Marie Arana’s new book, Bolívar: American Liberator, is the first popular biography in English about Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar. Known as the Great Liberator and often compared to George Washington, Bolívar was a larger-than-life figure who liberated six South American countries from Spanish rule.
The Peruvian-born Arana—a former Washington Post Book World editor, a National Book Award finalist, and now a writer-at-large at the Post—has a personal connection to Bolívar: Her ancestors fought on opposite sides from each other at the Battle of Ayacucho, which won Peru independence from Spain. We talked to her about the new book and Bolívar’s legacy.
Were you aware of Bolívar while growing up in Lima?
All I heard about was the great Battle of Ayacucho. As the years went on, Bolívar became for me a symbol of the South American personality—its dreams and hopes and ambitions and energy. And all its flaws, too.
The detail throughout Bolívar is remarkable. How did you get this image? “As Bolívar rode into the viceregal capital, hurtling along the city streets—windblown and shirtless—citizens ventured out, curious at first, and then in wild, gleeful abandon.”
That scene, which is so extraordinary to me, was actually taken from an account by Bolívar’s best-known portrait artist. He was a soldier in Bolívar’s ranks, and then he wrote his memoirs, which contain that shirtless ride. It took a painter to do it.
Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth was a fictional account of Bolívar’s last months. Did you consider writing Bolívar as a historical novel?
My whole career has been devoted to trying to explain the Latin American personality. I’ve done it through a memoir and two novels. I wanted to do it through history this time, but I was going to write it as colorfully as a novel. I’ve written the book about Bolívar that I wanted to read.
Race emerges as one of the central tensions. Why?
Race has always been the curse and the blessing of South America. A curse because the Spanish colonial system was built entirely on race. Every time a child was born, they wrote down the shade of his or her skin. They taxed people by that same measure. It’s been a blessing because Latin America created a new, “cosmic race,” as a philosopher put it. We’ve got everything—African, Asian, European. Most South Americans have something of all of these races.
You make clear Bolívar was a fantastic writer. Where did that come from?
The first letter he ever wrote, at age 16, is illiterate—terrible spelling, terrible grammar. But in Spain, he was taken in by a well-educated marquis, who made him read and read. When Bolívar came out on the other side, he was so fresh and sharp, with beautiful turns of phrase that were always illuminated by great literature. I really do think he is one of the great Latin American writers.
What lesson do you hope readers take from Bolívar?
That the Hispanic personality, the Latin American experience, is very, very different from the North American experience. It is another world. It is another heart. I think that when North Americans look south, they don’t realize that.
You seem to be testing that a little with your subtitle, American Liberator. Most people in the US see the word “American” and think “North American.”
My Peruvian grandfather used to say, “We were Americans first.” If he were alive today, I think he would call it the perfect case of identity theft. It’s deliberate to call Bolívar “American Liberator.” I did that for my grandpa.
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.