Bolívar: American Liberator
By Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Two years ago, Yale published a book about Simón Bolívar, a solid biography written by British historian John Lynch. Can anything new be said about this famous military and political leader, known as the George Washington of South America, who single-handedly conceived, organized and led the independence movements of six nations---Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Bolivia, and Peru?

The answer is yes. Marie Arana’s Bolívar: American Liberator takes readers beneath the historical facts to gain insight into his private life. Every great man in the public eye has a personal story, and Arana tells Bolívar’s story in a brisk, sweeping, yet intimate way. As she notes, “it’s a resonant story that has yet to be truly told.”

Arana’s narrative begins just a few days after the battle at Boyacá, which won freedom for Colombia---this was the General’s first military success. After the first several pages, we go back in time to the day Bolívar was born, on July 24, 1783, in the “balmy city of Caracas” into one of the most prosperous families of Venezuela. Then we go further back to the 16th century, to learn about the first Bolívar to emigrate from Spain.

The rest, as they say, is history, but in the case of this passionately told biography, it’s intertwined with vivid stories of Bolívar’s personal life: early losses of both his parents, a strict childhood followed by adolescent rebellion, first marriage to the love his life followed by her sudden death, and his encounters with the many mistresses he had throughout his adult life until his death at age 47.

But it was the death of his first wife that created a turning point in his life. Bolívar said, “I was suddenly made to understand that men were made for other things than love.” Chapters 4 through 17 focus on his military and later political career. Chapter 18, The General in His Labyrinth, alludes to the classic novel of the same name by Colombian writer Gabriel García Marquez, talking about Bolívar’s last days.

It’s no coincidence that the biography reads like a historical novel rather than a straightforward history book. Arana’s previously published works include American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood (2001), a memoir about her bicultural childhood; Cellophane (2006), a novel about the Peruvian Amazon; and a novel about love and class differences, Lima Nights (2009). She has written the introductions for many books on Latin America, Hispanicity and biculturalism.

But the inspiration for writing Bolívar goes back to her early childhood in Lima, Peru. As a punishment for being an unruly child, Arana had to sit alone on a hard stool in her grandparents’ living room, surrounded by antique furniture, towers of books, and portraits of ancestors. Two of these paintings sparked her curiosity: the first was of General Joaquín Rubín de Celis, her great-great-great grandfather, and the second was of his daughter, Trinidad, who married Pedro Cisneros Torres, a rebel general who fought with Bolívar’s forces in 1824 against her father, the first Spaniard to fall at this infamous Battle of Ayacucho that won Peru its freedom.

Although Arana’s style is informal, and her academic background is in literature and linguistics, she relied on primary sources throughout Latin America---in Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Portuguese---and tracked contemporary world opinion in North America and Europe. “And yet, though the book is meticulously researched and accompanied by a full scholarly apparatus, it is more of a cinematic epic than a scholarly tome,” admits Arana. If you’re a fan of history, this biography takes on a fresh new spin. But if you’ve generally shied away from historical biographies because of their dryness and complexity, there’s a good chance you’ll become absorbed by Bolívar’s legendary adventures.

Alexandra Landeros