- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Although there are sixteen cities or counties named for Venezuelan-born Simón Bolívar in the United States — including Bolivar (Jefferson County) WV — the real Great Liberator — the man behind the elaborate uniforms he’s pictured in — is not very well known in the United States. (Link to article on places named for Bolívar:http://www.bolivarintheusa.com/).
Marie Arana of The Washington Post remedies that in her masterful, comprehensive and very readable biography, “Bolívar: American Liberator” (Simon & Schuster, maps, glossy insert of color and black and white illustrations, index, notes, bibliography, 624 pages, $35.00). Even so, the military leader/politician’s life and philosophy was so complicated that you’ll probably come away from Arana’s book with more questions than answers. And that’s a good thing to take away from an outstanding biography.
If there’s truth in Harry Truman’s famous statement that if you want a friend in Washington, DC get a dog, advice given to Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco (24 July 1783 – 17 December 1830) would be to get dogs in the capitals of all six of the countries he’s credited with liberating: Caracas, Venezuela; Bogota, Colombia; Panama City, Panama (then part of Colombia); Quito, Ecuador; Lima, Peru (together with Argentina’s Don José de San Martín), and La Paz, Bolivia.
The book’s publication was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of his first effort to throw off the Spanish yoke from Venezuela, the first of six countries he’s credited with freeing. In so doing, he traveled more than 75,000 miles on horseback — gaining the nickname “Iron Ass” — and became the greatest figure in Latin American history.
His life is epic, heroic, straight out of Hollywood: he fought battle after battle in punishing terrain, forged uncertain coalitions of competing forces and races, lost his beautiful wife soon after they married and never remarried (although he did have a succession of mistresses, including one — the famous — and infamous Manuela Sáenz — who saved his life in an episode worth of a “Zorro” movie), and he died relatively young at the age of 47 from tuberculosis, uncertain whether his achievements would endure.
Drawing on a wealth of primary documents, novelist and journalist Marie Arana, born in Lima, Peru, to an American mother and Peruvian father, brilliantly captures early nineteenth-century South America and the explosive tensions that helped revolutionize Bolívar.
In 1813 he launched a campaign for the independence of Colombia and Venezuela, commencing a dazzling career that would take him across the rugged terrain of South America, from Amazon jungles to the Andes mountains. From his battlefield victories to his ill-fated marriage and legendary love affairs, Bolívar emerges as a man of many facets: fearless general, brilliant strategist, consummate diplomat, passionate abolitionist, gifted writer, and flawed politician. A major work of history, “Bolívar”colorfully portrays a dramatic life even as it explains the rivalries and complications that bedeviled Bolívar’s tragic last days. It is also a stirring declaration of what it means to be a South American.
Throughout the book, Arana uses the term “America” in its proper sense: referring to the geography of the Western Hemisphere, with its North and South Americas. Using the word “American” exclusively to refer to residents of the United States is incorrect. Bolívar is as much an American as George Washington, with whom he is often compared.
USA Americans tend to be smug about the nice tidy country the 13 colonies became after the Revolution was over in 1783. As a reader will quickly discover in a book I’m reading (and will review) “Blood of Tyrants: George Washington and The Forging of The Presidency” by Logan Beirne, the original United States was governed — if that’s the word — by the Articles of Confederacy, replaced by the Constitution in 1787. The U.S. under the Articles was an impossible-to-sustain loose union of 13 independent countries, many threatening to go their own way — much as the countries like Gran Colombia did after Bolívar and his troops liberated them from Spain.
More often than not as soon as a colony was liberated its inhabitants cheered Bolívar’s actions for a short period, after which they turned on him, accusing him of wanting to be a king or dictator for life. There was some truth in the latter, because Arana writes about the model constitution The Liberator drafted for several countries which specified a lifetime presidential term. Although Bolívar admired Washington, he realized that the colonies he liberated were not at the stage of political development that the 13 North American colonies that became the U.S. were. Quite simply, The Liberator preferred the British system of government, even as he used the North American term “president” for a country’s leader.
As I read about the trials and tribulations of Bolívar, I was impressed with the quality of the writing of this biography, as well as the massive amount of research the author apparently has performed in its execution. I came away knowing a lot more about Simon Bolívar than I did before reading Arana’s book.
About the author
Marie Arana is a former editor-in-chief of Book World at The Washington Post. Currently, she is a Writer at Large for The Post and a member of the Scholars Council at the Library of Congress. Arana is the author of a memoir about her bicultural childhood “American Chica,” which was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award as well as the PEN/Memoir Award, and won the Books for a Better Life Award. She is the editor of a collection of Washington Post essays about the writer’s craft, “The Writing Life: How Writers Think and Work,” which is used as a textbook for writing courses in universities across the country. Her novel “Cellophane,” about the Peruvian Amazon, was a finalist for the John Sargent Prize. Her most recent novel is “Lima Nights.” She has chaired juries for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Awards, organized literary conferences for the Kennedy Center, and currently sits on the board of the National Book Festival. She has also been an active spokesperson on Latin America, Hispanic Americans and biculturalism. She is married to Jonathan Yardley. Author’s website: www.mariearana.net