Part of the reason I undertook this quest to read more history books is because I hold a passionate curiosity for learning the most that I can about human nature. This is with the hopeful objective that I become fully prepared to deal with any situation that arises in my own life. Marie Arana’s Bolivar ticks those boxes giving an intriguing insight into the life of a man who went from an all conquering liberator to a person cast out of the society he helped shape by those closest to him.
Bolivar was clearly a man that acted on strong emotions. As hateful as he was passionate, he strikes me as a character equal parts rash and frenetic. I can imagine him striding back and forth, eloquently delivering his political opinions with a charismatic fervour to his intellectual equals. And yet despite my admiration for his original ideals and the many heroic acts of his life, I couldn't help but dislike certain aspects of his personality. Arana is an ardent defendant of the Venezuelan and always seems to come up with an argument to justify Bolivar’s worst actions and decisions.
The liberator was contradictory. He gave away all of his wealth in aid of the revolution and rejected any honours from liberated towns and cities, but then countered this nobility by declaring a war to the death, stating that any atrocities against Spanish civilians were acceptable if they were seen to aid the occupying forces. This opened the floodgates for men to commit vile acts on both sides of the war. The other grating hypocrisy I couldn't help but point out is the fact that Bolivar built his entire insurrection upon the ideals of the French revolution and the equality of man, only to gain power and instill dictatorship. Although I accept Arana’s justifications for the necessity of a dictatorship in a poor continent, with no clear direction in the aftermath of a brutal conflict, I don’t agree with undercutting the ideals which brought justification for the revolution in the first place.
Despite my criticisms of the man, I should perhaps not judge too much. It is rather easy for me to sit here and lambaste him based on one book, having lived an entirely different life and not having faced anything like the harrowing times that Bolivar lived through. Despite my dislike for some of his actions, I cannot deny that I have developed admiration for his achievements and vision. Not many would have the conviction to overturn constant failures and defeat an enemy of vast power and control. Not many would scale the thirteen thousand foot Paramo De Pisba pass in the Andes to surprise the enemy on the other side and then pull off victory after the ensuing battle. He literally gave his entire life to the objective of freeing South America of Spanish rule. Born into a rich plantation owning family, it would have been easy for him to live out a luxurious life. Instead he gave all of his wealth to the people of the continent he wanted to free and chose a dangerous life, traversing thousands of miles through unforgiving terrain, fighting risky battles against forces that held greater numbers and better training than that of his own troops.
The woman he loved and married died when they were both frighteningly young, just eight months into a marriage. You get the sense from the book that having lost the love of his life he was spurred on to make change in the country he was born in. The heroism and determination he demonstrates is something I found vastly admirable. Alas; and it is sad to end a review I have enjoyed much on a bad note, I can’t help but say that the overriding lesson I learnt from all of his efforts was the fickle, short sighted nature of humanity. Bolivar gave all of his wealth to those around him only to be usurped from power by the very people that fought for independence by his side. He would die with only a few followers around him, racked by what was most likely tuberculosis. He left life penniless and an exile of Venezuela his country of origin.
His betrayers were motivated by personal greed and power, utterly blinded to the larger vision that Bolivar had in mind for a unified South America. That tells me everything I need to know about what you receive in life for displays of compassion and egalitarian ideals. Either way it’s a vastly entertaining read which I strongly recommend for anyone who enjoys an approachable, entertaining interpretation of history.