“George Washington threw colonialists out of one country,” says the NPR, “but Simon Bolivar liberated six from Spanish rule.” In the interview that aired on
Drawing on a wealth of primary documents, novelist and journalist Marie Arana brilliantly captures early nineteenth- century South America and the explosive tensions that helped revolutionize Bolivar. 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 his battlefield victories to his ill-fated brief marriage and legendary love affairs, Bolivar emerges as a man of many facets: fearless general, brilliant strategist, consummate diplomat, passionate abolitionist, and gifted writer. A major work of history, Bolivar colorfully portrays a dramatic life even as it explains the rivalries and turmoil that bedeviled Bolivar’s tragic last days.
“This is a magnificent story. Deeply researched and written with clarity, honesty, and verve, Marie Arana’s book tells the life of one of the greatest heroes and founders in world history. North Americans who know only of George Washington will thrill to read the epic adventures of his South American counterpart. As fantastic as Bolivar’s life appears, ‘it is not,’ as Arana says of Latin America’s bloody past in general, ‘magical realism. It is history. It is true.’” (Gordon S. Wood, author of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University )
“With the eye and ear of a novelist, Marie Arana chants the epic of Bolivar with love, zest, and compelling authority.” (Walter A. McDougall, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations, University of Pennsylvania )
“Simon Bolivar has found the perfect biographer in Marie Arana, a literary journalist, brilliant novelist of South America, and wise historian as well. Her portrait of Bolivar is human and moving; she has written a powerful and epic life and times.” (Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Struggle to Save the World )
“Inspired. . . . Arana ably captures the brash brilliance of this revered and vilified leader.” (Kirkus Reviews )
“Arana is an indefatigable researcher, a perceptive historian, and a luminous writer, as shown in her defining, exhilarating biography of the great South American liberator Simón Bolívar. . . . Her understanding of the man behind the fame—and behind the hostility that enveloped him in his later years—brings this biography to the heights of the art and craft of life-writing.” (Booklist (starred review) )
“[Arana's] vivid portrait shows us a charismatic man of high ideals, fiery oratory, unflagging energy and resolve, bold strategies, and a romantic aura. . . . Arana’s dramatic narrative is appropriately grand and enthralling . . . and it makes Bolívar an apt embodiment of the ambitions and disappointments of the revolutionary age.” (Publishers Weekly )
A summary of the book: from Marie
When I was an unruly child in Lima, Peru, I was made to atone for my misbehavior by sitting alone on a hard stool in my grandparents’ living room. It was an airless chamber, shuttered against the coast’s alternating sun and fog. There were musty books in teetering bookcases, an ornately carved piano, marble-topped tables, bronze busts of illustrious Romans, and four immense ancestral portraits that seemed to watch me with pointed reproach. Two of the likenesses were of my beloved grandparents peering down with what I never saw on their real faces—sharp looks of haughty surprise. But the other two portraits were of an earlier vintage, painted 125 years before I was born.
One was of a stately general named Joaquín Rubín de Celis, my great great great grandfather, the first Spaniard to fall at the Battle of Ayacucho, which won Peru its freedom. The wistful beauty who stared from the other wall was the daughter he never knew, Trinidad, born a few weeks after a rebel sword pierced his heart. At sixteen, she married a rebel general, my great great grandfather Pedro Cisneros Torres, who had rushed down the Andes with Bolívar’s forces that fateful day in 1824 to fight against her father. After three hundred years of Spanish rule, with two of my ancestors battling one another in the dust of the cordillera, the yoke of colonialism was broken, the war of independence won. And so, although I had been instructed to sit in that room and ponder my waywardness, I could only wonder at the glories of rebellion. A lifetime later, I remain fascinated by that decisive moment and by the man at the crucible of American possibility: Simón Bolívar, “the Great Liberator” of the New World.
Bolívar’s life is one of history’s most dramatic canvases, a colossal narrative replete with adventure and disaster, victory and defeat. Driven by his vision of a free America, he single- handedly conceived, organized and led the independence movements of six nations—Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru—an area roughly the size of modern Europe. The odds against which he fought—a formidable, established world power, vast areas of untracked wilderness, the splintered loyalties of various races—would have proved daunting for the ablest of generals with strong armies at his command. But Bolívar had never been a soldier. He had no formal military training. And yet, with little more than will and a genius for leadership, he freed much of Latin America and laid out his dream for a unified continent.
Along the way, he had to deal with the region’s racial diversity: There were blacks, whites, Indians—all suspicious of an uncertain future. To win Caracas, he battled a sadistic, golden- haired pirate. To win Colombia, he engaged the black president of Haiti. To win Venezuela, he enlisted inmates from hospitals, teenage boys. To win Peru, he manumitted Latin America’s slaves a full half-century before the Emancipation Proclamation. To undertake his punishing march over the Andes, he called his officers to a wasteland of bleached skulls and told them how his army of 2,500 ragtag men would cross land that was waist-deep in rain, then scramble over the icy promontories to win America its freedom. Half the cattle they brought for food drowned. Hundreds of soldiers died in the perilous crossing. But two hundred battles and thirteen years later, Bolívar’s army of independence prevailed. That clear success was due to the founder’s vision, which never faltered, and yet the end of his life was anything but reward.
