Dancing With Bolivar
By Rodge Glass.
Hola 3:AM, the last time we spoke I had just arrived in Cochabamba, the thousand-year city in the West of Bolivia. It seems a long time ago now. Since then my wife and I have spent more days and nights in this place than anywhere else on our travels through Latin America – and it’s an exciting time to be here. Carnaval is about to start. In recent months I’ve used this blog for all sorts of things – glorying in new-found literature, anguishing over identity, also detailing the development of my novel. This month I want to talk about the different faces of Latin American nations, what they’re composed of, and whether it really matters if any of those faces are real.
Carnaval is the world-famous annual pre-Lent party which marches, dances, sings and trumpets its way across much of the South American continent at this time of year. For the uninitiated, it takes some getting to used to. Just the rehearsals are a national event. For example, last Sunday hundreds of groups who will depart for Oruro this weekend tested out their skills on the streets of Cochabamba, roads being closed to traffic all day while the multi-coloured processions passed through. The evidence of preparation is all around here, and it’s building. For months now, university students have been practising their routines outside lecture halls at night, only pausing to let the occasional car by. In Plaza Sucre, at the end of our street, groups of young people are busy perfecting their dances, getting ready for what is undoubtedly the highlight of the year – and of course, while they’re dancing, they’re flirting too. (The median age in this country is 23, so there’s a lot of that around. Plaza Sucre is Kiss Central. It’s not the only one.)
Yesterday evening alone I counted fourteen separate groups in the square, each moving in sync, each taking instructions from a leader. The laughter of the dancers was infectious; a man pulled up on a motorbike to watch the action, his young daughter snug between him and the handlebars; groups of women and children drifted over, several toddlers playing ‘search for treasure in the dirt’ while the rehearsals went on around them. Watching crowds sang along, performers played their instruments, dancers swirled their traditional dresses. Across the other side of the square, the song ‘Viva Cochabamba!’ blasted out of home-made speakers, the sound so blistered that lyrics were barely audible. But what did that matter? I tried to imagine such a thing happening in the big city squares back home, and couldn’t. To an outsider like me it all looks wonderfully, suspiciously, wholesome. Well lit, safe and amongst the green palm trees so typical of the squares here, this is the image I already know I will take home once I depart. But it leaves out much which is less palatable; I must remember that too. ‘Cocha’ may be home to this innocent celebration of life, but it’s also home to soul-crushing, abject poverty which is so commonplace that even bleeding-heart softies like me need to harden up or else not walk the streets at all. If you can’t cope with seeing babies sleeping on the streets, being bathed in the fountain water or playing in cardboard boxes while their mothers work, then you really shouldn’t be here at all.
The tension between these two contrasting realities got me thinking about how to honestly represent Bolivia on the page – which, after all, is my job. Every detail you choose to include about real life distorts the picture. Every one you leave out does the same. Which instantly makes me think of Bolivar, the super-sized Latin American myth, man, and Libertador this country is named after. Back in Chile I encountered the ghosts of Salvador Allende, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. It feels like ghosts are following me everywhere, and here in Bolivia, there’s no doubt whose looms largest. The General’s only serious competition is Jesus himself, represented here by the 35-metre Cristo de la Concordia which looks down on the city from his place on the top of San Pedro Hill. Close up, it’s imposing. 1 At night, it lights up. If Bolivar were alive today, I wonder if he might be disappointed not to be the illuminated figure on that hill. The famous Libertador was many things, but modest was certainly not one of them.
In a previous blog, I mentioned all my books had been lost en route to Bolivia from Chile. Long story short: the moon brought me more. One of which is an excellent travelogue called Andes, which I’m reading this week. It’s by Michael Jacobs 2 and was published by Granta in 2011, tracing Jacobs’ route through the famous mountain range, also following much of Bolivar’s own route back in the days when he was dreaming of leading an independent, united South American continent. The Andes and the famous General are the two principal characters of the book, a copy of which was handed to me by one of the folks at Sustainable Bolivia, the organisation my wife is working with out here. The gift-giver in question shall remain nameless – partly because he confessed to having been sick all over the pages. (Dried vomit gives the pages a dried out, rainbow effect I don’t think I’ve ever seen on papyrus before.) Anyway, the book is in bits, but it’s readable, and I’m grateful for it. It’s one of the best I’ve read on my travels, and it illustrates perfectly my own dilemma with Bolivar.
