Book review: Bolívar: American Liberator, By Marie Arana

An admirable biography that strips away myth to reveal a Venezuelan rebel with a cause

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The Independent Culture

Iron Ass was Simón Bolívar's nickname. By the end of his frantic life (he was 46 when he died in 1830) he had ridden over 75,000 miles up and down the Andes – "I never tire on a horse" – to liberate half of South America, only to see his American dream collapse. He famously wrote: "1. America is ungovernable. 2. He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea".

Marie Arana has read all the extant archives and has written an admirable, action-filled life. She follows Bolívar from his rich, aristocratic birth, early losses of mother and then child-bride, to his political awakening and rush into action. Her biography is so close to experience that we are back with Bolívar himself, "exuberant mustache and dazzling smile", almost feeling the wind as he passes.

Arana astutely separates herself from the "historians" as much as from "gossip", as she strips off layers of glorification to reach the man. She gives us novelistic illusion in a colloquial register, yet reminds us that this is factual. Her final chapter-heading derives from Gabriel García Márquez on the dying Bolívar, which insinuates, as he did, that the genre is magical-realist because it is true. By the end, I felt that his life could not be narrated any other way, for it defies belief.

On the one hand, Bolívar fought skirmishes and wars to liberate his patria from Spain. This was as much a civil war as a revolution, with only 5 per cent of the royalists Spaniards. He schemes and persuades and battles, always the warrior. Men switch sides and betray, but Bolívar held the big picture in front of him. His Greater Colombia, later fragmenting into six countries, was the mirage that drove him forwards.

Then there's the visionary politician, upholding ideas, drafting prescient laws. He felt that the people, whether freed slaves or lawless llaneros on horseback, should have a say. He was always popular with the ignorant mixed-raced mass. He systematically undid the colonial grip on society, fighting a war against racism.

He travelled with his books, was taught by a Rousseau activist, read Montesquieu and Locke, wrote or dictated thousands of letters. He was an Enlightenment Man, who saw Americans as different to Europeans. Then he surrounded himself with like-minded warriors, or made them seem so while with him, though his most loyal follower was his black servant.

Finally, his love life. He had sworn faithfulness to his dead bride, and never recognised any children; he was a womaniser too busy fighting. Except for Manuela Sáenz: his scandalous, promiscuous female double. Bolívar was that Renaissance ideal of courtier, sword and book in hand, with hardly a moment for reflection. He was abstemious, fastidious about washing, and died having given away his fortune.

Arana doesn't gloss over his brutalities: executing a black leader, letting imprisoned Spaniards be slaughtered, or mistreating fellow-conspirator Miranda. Bolívar's war to the death was dreadful. Arana aims to restore his epic deeds to how they actually seemed in the rush of events. If she relies on adjectival descriptions rather than analysis, so much the better.

Two incidents stand out. One concerns the enigmatic between Bolívar and San Martín in Guayaquil, which is masterly conveyed. Gathering all the information together, Arana gives the best account I've read of the two men who, in a pincer-movement, had liberated the continent. By focusing on such contrasting liberators, one an "electrifying" improviser and the other a "dour" disciplinarian , we relive San Martín's dignified yielding.

The second was Bolívar's escape from a third assassination attempt: by jumping out of Manuela's bedroom window – her idea – and hiding with a cook for three hours under a bridge, while she faced and flummoxed the assassins, sword in hand. That Manuela was kicked in the head and almost killed, while he waited feverish and half-naked, changed him for good.

Arana's skill is in the actual writing and her use of a kind of factual exaggeration that turns out not to be. So much bloodlust and cruelty in those Independence Wars, that frying a head in fat becomes normal. These contradictions in Bolívar, who begun with republican ideals and ended in dictatorship and despair, make later uses of his revolution seem one-sided.

Jason Wilson's books include 'The Andes:a cultural history' (Signal Books)