Friday, July 3, 2015

Simon Bolivar's Quest for Glory (Richard W. Slatta / Jane Lucas De Grummond)

This biography of Simon Bolivar was completed by Richard W. Slatta from a manuscript left unfinished by the late Jane Lucas De Grummond. It is sad to have to report that the two authors achieve zero style, but such is the case. Although the book is aimed at a general readership and eschews (wrongly, I think) the usual scholarly apparatus of end-notes, it is not in fact that readable. A biography of Bolivar is, perforce, essentially a piece of military history; and military history is difficult to write clearly. Although one does come away from this book with an impression of the Liberator himself, who was indeed on a "quest for glory," the blizzard of other personae, generals and leaders on both the Patriot and Royalist sides, do not emerge clearly from the text, and remain easily confused names only. They needed to be introduced carefully - pictures would have helped.

You do get the major message that the leadership of both sides was rent by intense rivalries and jealousies: "In his autobiography, [Jose Antonio] Paez recorded that...he acknowledged the need for a supreme chief. He declined, however, to recognize either [Santiago] Marino or Bolivar as filling that role, preferring to visualize himself as supreme chief."

There is a delightfully apt typo at one point, when Marino re-swears his allegiance to Bolivar: "It is now, and from this moment, our most scared duty to become a model of submission and obedience to the supreme chief!" Yes, I imagine it was his "scared" as well as "sacred" duty.

Although the book contains a number of maps in the front material, they are inadequate to the needs of the story. Many, many locations mentioned in the text are unmarked on the maps; and of the maps of specific battles and military marches that the book cries out for, there are none. It is easy to become very geographically confused as the story makes its way through modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

It is highly regrettable that the book leans to the dull and tangled, because the material is rich. Bolivar's multiple liaisons alone provide a lot of potential side-drama that the authors fail to make much of ("Make love AND war!", apparently). Highly dramatic episodes such as the mass killing of 22 Capuchin friars by an over-zealous Patriot officer, or the tale of the general who tosses his baby into the air on a balcony, only to watch it crash to its death below, pass without any sense of occasion.

The Bibliography and "Guide to Further Reading" are good, and further reading will be necessary if you really want to understand fully what was going on.

Simon Bolivar's Quest for Glory (Texas A&M University Military History Series, 86.)

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