Thursday, January 21, 2016

Bolivar: American Liberator

One benefit of reviews is that a prospective buyer gets a variety of opinions to help the decision making process. Quotes from the “Editorial Reviews,” generally tend to be nothing more than publicity tools to hype book sales—their only value being the name attached to the quote; as such, they can easily be overlooked. Instead, reviews written by the very people who have bought and read the books tend to be more reliable, when deciding on the purchase of a book. In the case of this publication, the reviews did not fail. Arana's departure from fiction appeared to be a sure winner, and with great anticipation the arrival of her experimental try-out in history, “Bolivar: American Libertador,” was eagerly awaited.

Readers should not confuse Arana's tenure as a writer of fiction, with her otherwise excellent education and qualifications; nor should her birth in Perú be taken to mean that she is biased, or that she is not qualified to write in English. On the contrary, Arana's mastery of the English language is beyond reproach, her imagery is vivid without a fault, and the straightforwardness of the narrative speaks for itself. Arana's style of writing makes it easy to get engrossed in the biography, its protagonist, and the seemingly endless cast of characters. That well balanced combination is what makes the reader look forward to turning the page, to see what comes next. In that sense, the book does read like a novel: Chatty, with flashes of seriousness, with dramatic and light moments, and filled with details which do not make the narrative esoteric, or tedious, and with comments and criticisms which do not make the protagonist another stereotypical “Third World Savage.” Arana's bibliography, too, is quite extensive and she injects the various opinions and bits of information casually, naturally, and without jolting the reader out of the magic she has created in the narrative.

A man forged by the culture and the land where he was born, Bolívar is by far too complex of an individual, at times rational, at times irrational but always with a “method to his madness,” and Arana unapologetically delves into each facet of his personality, exposing both the positive and the negative, and explaining the reasons for each qualifier. Unlike most biographies of Bolívar, Arana's style is not to prejudge; she is not a defense attorney, nor a prosecutor—whether Bolívar's departure from Puerto Cabello, his involvement in Francisco de Miranda's demise, the “War to Death,” Bolívar's penchant for female companionship, or his personal and military successes and failures, Arana simply provides both sides of the issue, and lets the reader understand the whys and hows of the events.

Speaking of Bolívar's arrest of Miranda is one such example, “The theme of betrayal is never far from any story of revolution; deceit is at the very heart of radical upheaval. But history has not looked kindly on the events that unravelled that early morning in La Guaira. For all the glory that would accrue to Bolívar, he would never be free from the stain of Miranda's fate. He had lured the old man to a revolution, and, after its failure, delivered him into enemy hands. There can be no doubt that it was a monstrous act of deception (p.123)” Though the author is unequivocal in her condemnation of Bolívar, and most other authors end their explanation at that point, Arana recognizes that like “betrayal,” there is enough blame to go around, and some of the blame falls on Miranda as well. “But there was no shortage of deceit on all sides. The patriots had been taken in by Miranda's swagger and braggadochio—had invested all their hopes in him—and they reacted now with all the fury of the betrayed. The leader they had trusted to guide them through the vicissitudes of revolution had turned out to be more comfortable with failure than with victory. Faltering and indecisive in the clear advantage, he always managed to be magnificent in the face of defeat. His fellow rebels believed they were seeing him now as he really was: a fraud (p.123).

There are those who will feel the book is too long, too short, or too tedious, with too much information, or that it does not provide much new information. At 464 pages of narrative, the book is just right, though to this reader, another one hundred or more pages would have been welcomed. While there may not be much new or groundbreaking information in this biography of Bolívar, something which is almost impossible to accomplish—as Arana points out, the Library of Congress has close to 3000 books/documents, and other estimates indicate there are over 5000 books on the man—this publication is still worthy of praise, and worthy of being read. It is one of the few biographies in which the author has managed to describe Bolívar's persona and his military career without detriment to one or the other,
and one in which the narrative is fully devoted to the protagonist. The only exception is the few introductory pages on General San Martín, Manuela Sáenz, and General Sucre; aside from that, Bolívar is ever present. The result is a highly balanced biography which hopefully, in the process, Arana can make him a better known, better understood, and better liked, individual in the United States.

Just as there is high praise for Arana and her book, there are some suggestions and comments. There is an editorial choice used in this publication, which should not become as standard as the lack of proper punctuation has become: The deliberate omission of numerical citations in the body of the narrative to lead the reader to the appropriate information in the “Notes,” at the back of the book. Instead, the reader is provided with several pages of endnotes which list the page number in the main body of the book, followed by a short quotation to indicate the reference. Without the proper numerical citation in the main text the reader is left adrift, and the information becomes disconnected. The reader has no option but to constantly refer to the back of the book whenever there is something of interest, only to find out there may or amy not be a reference. It is surprising that a reputable publishing company, such as Simon & Schuster, would engage in such a practice and attempt to pass it as “scholarly.” But even in this criticism, other publications are far worse; case in point, Richard Slatta's “Simon Bolivar's Quest for Glory,” (Texas A&M University Press; 2003) in which the author bluntly points out in the “Introduction,” the deliberate decision to omit “a plethora of notes...[and keeping] historical accouterments to a minimum.”

