Bolívar: The Epic Life of the Man who Liberated South America

Paulo Drinot assesses a biography of Simón Bolívar that finds new things to say in an already crowded field of study

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Reviewed by: Paulo Drinot
Author: Marie Arana
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price (RRP): £25

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Half-a-dozen English-language biographies or detailed studies of Simón Bolívar have been published in the past decade or so. Moreover, one can still find copies of now- classic biographies by Salvador de Madariaga and Gerhard Masur. Marie Arana’s Bolívar therefore joins a crowded market.

Prior to turning her attention to Bolívar, Arana worked as a literary editor for the Washington Post and wrote novels. Other biographies, particularly John Lynch’s Bolívar: A Life (2007), provide a more scholarly account of Bolívar’s life. But Arana’s biography is nonetheless a highly accomplished study, compellingly written and assiduously researched.

The story Arana tells is familiar to the historian of Latin America. Across 18 chapters, Arana recounts what by any measure is an extraordinary life. Bolívar was born fabulously wealthy in Caracas (in what became Venezuela) in 1783 and died virtually destitute 47 years later in Santa Marta (in modern-day Colombia). Over several decades, he liberated northern South America from Spanish rule, a territory larger than western Europe or the United States of George Washington. He created Gran Colombia, which later divided into Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, and established – and briefly ruled – the modern states of Peru and Bolivia. Although he was physically small, Arana leaves us in no doubt that Bolívar was a giant of man.

Typically, biographies are a mode of writing that focuses on ‘great’ men and (less often) ‘great’ women. However, most historians are, rightly, sceptical of the ‘great man theory’ of history. And yet as works such as Ian Kershaw’s magisterial study of Hitler show, biographies can contribute much to our understanding of the past. It is likely that northern South America still would have gained its independence from Spain if Bolívar had died of yellow fever or dysentery at an early age. But it is clear that Bolívar’s beliefs and actions shaped the course of South American independence decisively. It is therefore important to understand what, in turn, shaped those beliefs and actions. This is what biographies such as Arana’s can help us to do.

As the author shows, but perhaps does not reflect sufficiently upon, Bolívar’s trajectory as a warrior and as a statesman was as much a product of his own individual experience as of the society into which he was born. Arana pays a lot of attention to the former: she paints a very rich picture of Bolívar’s childhood, his sojourn in Europe, his many lovers, his relationships with his fellow revolutionaries, his subordinates, his enemies, and so on. Arana pays less attention to South American society in the late colonial and early postcolonial period. Although Arana does occasionally foreground issues such as the racial hierarchies that dominated colonial society to frame her discussion, what drives her narrative is primarily the emergence of Bolívar as a great military leader but a flawed politician.

In building this narrative, Arana gives vivid accounts of the many men and women who interacted with, and influenced, Bolívar throughout his peripatetic existence (for ‘the liberator’ spent his life in constant movement across the north of South America and beyond). These include well-known characters including Francisco de Miranda, José Antonio Páez, Francisco de Paula Santander and, indeed, Manuela Sáenz, Bolívar’s formidable mistress. The book also explores the lives of many less well-known but equally elaborately crafted characters, and these portrayals are matched by equally well-written descriptions of the varied climates and landscapes that Bolívar encountered during his military campaigns, and of the many battles that won him his fame.

Arana’s study is no hagiography. She pays as much attention to Bolívar’s errors of judgment as to his achievements. But she is broadly sympathetic: Bolívar, the book suggests, had noble ideals, foremost among them granting freedom to slaves and the idea of creating a united South America, but circumstance rather than fault of character meant that he was not always able to uphold those ideals. This, Arana argues, accounts for his increasing authoritarianism and, ultimately, his profound disillusionment with the countries and people he helped to free from Spanish domination.

Whether or not we agree with this overall assessment, this biography remains an engaging account of Bolívar’s life.

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Paulo Drinot is the editor of Che’s Travels: The Making of a Revolutionary in 1950s Latin America (Duke University Press, 2010)