Simón Bolìvar: A Life
by John Lynch
Yale University Press, 349 pp., $35.00
“José Palacios, his oldest servant, found him floating naked with his eyes open in the purifying waters of his bath and thought he had drowned.” In the arresting opening sentence of his poignant novel The General in His Labyrinth, Gabriel Garcìa Márquez gives us our first glimpse of Simón Bolìvar as his servant found him in the early morning of May 8, 1830, the day on which he would leave Bogotá on the journey into exile that would end with his death, some seven months later, on a sugar plantation close to the Colombian port of Santa Marta. John Lynch, who is not a novelist but a historian, and a former professor of Latin American history at the University of London, starts his new life of Bolìvar almost as effectively: “On 26 March 1812 a massive earthquake struck Venezuela. From the Andes to the coast, from Mérida to La Guaira, the earth heaved and cracked, buildings crumbled and people perished in their thousands.” Lynch begins his book with his hero on the brink of an epic career; Garcìa Márquez begins his as it draws to its prolonged and painful close. In the eighteen intervening years not only Venezuela but all of Spanish America was struck by an earthquake—a human earthquake, whose name was Bolìvar.
Earthquakes, whether natural or human, are not easily recaptured after the event. It is not, then, surprising that the many biographical studies of “the Liberator”—el Libertador—have tended to disappoint. What is true is often so improbable as to read more like fiction than history; what is fiction—and a great deal of fiction surrounds the figure of Bolìvar—is all too likely to be taken as the truth. Of the English-language biographies, Gerhard Masur’s Simon Bolivar, which first appeared in 1948, has long held the field, but is relentlessly pedestrian. In attempting a one-volume life of a man who was apparently a mass of contradictions, even to his contemporaries, and who has been both deified and vilified by later generations, John Lynch is nothing if not bold.
No historian from the English-speaking world is better qualified for the task. Lynch has a long and distinguished record of publications in Spanish and Spanish-American history, particularly of the eighteenth century, and is a leading expert on the independence movements of the early nineteenth century and their aftermath. He is therefore well equipped to provide a modern life of Bolìvar that takes into account the large amount of work done in recent years on the origins of the independence of Latin America. His approach is calm and judicious, his prose style measured and accessible. If he does not quite catch the full drama of Bolìvar’s turbulent …