Bolívar: What Price Glory?

Enrique Krauze, translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz
Private Collection/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Art Library
Simón Bolívar; nineteenth-century chromolithograph

In the Complete Works of Simón Bolívar appears a prose poem so unusual that some historians have questioned its authenticity. Entitled “Mi delirio en Chimborazo” (My Rapture on Chimborazo) and dating from around 1822, it describes the ascent (certainly only partial and perhaps completely imaginary) of the Ecuadorian volcanic peak of that name. Bolívar writes that, on his “march of liberty” in South America, he had crossed “infernal regions, plowed the rivers and the seas, climbed to the giant shoulders of the Andes” until he reached this “watchtower of the Universe.” Possessed by the “God of Colombia”—the immense and promising nation that, after a series of victories, he had recently established in what is today Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama—“Time himself,” a “venerable elder, the son of Eternity,” suddenly appears before the Liberator to remind him of the insignificance of his achievements. But Bolívar responds that he has “surpassed all men in good fortune, because I have raised myself above all of them.”

He was certain that he had “demonstrated to Europe that America has men who are equal to the heroes of antiquity.” More and truly impressive accomplishments would follow: the defeat of the pro-Spanish royalist forces in Peru, the creation (in the Peruvian province known as Alto Perú) of a nation that would bear his name: Bolivia. By then his military campaigns had covered tens of thousands of miles but he wanted more: “the demon of Glory will take us to Tierra del Fuego.”

Bolívar as hero has been a theme for hundreds of writers across the years. And it is the perspective adopted by Marie Arana, a Peruvian-born novelist and a former editor in chief of The Washington Post Book World, in Bolívar: American Liberator, her biography of Bolívar as the Homeric saga of an American Ulysses. She describes her objective as a popular history—“a sweeping, engaging narrative, more a cinematic epic than a scholarly tome”—and she has accomplished what she set out to do. The book does not offer important new information or original interpretations but it reads like a novel, filled as it is with portraits, landscapes, and memorable scenes and composed with great brio and colorful detail. Arana succeeds in conveying the passion and consummate energy of a man who, at the very beginning of his military career, while walking through the ruins of his native Caracas after an earthquake that took 20,000 lives, could exclaim: “If Nature itself decides to oppose us, we will fight and force her to obey.”

We see the origin of that intensity, self-confidence, and rage in Arana’s description of Bolívar’s childhood. Born in 1783 to the highest Creole aristocracy (Creoles, or criollos in Spanish, were American-born Spaniards of pure Hispanic ancestry), he was heir to an immense fortune: twelve houses and estates in Caracas and La Guaira, a…

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