Simón Bolívar, renowned as the “Liberator” of Latin America, holds a place in his culture’s history and identity that is both colossal and strangely elusive. A currency and two countries bear his name (Bolivia and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela), presidents and soldiers invoke his legacy to this day, and his dream of a unified Latin America remains a seductive ideal to millions. Yet he remains easier to imagine as a statue or as a Napoleonic figure in an oil portrait, preserved in a stance of pride and defiance, than as an actual man. The narrative of that life and of his personality, though, explored in stunning detail and sweep by Marie Arana in her biography Bolívar: American Liberator, is a story that continues to shape the fate of Latin America two centuries later.

Bolívar was born in 1783 to a wealthy Venezuelan family during the turmoil of the Spanish Empire and was steeped in Enlightenment ideals and driven by an insatiable lust for glory. “He had a tremendous democratic impulse,” Arana says. ”He understood very basic things about human rights very deeply. This is very present in the Latin American personality. He also had tremendous hubris, sometimes overconfidence, and an instinct to look back instead of forward.”        

Arana, who was born in Peru and moved to the United States as a child, has written two novels and a memoir, as well as formerly editing the Washington Post’s Book World. She sees this monumental work of historical biography as a natural progression, though it’s hard to imagine her selecting a more daunting task. As she points out, there are more than 2,500 books about Bolívar in the Library of Congress, and it took a full six years to complete the biography—the first three of which were spent entirely on research alone. The pull of Bolívar’s life story, though, was too strong to pass up.

“I wanted to write about someone who really represented the personality of Latin Americans and Hispanic Americans,” she says, “but someone whose life story explicates why we are different.”

This premise of studying Bolívar as a prototype for the Latin American character becomes tantalizing in Arana’s biography. She depicts the Liberator as a natural at the art of the epic, cinematic gesture. During his 1805 travels in Europe, the 22-year-old Bolívar met Pope Pius VII and caused a minor scandal when he flouted Vatican protocol by refusing to kiss the cross on the pontiff’s sandals. During the same trip, he surveyed Roman ruins, climbed Monte Sacro with two travel companions and had the historical epiphany that would guide the rest of his life. Falling to his knees at the top of the hill, he vowed to free his country from Spanish rule: “I will not rest until I have rid it of every last one of those bastards!”

Arana recounts the next several years of Bolívar’s life pursuit in brutal and dramatic prose. From Bolívar’s first attempts at recruiting funding and troops to the unending march over more than 75,000 miles of ranges and rivers, Arana revels in the details of his everyday existence. There are his physical maladies, from hemorrhoids to tuberculosis and malnutrition, the shifting allegiances among generals and would-be war heroes, and Bolívar’s insatiable appetite for young women, who seemed to be presented as prizes at the conquest of every new village (he became a widower at a very young age).

“He was a womanizer, but very principled,” Arana says.

Above all, during those years of bitter and unspeakably gruesome war against the Spaniards, Bolívar maintained an unshakable optimism in his destiny. During one particularly vivid episode, Bolívar and 20,000 citizens were forced to retreat in exodus from Caracas as the Spanish “Legions of Hell” were waging a campaign of beheadings and assassinations. What follows was human disaster on an unspeakable scale: Bolívar’s compatriots starved to death, drowned, succumbed to disease, got devoured by wild animals. Despite the stench of death around him, he could “admit no pessimism.”  

As grueling as the yearslong campaign for independence would be, Arana places a clear focus on this optimism and refusal to accept even the idea of defeat. Arana also explores his complexities and contradictions: he ordered the freedom of slaves decades before the U.S. government issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and he championed ideals of equality and progress throughout his campaign. Yet his plans for post-independence rule included a “president for life” and other tactics that were viewed with mild horror from potential allies he courted in the United States and in Europe.

“He was a visionary,” Arana explains, “but a very poor governor. He was a brilliant general, brilliant liberator, brilliant strategist. But he was singularly unprepared for the task of governing…his instinct as a warrior is lethal as a governor.”

It was here, in the impossible struggle to rule a post-independence area comprised of modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, that his legacy became yet more complex. He was accused of scheming to become a king. He was betrayed by his generals, and ended up losing his grip on Peru, where he still remains a sore subject.

“He began to despair,” Arana says. “The overwhelming task of governing made the whole future bleak for him. There was sickness. The utter negativity.”    Arana Cover

There were also assassination plots, including a nearly successful 1828 attempt on his life in Bogotá devised by a conspiracy that at one point included 150 individuals. That horrific experience, which he only escaped thanks to quick action by his infamous lover Manuela Sáenz (an iconoclastic and thoroughly enchanting figure who deserves her own biography in the U.S.), became an emotional blow from which he never fully recovered.

“For all the bitterness we had in Peru,” Arana remarks, “at least we never tried to kill him.” 

When death did come from illness for Bolívar in 1830, he was penniless, unable to walk and in torturous pain. He was unwanted by the people he freed and had doubts about the struggle to which he dedicated his life. “I’ve even come, at this late stage, to deplore the (insurrection) we mounted against Spain…I don’t see much good coming for our country,” he wrote in a letter.

Despite the divisions and dictators that would follow Bolívar throughout Latin American history, and despite the legacy of bizarre appropriations of his persona (most recently and colorfully by Hugo Chávez, for example), Arana believes that the culture today is making giant leaps toward realizing Bolívar’s dream of unification and progress.

“There is a tremendous spirit of energy and growth,” she says. “A whole new class is emerging; you have people being pulled out of poverty in one generation. There is tremendous hope.”

David Garza lives in New York City.