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.