BOLIVAR: American Liberator. By Marie Arana. Simon and Schuster. 464 pages. $35.
When Simon Bolivar died in 1830 in the small Colombian town of Santa Marta, he was an emaciated, nearly skeletal shadow of the titan who had driven the once mighty Spanish from the shores of South America. Eaten up with tuberculosis, penniless and essentially abandoned by the millions who had once adored him, he was now surrounded only by a tiny group of friends and family.
The Great Liberator, the military genius who had traveled thousands of miles on horseback over mountains, across rivers, and through pestilential lowlands in his quest to create a unified Latin America, was just 47 years old.
Bolivar was born into the vibrant, roiling world of late 18th-century Caracas. A member of the Creole aristocracy, he was orphaned at the age of 10. Neglected by those in whose care he had been relegated, he began to spend his days on the streets, gaining an early exposure to the Venezuelan colonial world that would serve him well later. Finally reined in by the courts, he was given a tutor who was well-versed in Enlightenment philosophy. Sent to military school in Spain, he married and was quickly widowed, a tragedy that Bolivar believed caused him to “follow the chariot of Mars.” Other travels in Europe rounded out his education. In Italy, tales of Caesar’s exploits gave him hope for his own country. In France, the example of Napoleon planted the idea that one man could change the course of history.
The story of Bolivar’s military and political life, as told by Marie Arana, is a full-bodied, well-researched, lively narrative that alternately exhilarates and exhausts the reader. The sheer number of meticulously described battles Bolivar led or took part in, and the journeys he made across a huge land mass would be impressive in and of themselves, even if he had not accomplished so much in the process. But it is the constantly fluctuating course of revolutionary and post-revolutionary South America, what Bolivar called “a crazy fandango,” that is most daunting to follow. Soldiers and citizens change allegiance at the drop of a hat, governments come and go at a dizzying pace and larger than life leaders rise and fall on a regular basis — all predictors, as Bolivar well knew, of what was to evolve over the next nearly two centuries.
Bolivar also was aware that patterns established in the continent’s colonial past would ultimately challenge him mightily as a leader. Arana brilliantly describes Spain’s approach to her empire, her insistence that education be limited, that relations between regions be kept to a minimum and that Madrid should be the hub around which the colonial spokes turned at all times. Unlike England, who prospered and modernized as the industrial age progressed, Spain became a backwater, creating a situation in which a “vital colonial economy was being forced, at times by violent means, to kowtow to an underdeveloped mother country.”
Then there was the question of race, if possible, an even more explosive one in South America than it was in the United States. Blacks, Indians, mixed-race “pardos” and white Creoles rubbed together uneasily in a world in which they each needed the other to prosper, as Bolivar found out when he tried to fight without the help of the colored population, who often feared that the brutality of independent colonials would be worse than that of royalists.
Towards the end of a life of nearly superhuman effort and single-minded intensity, Bolivar became deeply pessimistic about the future of South America. He had always believed that given the “benighted ignorance” that Spain had kept her ordinary citizens in, it would take some time for them to be ready for “the full blazing light of democracy.” Only a leader with undisputed power could give it to them. But no one, not even he, had been able to accomplish the task. The republics that had been created were, “as insular and xenophobic as Spain had encouraged its American satellites to be.”
Arana, author of “American Chica” and a finalist for the American Book Award, was born in Lima Peru and has said that her, “entire career as a writer has been to explain Latin America to North America” Thus, this book is replete with evidence of both her love of the continent and an occasional slight prickliness when say, the revolutions of the two regions are compared, or when she implies that so clearly a giant as Bolivar is not as appreciated, or well understood, as George Washington, to whom he is often compared. The attitude becomes understandable as the life of Bolivar unfolds. .
For those eager to be introduced to a truly remarkable figure, and the time and place that produced him, Arana’s fresh and well-written biography is the place to begin.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.