In fact, perhaps it illustrates the dilemma for many Westerners coming to this place and trying to make sense of it. To embrace Bolivar or reject him? To accept the story or question it? Or even, just ignore? As I speak my wife and I are living in a house called Casa Bolivar, on a street called Calle Bolivar, and I’m writing this blog in a café from where I can see a statue of the man himself which has stood for ninety years. Also, as I type, a man in a Bolivar football jersey has just walked by (there’s a team named after him too) – so ignoring is not really an option. The statue, saluting ‘honor y patria’ is one of hundreds. Bolivar is shown on his horse, or on the ground, but always handsome, always wise and brave. Widen your search outside of Bolivia and you’ll soon discover just how ubiquitous he is. In the renamed Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela every single square is named after him. Of course, this country is named after him too. Further afield, Egypt, Iran, the United States, all have dedicated monuments to Bolivar, many other countries too. And closer to the man’s birthplace, hundreds if not thousands of streets, societies, kiosks and restaurants carry his name, from the top of his continent right down to the very bottom of it. If it’s Latino, and if it’s got a name, the chances are Bolivar’s stamp will be on it.
Given how miserably his life ended, this is nothing less than extraordinary. Let’s not forget, his great project was never realised. (No doubt he’d have been appalled by the War of the Pacific, which left this country landlocked, and led to such antagonism between Chile, Peru and Bolivia.) As Michael Jacobs had to do in his book, any of us travelling through this part of the world must face the General at some point. And say what? In the book I’m writing, Once a Great Leader, my protagonist Gabriela Moya will also have to face the ghost of Bolivar. Subject to revisions (everything always is), I see her travelling through Chile, over the border at the Atacama desert and into Bolivia via Peru, in search of one of her family members, a ‘desapericido’ of Pinochet’s time. My whole book is about the distance between the myth of political figures and the untidy reality of their lives. I’m sure Gabriela, an ex-British Prime Minister brought low by the exposing of her own myth, would not accept the Bolivar worship unquestioningly. But would she want to know the details of how it all went wrong for him after his fall?
To suggest that Simon Bolivar is a controversial figure is not, in itself, controversial. Even in his own time, this was true. How things have changed. Today he is glorified as the messianic figure who freed Latin America from the Spanish conquistadors, who bravely traversed the most unaccommodating of terrains in the name of liberating his people – and to deny him this would be to lie about the place in Latin American history he certainly deserves, a history which loves its heroes. The tales of Bolivar’s affection for his dog, the tragic early death of his first wife and also his passionate love for Manuela Saenz (she has her own museum) suggest a caring, sensitive man capable of compassion and understanding. But it’s not all love letters and sensitivity and the honest struggle. There’s more, which should be said. For example, if you’re Ecuadorian, you owe more to his underling, General Sucre. If you’re Chilean, you owe more to another key General, José Carrera. The Argentinian San Martin played a crucial role which is often forgotten. (Though rarely by the Argentinians.) The trouble with truth is, it’s complicated. The trouble with avoiding it is, if you don’t give the whole picture, you deny something more important than heroism – you take away the man’s humanity. And I for one can’t get interested in Bolivar unless I can imagine his doubts, his struggles, the bead of sweat trickling down his neck when he condemned his soldiers to almost-certain death in the name of a greater cause.
Unpalatable truths we know about (take a deep breath) Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco include the following: though he looked to the American and French Revolutions for inspiration, he believed in ‘lifelong Presidency’ and a Senate made up of hereditary peers, much like the unelected British House of Lords. Though he declared himself anti-slavery, Bolivarian society lead to greater concentration of land among the elites post-independence. He declared himself Dictator of Peru in 1824 and of the vast Gran Colombia in 1828, hardly a democratic move. Also, as described in John Lynch’s Simon Bolivar: A Life (Yale University Press, 2006) he was born into the white elite, a seventh generation descendent of Basque migrants, inheriting the family copper mines – so he was hardly typical of the people he called his own. What else? Towards the end of his life, he believed that the best chance of a united Latin America was under the British monarchy – so, not independent at all. None of which stops him from being crucial to the Latin American story, but does it make him a hero? And what do we need heroes for anyway? Surely it would be more inspiring to tell these stories honestly, showing that political and military leaders of the past were humans, just like us, not untouchable deities who never made a mistake? Not everyone prefers the lie. Thank God for Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The end of Bolivar’s life was tackled with typical, slippery grace by Garcia Marquez in his 1989 novel El General en su Laberinto (The General in his Labyrinth), a book which created a storm at the time because it was not fawningly positive. Set in 1830, with most of Latin America now independent from Spain, and Bolivar recently resigned from his Dictator posts, the novel committed such unforgiveable crimes as: suggest the Great Man was mentally and physically exhausted at the end of his life; dramatise people throwing shit at him; show him preoccupied by his failures and limitations; show him abandoned by his supporters; show him dying in isolation and poverty. In short: it made him a person. Of course, those whose job it is to turn Bolivar into a mountain as big as any of the Andean peaks he traversed do not want to discuss these things – which is exactly why we should discuss them. Composed after an intense two year period of research, and after consultations with many of the finest Bolivar scholars, Garcia Marquez’s approach to the General’s life on the page proves he is a truly great artist. Why? Because it’s the artist’s job to look where no one else will. Garcia Marquez, unflinching in facing down the greatest myth of Latin America, is a great example for the rest of us aspiring writers. After all, it’s nice to photograph the statue, but how can you take a decent picture if the central figure is obscured by fog?
