Book review: 'Bolivar: American Liberator' by Marie Arana

By Joseph J. Ellis, Published: April 5
In the elegiac correspondence of their twilight years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson liked to debate the legacy of the American Revolution they had fought and wrought. Jefferson, anticipating Alexis de Tocqueville, claimed that the core legacy was democracy, which he regarded as a universal principle destined to spread throughout the world.

Adams preferred to call the legacy republicanism, and he did not believe that it was easily transportable. As an example, he cited Latin America, which was burdened with three centuries of Spanish oppression that left no residue of representative government; a toxic mixture of races -- European, Creole, African, Indian; and the entrenched hierarchical values of the Catholic Church.

The career of Simon Bolivar suggests that Jefferson and Adams were at least partly correct. With a combination of Jeffersonian felicity and Napoleonic audacity, Bolivar was almost single-handedly responsible for ending the Spanish Empire in South America. Six new nations -- Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Bolivia and Peru -- owe their existence to Bolivar the Liberator, who also did more to end slavery than any North American founder.

But his vision for what he called New Columbia was hijacked by an endless parade of dictators, warlords and petty tyrants, all products of the hostile conditions that Adams had so accurately described. The arc of Bolivar's life, then, is truly Shakespearean, from its glorious ascent to its tragic end, when he was reviled and slandered in every republic he had liberated. Unlike Adams and Jefferson, who could look back on their achievement with patriarchal serenity, Bolivar warned his followers that "eventually you'll find that life is impossible here, with so many sons of bitches."

The Library of Congress houses more than 2,500 books and manuscripts about Bolivar, but almost all of them, for obvious reasons, are in Spanish. Although the legend of Bolivar has been appropriated by Latin American leaders of every political persuasion, the latest having been Hugo Chavez, and a nation has been named after him, in the United States his reputation is vague, almost invisible.

Most North American historians, including me, have mentioned him only in passing, usually making "the George Washington of Latin America" reference, as though his life merits attention only when viewed through a North American prism. The hemispheric condescension inherent in that conception obviously needed correction in the form of a comprehensive biography that makes Bolivar's life accessible to a large readership in the United States. "Bolivar" is unquestionably that book.

At least in retrospect, Marie Arana was providentially prepared to write "Bolivar." Of Peruvian ancestry, Arana has written a critically acclaimed memoir and two well-reviewed novels. She is also a former editor of The Washington Post's Book World. As befits its subject, "Bolivar" is magisterial in scope, written with flair and an almost cinematic sense of history happening. Here are three samples of her narrative style:

"For all his physical slightness -- five foot six inches and a scant 130 pounds -- there was an undeniable intensity to the man. His eyes were a piercing black, his gaze unrelenting. His forehead was deeply lined, his cheekbones high, his teeth even and white, his smile surprising and radiant. Official portraits relay a less than imposing man: the meager chest, the impossibly thin legs, the hands as small and beautiful as a woman's. But when Bolivar entered a room, his power was palpable."

Second, her account of his periodic brutality: "Bolivar could not afford to lose . . . the capital; worse he had no troops to spare. He responded swiftly and decisively. . . . His words were simple and to the point. 'Without delay and without exception, you will put to the sword every Spaniard in dungeon or hospital. . . .' With no questions asked and no due process of law, [the commandant] and his minions marched more than one thousand Spanish prisoners out into the sunlight and, over the course of four days, beheaded them all."

Third, on the recovery of his reputation in the century after his death: "Leaders who followed seemed wanting in comparison, dwarfed by the shadow of a colossus. . . . In marble or bronze, Bolivar's flesh took on a serenity it never had in life. The restless, fevered Liberator was now the benevolent father, devoted teacher, good shepherd striving to build a better flock. Astride a horse, galloping into an eternal void, the enduring image was complete: Here was a vigorous life, lived in a single trajectory, aiming to form a people, a continent."

We might call Arana's style Bolivarian -- colorful, passionate, daring, verging on novelistic. This latter quality sometimes gives me pause, as this is Arana's first venture into biography, and it seemed as though she was sometimes straddling the divide between fiction and nonfiction in a worrisome way. How can she know the color of the sky the morning Bolivar crossed the crest of the Andes, or the way he curled his lip during a particular argument? Well, there are nearly 100 pages of endnotes for anyone who wants to check her documentation. Latin American specialists with a vested interest in fixing Bolivar's place in the region's history will surely do the fact checking. As for me, I'm prepared to give Arana the benefit of the doubt, mostly because doing so allows me to levitate above the inevitable scholarly squabbles and relish the ride provided by a truly masterful storyteller.

The traditional comparison between Bolivar and Washington strikes me as misguided, and as a biographer of Washington, I can claim competence in a way I can't on the Latin American sources. They were totally different personalities facing fundamentally different challenges. But as a military leader, Bolivar wins the competition hands down.

He remained on horseback in combat against the Spanish army three times longer than Washington against the British. (His troops called Bolivar "Iron Ass.") His theater of operations was seven times the size of Washington's and infinitely more lethal, filled with malaria-infested jungles, rivers loaded with snakes and crocodiles, and the highest mountain range in the hemisphere. If Washington can justifiably be remembered for staying the course against the British leviathan, Bolivar's perseverance defies rational calculation. And his battlefield decisions often displayed the kind of intuitive genius more associated with Napoleon than with Washington.

"Bolivar" is a monumental achievement destined to win some major literary prizes. Like most recent books on the North American founders, it assumes that all icons are also flawed creatures. All of Bolivar's flaws are on display here -- his inveterate womanizing, periodic bouts of arrogance, flirtation with Napoleonic versions of omnipotence. But if Jefferson is eventually proved right, and democracy does come to Latin America in full form, the man so brilliantly recovered in these pages will be shouting hosannas from the heavens.

Joseph J. Ellis is a lecturer in history at the Commonwealth Honors College, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His new book, "Revolutionary Summer," is due out in June.

BOLIVAR American Liberator
By Marie Arana
Simon & Schuster.
603 pp. $35