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Book Review: Bolivar

By (April 7, 2013) No Comment

Bolivar: American Liberatorbolivar - arana

By Marie Arana

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Marie Arana’s boisterous new biography of Simon Bolivar comes by its intense readability the old-fashioned way: its author is a former editor-in-chief of the Washington Post Book World, the veteran of many a joyless slog through many a wretchedly boring book. Such working critics come to treasure the really good books that come their way; it can be safely assumed they learn a thing or two about how to keep a narrative from grinding to a halt.

In Arana’s case, there might also have been just the smallest drop of random chance breaking in her favor, since her book appears shortly after the sudden death of  news-making Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who idolized Bolivar to such an extent that he officially re-named his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Arana is sensitive to the attendant absurdities – and what they signify:

He made televised speeches with Bolivar’s image behind him, had his followers chant “Bolivar! Bolivar!” in the streets. Think of the irony in this: there is no George Washington party in the United States of America, no declared enemies of a founder. There are no people who shout Napoleon’s name in the streets of Paris today. But in Latin America, Bolivar lives on as a galvanizing force, a lightning rod for political action.

Simon Bolivar stood a foot shorter than his own idol, George Washington, but Bolivar’s height was the only small thing about him. Bolivar: American Liberator (published in a handsome hardcover from Arana’s old stomping ground, Simon & Schuster) tells the oversized story of the Liberator’s life and times with an infectious sense of high drama. This is by far the most enjoyable English-language biography Bolivar has ever received, excelling Robert Harvey’s fine 2011 Romantic Revolutionary in both depth and drama.

Certainly there’s no end of drama in Bolivar’s story. He was born in Caracas in 1783 to well-off parents who both died while he was still a boy. He received a first-rate education from tutors. He undertook his first military studies while he was still a teenager, and he was in Milan when Napoleon was crowned, which would have sufficed to give a far less impressionable youth Napoleonic ideas. And the frittering chaos of South America chafing under Spanish rule in the first decade of the 19th century proved a perfect staging-ground for those ideas:

That year, like bricks tumbling in a row, the colonies of Buenos Aires, Bogota, Quito, and Mexico declared their sovereignty, established juntas, and dispatched Spain’s governors to an open sea. By the end of the year, every major metropolis on the continent, except for Lima, had rid itself of its Spanish garrison. It was a strange and surreal uncoupling: King Ferdinand’s American empire had declared autonomy – in his name. And yet, for all the talk about liberty, little was said about the other two pillars of democracy: fraternity and equality.

In lightning campaigns that covered thousands of miles (all vividly described by our author), Bolivar fought in Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru, working always to break South America away from the rule of Spain – and not always working very hard to keep chunks of South America from the rule of Bolivar. The diminutive general’s penchant for power has always given his would-be hagiographers pause (indeed, it gave most of his contemporaries pause), and in quintessential Bolivar fashion, he himself was as sharply aware of the problem as anybody:

I am a son of war, a man whom combat has elevated to the halls of rule. Fortune has brought me to this rank and victory has confirmed it. But mine are not titles that have been consecrated by the scales of justice, by happy circumstance, by the people’s will. The sword that has governed Colombia is the whip of misfortune … This sword will be useless in a day of peace and, when that day finally comes, my power will be finished, because I have sworn as much to myself, because I have promised it to Colombia, and because there can be no republic unless people take power into their own hands. A man like me is dangerous to a popular government; a threat to national sovereignty.

Arana retails the furious reversals of Bolivar’s career and the powerful personalities who inhabited it, and she keeps returning to the easily-manipulated variability of the hero’s significance:

Bolivar became the personification of Latin American greatness: a man with a resolute love of liberty and an unwavering sense of justice, a hero willing to risk everything for a dream. But as the legend grew, each version building on the last, the man took on a protean quality.

Unlike his hero Washington (but very much like his guiding demon, Napoleon), Bolivar’s translation to immortality was neither smooth nor satisfying to him. The splinter-republics he helped to create fell to bickering even while his laurels were still green, and his harshly impulsive nature led him to turn on friends, betray loyalties, flirt with an absolutism he should have abhorred, and finally die as reviled as he was revered. Had you asked him on his deathbed, he might well have characterized his entire life as a failure, and although Arana’s superb book (surely one of the best biographies 2013 will see) tends to demonstrate just the opposite, there’s enough ambiguity to the Liberator’s glory to make it unendingly fascinating.