None of the above stops the dancing at Carnaval, many groups named in honour of Bolivar, being a glorious thing. Neither does the poverty or the myriad struggles of modern Bolivia prevent millions of people from having a party which shows the very best of this place, something I will never forget. And whose spirit I hope will stay with me when I return to wet and windy North England, no doubt wondering what I really learned on my travels. Sometimes, the most difficult thing for those of us who live in consumer-based, money-obsessed, workaholic countries to understand is how the people here, who have so little, can be so happy and free. And yet they are. Swirling and dipping and chanting and blasting the tunes, the out-of-tune-ness of those trumpets doesn’t really matter. The celebration of life is everything.
Bolivar may well have enjoyed Carnaval. Amid the chaos and noise, he would certainly have noticed that even in modern Bolivia, despite finally being ruled by Evo Morales, the first indigenous leader of this troubled nation, there is still a huge gap between the rich and the poor. In fact, in Cochabamba, the most middle-class of Bolivian cities, that is more evident than anywhere else. I see it every day. In La Cancha market, the largest in Latin America, poverty is rife, with every patch of ground taken by locals laying out their wares, no matter how paltry they may be. Meanwhile in Universidad Mayor de San Simon (named after ‘saint’ Simon Bolivar of course) you’ll find the sort of super-machines in the car park that wouldn’t look out of place in Los Angeles. And then there’s everything in between. If I write of a Bolivia where the people are cheerful and affectionate and proud, and who dance away their troubles, that will be real, but it won’t be the whole picture. My instincts usually tell me it’s better to tell a difficult truth than a soothing lie. But then, when I think a little more I think, who would be inspired by that?
This afternoon I’ll return to Andes, the Michael Jacobs book which is in my thoughts often at the moment. One thing I like about it is you’re not just travelling with Jacobs – his trip is guided by others who went before him, and also wrote about their Andean journeys. He refers often to the explorer Humboldt’s bold paths into the unknown, along with the writer Christopher Isherwood’s account of a similar journey, also Bolivar’s own. (A little self-congratulatory for my tastes, but fascinating nonetheless.) Along the route, he tells short illuminating anecdotes which draw his threads together. And now Jacobs helps to draw my own threads together, for the purposes of this blog – for which I thank him.
One night in Peru he is in a bar called Usha Usha, where the owner Jaime Valera performs every night for his customers, playing indigenous songs, his raw voice full of duende (a kind of painful, artful emotion). Before the crowds appear, the two men discuss history. Then people take their seats, and the music plays. And at the end of the night:
The three remaining customers filed out, followed finally by the musicians. Jaime and I were once again alone. ‘Do you know what Garcia Marquez has recently called South America?’ he asked me. He smiled, cleared his throat, and took a long glass of water before telling me. ‘The laboratory of failed illusions’.
Jaime Valera has recently been recognised by the National Institute of Culture in Peru. He has sung his songs for many years, knows far better than me about the suffering of his people, and he sees truth in Garcia Marquez’s words. I see plenty of that too, as I’ve detailed above – but on this diagnosis Gabriel, Jaime and I will have to disagree. South America, a laboratory? Sure. Failed illusions? Yes, many of those too. But from what I can see here in Cochabamba, some of those illusions have succeeded. Perhaps more than even Bolivar could have imagined.
1. Cochabamba is home to Latin America’s largest statue of Jesus, being slightly larger than the one in Rio. Cristo de la Concordia translates as ‘Christ of Peace’.↩
2. Michael Jacobs lost his battle with cancer just last month.↩
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rodge Glass is the author of six books, most recently LoveSexTravelMusik: Stories for the Easyjet Generation, as well as the biography Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, and he is co-author of the graphic novel Dougie’s War: A Soldier’s War. He is supported by the Edge Hill University REF Investment Fund, and by Arts Council England. [Pic: Georgie Glass]
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 6th, 2014.