Whereas Bolívar is worshiped in Latin America, his extraordinarily dramatic life story is hardly known here. What we do know is his name. Writers and politicians summon it to explain leaders as disparate as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Juan Peron, and Alberto Fujimori; in truth, all have drawn from the legacy of this remarkable man. Every humble Latino immigrant imports some aspect of his complex mythology.
But a resonant story has yet to be truly told.
At first, the trajectory of his career suggested nothing but glory. As he gathered victory upon victory, the Liberator’s legend spread throughout the world. But the last six years of his life ended in poverty, illness, and exile. Not one founder of the United States of America traveled a similar span from greatness to ignominy. The difference is revealing. The swift unraveling of a hero’s appeal is a story played out over and over in contemporary Latin American politics. It happened to Peron, Fujimori, Pinochet, Toledo, Vicente Fox, and countless others who have risen
to presidential office, but the world remains surprised each time it happens. The Bolivarian phenomenon is unique in Latin America, and one I explore in this book.
Bolívar’s accomplishments are legendary. His skillful use of guerrilla tactics and his insistence on leading soldiers in the field set a standard for future commanders. The institutions he built and the constitutions he wrote—calling for racial equality unmatched in the hemisphere—survive to this day. And though in his time he was adored and reviled in equal measure, history has granted him an undisputed place in the pantheon of heroes.
But what kind of man was he, really? Study him long enough, as I have, and the flesh and blood man emerges. He may have been a philosopher and a visionary, but he was also an orphan who kicked stones in the back alleys of Caracas. He was a flamboyant, self-assertive personality, who could befriend a prince as easily as he could a pauper. He loved to argue. He loved contests of physical prowess. He loved to dance. And though he was no stranger to bordellos, he preferred the company of mistresses. Even as he pursued his bloodiest campaigns, he would send for a lover—Pepita Machado or Manuelita Sáenz. In 47 years of life, he had more than 35 of them. Often, he chose them from among the flocks of young girls who ran out from the liberated towns to welcome him with crowns of laurel. The delicate but plucky Pepita would travel long distances, accompanied by her mother and escorted by crude revolutionaries, to spend rapturous nights with him in his tent. Hurrying to meet him after the Battle of Angostura, she died of sheer exhaustion.
But apart from the passions and physical exploits, Bolívar was an enormously learned man. His words live on in a rich collection of letters and speeches. Few leaders have possessed his knowledge of world history, his facility in letters, his brilliant verbal command. And few have captured the drama of their times so eloquently. It is no exaggeration to say that Bolívar stands among the most accomplished of Latin American writers.
I have told Bolívar’s life story in a brisk, sweeping narrative. I have relied overwhelmingly on primary sources throughout Latin America. I have plumbed sources in Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Portuguese. I have tracked world opinion in North America and Europe. And yet, though the book is meticulously researched and accompanied by a full scholarly apparatus, it is more of a cinematic epic than a scholarly tome.
As a writer whose work has always aspired to explain the Latin temperament, I believe I am uniquely qualified to write this biography. Having grown up in Peru with all its splendid and shabby contradictions, I instinctively understand the complicated culture that produced Simón Bolívar. I understand the driving ideals of liberty and justice that animate his story, and I understand the bigotry that weighs it down. I know that Bolívar’s courage was Latin America’s godsend, but I also know that his hubris was its greatest curse. I believe that he is the quintessential icon of Latin maleness—that we insure his immortality by recreating him in our sons. And I think that, ultimately, his life serves as a metaphor of Latin identity. To paraphrase García Márquez, the story of Bolívar is, more than anything, a story about us.
Bolívar: American Liberator is a vivid, engaging, popular narrative. My goal has been to capture a history that continues to speak to the Americas. Why, for instance, did Hugo Chavez rename Venezuela so that it includes Bolívar’s name? Why did Fidel Castro model a Marxist vision after him? Why does Subcomandante Marcos compare his jungle lookout to Bolívar’s vigil in the fields? Why do men in presidential palaces and schoolchildren in impoverished shantytowns believe he holds a promise for them? Why is there a resurgence of “Bolivarianism” throughout the continent? Why is he the only hero of Latin American independence whose name we know?
It is a tale for the hemisphere, a lesson for our times. I greatly look forward to introducing readers to this unforgettable story.
Marie Arana is the former literary editor of The Washington Post. She has published four books: the memoir American Chica, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/ Martha Albrand Award; The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work; as well as two novels set in South America: Cellophane (a finalist for the John Sargent Sr. Prize) and Lima Nights.
Arana has also written introductions for numerous books, among them the widely popular National Geographic book of photographs of Latin America: Through the Eyes of the Condor, which was translated into 50 languages. She is a contributor to a prize-winning volume on Machu Picchu, as well as collections on writing and Hispanicity. In the course of her career, she has written countless feature pieces on culture for The Washington Post, Civilization magazine, the National Geographic, the Smithsonian magazine, and other publications. She is a sought-after speaker on literary criticism, the American publishing industry, and Hispanic identity, appearing on television, radio, and at universities throughout the country. In the course of writing her biography of Bolívar, she was granted scholarly chairs at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and the John Kluge Center at the United States Library of Congress.