Daily Archives: September 14, 2017

‘Bolivar: The Epic Life of the Man Who Liberated South America’ by Marie Arana


2013, 603 p.

One of my favourite podcasts is Revolutionspodcast.com. The presenter, Mike Duncan, is working his way through various revolutions in the world and I’ve gone along for the ride: The English Civil War, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and most recently for me, the Bolivaran Revolution in South America. (He’s since moved on to the 1848 Revolution but I haven’t caught up with that yet).

My interest in reading this book was piqued by the podcasts – what a fascinating, complex, tragic man Bolívar was – but it was also a way of compensating for some of the limitations of the podcast genre.  When you’re waiting for the weekly podcast, you can forget things from one week to the next, and I suspect that the weekly production scheme nudges the writer/presenter into looking at hour-long, self-contained episodes.  As a historian, I am very fond of the episode as an organizing device, used fruitfully and frequently by the so-called Melbourne School of Historians, but it does have its drawbacks too.  I found that, while I relished each episode as a historiographical ‘episode’,  I didn’t really have a big picture and lost all sense of time. Worse still, I had no sense of place either. Although Duncan does have maps on his website, I was listening to these podcasts as auditory input only. I’m not very familiar with South America as a continent, and I had no idea where the places he mentioned (in his rather poor Spanish accent that even I can detect)  were , or the distances involved.  Hence, when I saw this book on the library shelves, I snapped it up.

It’s written by a novelist and journalist, but I need have had no fear of that as a historian. There are copious footnotes (although they are not signalled in the text) and she has obviously immersed herself in the various historigraphical debates about Simon Bolívar. I have often been critical of Australian historians who parse debates under the anondyne label of “some historians” but I now realize how much my discomfort springs from being an insider and knowing who those historians are. In reading as a general reader about South American and Simón Bolívar, all these arguments fly completely over my head, just as the Australian references to “some historians” for a general reader would too.  It’s been a sobering little lesson.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so critical of the practice.

And if you’re not sure about who Simón Bolívar is, you could check here and here.

This is a long book at 468 pages of smallish text. It is told completely chronologically, following Bolívar’s life from his wealthy upbringing as in a Creole (white, South American born) family, his education in Europe, his multiple failed attempts to foment the overthrow of the Spanish colonial powers, his eventual success in multiple places all over South America over a period of just eleven years, and his inability to harness the ambitions or treachery of the officials and soldiers left in command while he hared around the country (they didn’t call him ‘Iron-Ass’ for nothing).

It has a map, and I found myself turning to it frequently.  As might be expected, most of the action took place in what is now Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Equador, Peru and Bolivia, as it was in these countries that Bolívar sought to create a pan-South-American federation, powerful enough to have influence on the world stage. He would fight the battles, appoint one of his generals and then move on to the next challenge. He was often appointed as President and dictator, preaching equality and liberty and declaiming all the time that he didn’t want to be a politician. He accepted the positions nonetheless.  His armies included soldiers from all over the continent, and members of the British Legion from across the British Empire. But he ended his life embittered and impotent as violence spread over the new states he had helped establish.

Nearly every reference to Simon Bolívar that I have read his ended up using Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ title for his book The General in his Labyrinth. But it certainly seems that his long drawn-out death was probably the worst way for a revolutionary hero to die: enfeebled and disillusioned, with people wondering when he would eventually die.

I’m really pleased that I read this book, because it helped to contextualize the podcasts that I’d spent so many enjoyable hours listening to. I just wish I’d read it before listening to the podcasts, instead of after!

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7.5