As authors in the United Stated have consistently but erroneously done, Arana makes some comparisons between Simón Bolívar and George Washington, when the only commonality between the two is that they led an army in the liberation of their respective countries. Aside from that, they had nothing in common and cannot therefore be compared. In fact, Bolívar did not like and rejected any comparison to Washington, not because he felt superior, but because he thought highly of Washington, and he understood their differences as being too far apart for their two names being discussed in the same sentence. As for Washington, he died when Bolívar was barely a teen-ager, and knew nothing of him. In the end, both men were happy with their accomplishments and accepted their failures; more importantly, neither man wanted to be the other. Personal, social, geographical, and political circumstances, as Bolívar constantly pointed out, also makes the comparison between these two men malapropos.
While Arana is not blind to Bolívar's faults, it is disappointing to see her use duplicitous, self-aggrandizing, and vindictive, individuals such as H.L.V. Ducoudray-Holstein and Gustavus Butler Hippisley as references or sources. Ducoudray-Holstein appears as having “served Bolívar in Angostura (p. 419).” Hopefully this is an editorial oversight; Ducoudray never made it beyond Carúpano, where he was discharged in June 1816—two months after embarking on the Los Cayos expedition; Bolívar did not go to Angostura until 1818.

On the death of José Félix Ribas, there is a departure from history, without providing a source for the comments, or further explanation. Although Arana's description of Ribas' torture and death are accurate, historians, consistently, have Ribas sentenced to death by a Judge in Tucupido, east of Valle de la Pascua, then shot, quartered; his head boiled in oil was sent to Caracas to be displayed as a warning to other would be patriots. Arana's version is that Ribas was dragged from the house where he was hiding, in “Pascua,” and immediately executed (p. 165).

Aside from these minor oversights, all in all, Arana's biography, “Bolívar: American Liberator” is very well written, concise, and one of the few which is well worth reading—and reading multiple times over. Bolívar comes off the pages not as the saint his apologists would like him to be, but as a flawed yet likeable individual; not as the devil manufactured by his opponents, but as a visionary whose ideas and good intentions, though they may have at times been in conflict, or misunderstood, were far greater than his flaws. Bolívar was self assured to the point of vanity, yet with an undercurrent of kindness and humility, but he was also a social animal who ended up a lonely individual A genius who, among other things, defined, planned, crafted, executed, and achieved, the independence of five nations, Bolívar's successes cover a not insignificant territory of 1, 853,681 square miles—4.31 times larger than the original 13 British Colonies. He was a visionary who foresaw the need for, and planned, a Pan American union of states to protect and secure the former Spanish colonies, and now independent Latin American nations, against outside pressure, and influences; and who foretold the need for a canal cutting through the Panama isthmus, fifty-three years before Ferdinand de Lesseps broke ground in 1881. In short, the kind of man with whom the reader can empathize, and identify, for having all of the human qualities, frailties, and dreams, mere mortals possess, but who, blinded by his own vision, could not at times see through the fog of his ideals. He was just as demanding of himself as of those under him, and yet forgiving of the internal and external enemies who plotted politically against him, or who wanted him dead. This is Bolívar, a selfless patriot and leader, who gave everything he was, and everything he had, to the cause of liberty—a charismatic innovator, leader and a patriot of whom can truly be said that he did not ask from anyone, anything he was not himself willing to give or do for the Motherland. Yet, that insatiable need to accomplish his mission, to be all, to do all, was in part what led to his downfall. But in spite of all he did or may have done, all he was or may have been, his prophetic words have had a more lasting, if unrecognized, effect throughout Latin America; it is impossible to look back and not realize it. “Fellow citizens,” Bolívar said in his last speech to Congress, “.... I am ashamed to admit it, but independence is the only thing we have won, at the cost of everything else (p. 430)[;]” and to General Flores in Ecuador, Bolívar would write, that “[t]he country is bound to fall into unimaginable chaos, after which it will pass into the hands of an indistinguishable string of tyrants of every color (p. 450) ....” For all the criticism of his ego, and supposed ambition to be a dictator for life, or to be crowned king, even his opponents knew that Bolívar was the glue holding together the ideals of Liberty, and Independence—the common thread between the different peoples and opinions of the five nations he had liberated. Bolívar's nemeses also knew or, perhaps in their urge to succeed him, they chose to ignore that upon his departure civil war would ensue, chaos would rule, and if Bolívar held dictatorial powers to maintain stability, most of those who followed, into the Twenty First Century, would give “dictator” a completely new and infinitely negative meaning.
Unlike other worldwide revolutionary leaders, who are no less deserving of praise, Bolívar embraced his mission, and received little in return. One of the wealthiest if not the wealthiest man in Venezuela at the time of his parents' death, Bolívar devoted his entire fortune to the War of Independence; he freed his slaves as the natural duty in the pursuit of liberty, and never accepted renumeration for his services during, or after, the war. For all he sacrificed, Bolívar died abandoned and rejected by the very people whose freedoms he had forged; without a clean shirt in which to be buried, he breathed his last breath accompanied by, among a few remaining loyal supporters, his old manservant José Palacios, a former slave in the house of Bolívar's mother.

Few authors have taken the time to be as objective and even handed, as Arana has, in showing Bolívar's multifaceted character, and to report history as it happened, instead of a particular notion of the events. In so doing, Arana has succeeded in presenting not only the thinker and unique military man, but the human being that is Bolívar, the American Liberator.

Hardcover:  601 Pages
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster (2013)
Language:  English

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