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Boliver, by Marie Arana - review

29 June 2013

9:00 AM

29 June 2013

9:00 AM

Bolívar Marie Arana

Weidenfeld, pp.603, £25

So here we go again into a heart of darkness:  the humbug and horror which is the history of Spanish South America ever since Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola. Now modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the island’s population had within a few decades of Columbus’ arrival, through genocide and disease, been reduced to barely 200. And that was just the beginning.

No Christian nation has ever trailed such a shameful colonial past, which is why the colonists must feel the need to assemble what they see as its glories. This, the 2,684th book about Simon Bolívar, is subtitled ‘The Epic Life of the Man Who Liberated South America’.

But liberated it for whom? By the beginning of the 19th century only a third of the original inhabitants of the sub-continent, the pure-blooded Indians, had survived. One of them, claiming to be a direct descendant of the last Inca, having raised a rebellion against the Spanish, was sentenced by their colonial authorities to be torn apart by horses in 1781 — except that the horses, who alone come well out of this terrible tale, would not do this. All members of his family, women and children, had their tongues torn out.

Which left the black slaves and the white settlers. The blacks also rebelled and were hunted down. And the settlers, by now making up a quarter of the population, who alone had the means to meet the taxes levied by the mother country, rebelled in their turn. The men with the thin faces and the moustaches had come — the moustaches now worn to emphasise the fact that they were not Indians, even though many of these in the time of liberation had made up their armies.

They came in their newly acquired gorgeous uniforms (their soldiers had to make do with loincloths and wooden lances), for, if Hollywood liked to portray the founding heroes of North America in buckskin, the heroes of South America, resplendent in plumes and gold braid, could have been kitted out by theatrical costumiers. Curious, that — but it cast a long shadow, down to those officers in perfect uniforms recently seen directing conscript forces until, as in the Falklands, they had the misfortune to encounter a professional army.

Still, 200 years ago it had been a time of victory for armies which often numbered no more than a few hundred. No matter that in its aftermath, tailors stitched busily away, sculptors hammered out statues for town squares, and self-proclaimed generals had not just streets but whole countries named after them, for now they could draw a line under what the Spaniards had done: it was a time of heroes.

Everyone wanted to get in on the act: Lord Byron, naturally, named his boat Bolívar, British soldiers, out-of-work veterans of the Napoleonic wars, rushed to join up, so much so that the English politician George Canning, sympathetic to the rebellion, could boom grandly: ‘I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old.’

There was a lot of grandeur floating around. Only the heroes, plotted against by their officers, saw their ideals crumble, and they died in disillusion and despair: Miranda, San Martin, O’Higgins, Bolívar. The blacks would eventually — in our time — be redeemed by association football, while the Indians did what they did best: they endured their poverty and went on dying.

Marie Arana, daughter of a Peruvian father, a descendant of colonial settlers, and an American mother, does her best with Simón Bolívar. Unfortunately her prose has overtones of the gold braid and plumes which her ancestors lavished on his career, as when she describes his mistress:

This beautiful, irreverent and irresistibly magnetic woman was — as one biographer described her — a siren with gleaming, ebony hair, bituminous eyes, pearly skin and a conspicuously pleasing figure. She had an alluring feline grace. She could dance, she could ride. She was also breezily unafraid of scandal. This spunky, brainy woman was unlike any Bolívar had ever known.

And there were the mountains. Bolívar himself in mid-rebellion could still find time to write to an old friend: ‘Come to Chimborazo. Tread if you dare on this stairway of Titans, this crown of earth, this unassailable battlement of the New World.’ And so on. And on. It prompts a moment of doubt in even this biographer. ‘Bolívar could not possibly have climbed Mount Chimborazo, which measures 20,565 feet, and which few mortals have conquered.’ But she rallies. What if this is no more than metaphor by the Liberator?

He was filled with awe by the transcendence of the moment, by the superhuman vantage it gave him — by the astonishing beauty of his America. He did not feel he was at a loss to describe such emotions.

Then he was gone, and the dictators had come, bringing racism and even more bloodshed. Arana writes:

There is a reason why blood trickles down roads and heads roll out from under bushes in Latin American literature: this is not magical realism. It is history. It is true.

It is also the saddest history you will ever read.

Still there had been a little wisp of glory. And here we go again, this time into Arana’s closing sentences:.

From Haiti to Potosa, there was little that stopped Bolívar. On he rode, into the void, fighting against unimaginable odds. Until he had remade a world.

As a barmaid in Swansea told Dylan Thomas,  ‘There’s words.’

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