In this somber novel Símon Bolívar is not so much the George Washington of South America as the King Lear. Prematurely old at 46, gaunt, sick, sleepless, betrayed, bitter, he staggers toward ambiguous exile, one foot still in power, the other in the grave, as the vast territory he liberated from Spanish colonial rule goes to pieces, and with it his dream of ''one nation, free and unified, from Mexico to Cape Horn.''
The book, set in the year 1830, takes Bolívar from lugubrious Bogotá, where it has been raining ''since three o'clock in the morning of the seventeenth century,'' as he gloomily jokes, to the sleepy Caribbean coast of Colombia. His route passes through pestilential jungles and funereal provincial towns sunk in heat and torpor and clouds of mosquitoes. Sporadically delirious with fever, succumbing by degrees to an undiagnosed lung disease, he spends the journey brooding on past conquests, military and amorous, receiving petitioners who don't believe he has renounced power, and hoarsely conveying caustic aphorisms and curses to his faithful entourage. Half the country wants him crowned emperor. The other half wants him drawn and quartered.
Bolívar himself has begun to have doubts about the revolution he led: ''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 .'' In Bogotá the grateful citizens, after shooting him in effigy, bestow on him the singular honor of some well-aimed cow dung. Thus is the Liberator, the most heroic figure in South American history, sent on his way to mortality and immortality.
This is history as anticlimax. If you want Gabriel García Márquez at his most enchanting and captivating, you will want to read One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera. The General in His Labyrinth is García Márquez mordant and bleak, meditating, with a precise and merciless historical imagination, on ruins. One ruin is the eternal chaotic inertia of South American politics, which made short work of Bolívar's liberal ideals, but the principal exhibit is Bolívar himself. The book is a study of greatness tasted in its dregs.
García Márquez still manages to savor it. This is not an example of the feet-of-clay school of biographical writing, so characteristic of our smug and resentful times. Bolívar's accomplishments are not implicitly brought to nothing because he wound up sour and disillusioned or seduced a lot of women (approximately 35). We are given only brief backward glances at his glory charming European aristocrats with his animated conversation, reading Rousseau on his arduous military campaigns, envisioning victorious battle plans in a moment. And even the erotic parentheses in the story Bolívar with his formidable, cigar-smoking chief mistress and with other young women encountered along the way or in memory are mostly gauges of loss and la lathe consoling power that they usually possess in Garcia Marquez's work. But his General, barely able to stand, is still a commanding figure, admirable in wretchedness. For one thing, he is given all the best lines, some of them having to do with cultural arrogance, aimed at European and North American ears, some of them sardonically witty, some of them desolately worthy of Lear. Sure in his sense of place, custom, costume, food, drink, song, mosquito, and vulture, García Márquez brings to life a dying man in all his vexingly eccentric, majestic individuality and makes his fate carry universal resonance. ''Damn it,'' says the General at the end of the tragedy, ''How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?'' He doesn't, anymore than anyone does. A-