Deep into Marie Arana's wonderful new biography of Simon Bolivar, "the George Washington of South America," there's a deliciously unexpected pause in the action.
It's 1816, and Bolivar has set sail from Haiti. He's on his way back to Venezuela, with an army set to take on the hated Spanish colonial authorities.
At the island of St. Thomas, he ostensibly stops for "supplies." In reality, his fleet of ships has anchored so that Bolivar can pick up his mistress, Pepita Machado. The advent of text messaging is two centuries away, however, and the lovers have their signals crossed - Machado has sailed for Haiti. For three days, the fleet waits, and when a ship finally retrieves Machado, the flotilla waits one more day while she and Bolivar make love.
"Bolivar now maddened his officers with his unquenchable libido," Arana writes. It was, she adds, a "bad start" to a year of warfare that would see Bolivar proclaim, for the third time, the dawn of a new republic in Venezuela - and fail for the third time to win its war of independence.
In "Bolivar: American Liberator," Bolivar emerges as a complex and confounding human being. He was the essential figure in the revolutionary wars that created five South American countries. Brilliant and erudite, he was an idealist and also a ruthless military leader as well as a deeply charismatic man of letters.
His speeches and correspondence, Arana writes, "represent some of the greatest writing in Latin America letters" and "changed the Spanish language." He began his political career as a fervent believer in personal freedom and self-rule. Still, he committed the kinds of atrocities that today would be called war crimes. And he eventually concluded that Latin America was not ready for true democracy.
In Arana's energetic and highly readable telling, Bolivar comes alive as having willed himself an epic life. As a young man on a visit to the royal court in Madrid, he once played badminton with the future king he would later work feverishly to undermine. As a general, he covered more miles and crossed more mountain ranges, swamps and deserts than Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great - but he spent his final years in obscure poverty.
"Few heroes in history have been dealt so much honor, so much power - and so much ingratitude," Arana writes.