against the pillows on the bed so he would not be strangled by coughing. When at last he caught his breath he had everyone leave so he could talk to the doctor alone.

"I never imagined this damn business was serious enough to even think about last rites," he said. "And I don't have the good fortune to believe in the afterlife."

"It's not a question of that," said Reverend. "It has been demonstrated that settling matters of conscience inspires a state of mind in the patient that facilitates the physician's task."

The General paid no attention to the masterful reply, because he was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness.

"Damn it," he sighed. "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!"

He examined the room with the clairvoyance of his last days, and for the first time he saw the truth: the final borrowed bed, the pitiful dressing table whose clouded, patient mirror would not reflect his image again, the chipped porcelain washbasin with the water and towel and soap meant for other hands, the heartless speed of the octagonal clock racing toward the ineluctable appointment at seven minutes past one on his final afternoon of December 17. Then he crossed his arms over his chest and began to listen to the radiant voices of the slaves singing the six o'clock Salve in the mills, and through the window he saw the diamond of Venus in the sky that was dying forever, the eternal snows, the new vine whose yellow bellflowers he would not see bloom on the following Saturday in the house closed in mourning, the final brilliance of life that would never, through all eternity, be repeated again.

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