Fathers of the revolution

Liberators: Latin America's struggle for independence 1810-1830 by Robert Harvey (John Murray, £25, 561pp)
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The Independent Culture

Lord Byron opened his Don Juan with "I want a hero". Robert Harvey has responded with a Magnificent Seven heroes from Latin America's independence wars from Mother Spain, over the years 1810 to 1830 . These "Liberators" are divided geographically into four parts, opening with Francisco de Miranda, moving to his betrayer Simon Bolivar, and the latter's rival José de San Martin, then to Bernardo O'Higgins, the ubiquitous Lord Cochrane, Agustin de Iturbide and the Portuguese Pedro de Braganza. All are household names throughout the continent, and statues of San Martin and Bolivar abound. The outline of their deeds is well-known, but Harvey plunges us back into those Republican days and wars that so excited Byron, in his Europe of hereditary absolutism.

The "savage vastness of this continent" had been ruthlessly controlled by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns for around 300 years, but these colonies began to fall apart in the wake of the American and French revolutions, especially in the chaos following Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808. Harvey's seven liberators seized this moment. It is Bolivar who dominates, and who, with help, carried out his boast that "I shall march from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Panama to Cape Horn, until the last Spaniard is expelled".

These staggering marches and retreats, criss-crossing the Andes, the burning plains and jungles, are the epic that Harvey narrates: "Bolivar could now claim to rule one of the greatest empires of any military leader in history, some three million square miles in extent... He was on a par with Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, far eclipsing Cortes, Pizarro and Clive of India." Why didn't we know this before, and why do we continue to be haunted by the Conquest and the conquistadores? As Byron wrote, forget Pizarro, shout Bolivar.

The way Harvey alerts us to our ignorance of those "fantastic and surreal" years is to situate the personalities and actions in a landscape of an "almost dreamlike other- worldliness". He has travelled these "awesome" topographies, and is acute on this "lure" and unpredictability. As in a 19th-century novel, history seems to grow organically out of this strange soil. To increase our sense of an epic novel, Harvey gives succinct physical portraits of protagonists, buttressed by eye-witness accounts, and thus avoids psychological speculations on motivation. We follow madmen and their outrageous women in thrilling, cinematic action.

This is romantic, narrative history, written in vivid journalese, concentrating on military and guerrilla activities, so that Bolivar, San Martin and Cochrane are seen to be matters of improvisation. In a further novelistic sense, Harvey has linked together his seven heroes so that they coincide. For example, in London, Bolivar meets Miranda (whose statue stands on the corner of Fitzroy Square), who tutors O'Higgins, who meets San Martin. The landmark meeting in Guayaquil between Bolivar and San Martin in 1822, when both are at the height of military success, and before their ignominious ends, is cleverly integrated, maintaining the mystery of what they talked about in private.

In fact, Harvey's narrative is magical realism at its best, with nothing invented, but everything glimpsed through a hectic and hyperbolic lens. Like the action-men heroes themselves, we cannot pause and think. Harvey has researched a history that defies common-sense, that is inherently "absurd"; a narrative that vies with the best of Alejo Carpentier or Garcia Marquez, who himself narrated Bolivar's sad last days in The General in his Labyrinth.

However, there is no happy ending, for Harvey is aware that these professional guerrillas rehearsed Che Guevara's later failure to spark off a genuine republican continent. The forces of reaction, the warlords (Harvey's acute term for the plague of local caciques), the disparities between the ex-colonial regions, between cities and backlands, the racial mixes, the class antagonisms, the vast gap between the rich and poor, the meddling of Britain and the US and the sheer butchery and brutality that continued beyond the "black legend" of Spanish colonial rule - all this shattered San Martin's dream of an Incan monarchy, and Bolivar's dream of a Pan-American unity competing with the US.

Bolivar's bitter summary of his experiences, and his political failure to rule as the autocrat he was forced to become, makes dismal reading and has cast a dark shadow over Latin America. In November 1830, just before he died, Bolivar wrote in a letter: "I have arrived at only a few sure conclusions: 1. For us [South] America is ungovernable. 2. He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea. 3. The only thing we can do in [South] America is emigrate. 4. This country will eventually fall into the hands of the unbridled mob, and will proceed to almost imperceptible petty tyrannies". Bolivar ends with a pessimistic vision of reversion to primordial chaos. We can still measure the state of Latin American republicanism and democracy through this summary.

The personalities are conveyed with a sure touch, the battles and journeys recreated visually, the unfolding plot deftly crafted. There are surprises, like the inclusion of the Mexican Iturbide, who crowned himself Emperor Agustin the First (but died shot like a dog) rather than the officially accepted liberators Hidalgo and Morelos. Harvey argues this choice well. But the Mexican story, like the Brazilian, is at odds with the rest, and seems tagged on at the end, even if it makes sense to be reminded of these differences. There are minor blemishes in Spanish words, accents, dates, and bibliography, but it is salutary to relive, as one does in this narrative, the epic extremes of these deeds. I, for one, now view San Martin through his laudanum addiction, and Bolivar through his reckless womanising.

Professor Jason Wilson teaches Latin American literature at University College London