Manrique weaves a tale of revolution, his protagonist, Manuela Saenz, devoted to Simon Bolivar long before she sets eyes on the man who is a legend to his people, promising freedom from the oppressive yolk of government. Of course, the champion of the people eventually dons the cloak of the oppressor, but for a few brief years, Bolivar’s star is in ascension, Manuela at his side.
The love child of a father who never claims her, Manuela Saenz exists on the fringes of a society ruled by ritual, tolerated for her family name, constantly reminded of her of illegitimacy, rigorously lectured by nuns for her inadequacies and lack of importance. The girl finds small comfort in her two African slaves, only a few years older, whose attendance is sanctioned by the family as a means of separating even further from the family embarrassment. Jonatas and Natan grow to womanhood along with Manuela, friends and companions to a woman who will little know the comfort of women, her future focused on the revolution.
Bolivar nurtures grand dreams: the unification of Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, South America equal to the might of Europe and the emerging United States, his “Gran Colombia.” The dream never comes to fruition, but not for lack of trying. Bolivar’s exploits and successes rage across the countryside, inflaming the imaginations of the poor.
Fueled by passion and a fervent desire to fight for her country, Manuela is hopelessly in love with Bolivar and the revolution. Capturing the Liberator’s attention with her beauty and cleverness, Manuela leaves her English husband and pursues the general with a vengeance inspired by a dramatic personality and thirst for a more important life, becoming his staunchest supporter, lover and confidante for eight years.
As opportunity arises, Manuela steps into the shoes of history, throwing herself into the cause of the people, inflamed by the Liberator’s visions of a South America free from Spain. Manuela is fearless, often tending the battle-ravaged revolutionary soldiers, beloved for her fierce loyalty to the troops, later reviled for her hubris as “empress of the Andes.”
Manuela has a tumultuous life, the few years of luxury and notoriety before Bolivar’s death and her own fall from grace, poverty-ridden, exiled from her country with only the memories of her great love for comfort in her declining years: “No one who took part in the epidemic of independence could claim not to have blood on their hands.”
Certainly revolution begets heroes and villains. Manuela seizes her place next to the man she loves, Bolivar basking in a few short years of his people’s love and all of Manuela’s. Drenched in turmoil, dreams and glory, Bolivar’s promise portends an uncertain future, bloodshed a way of life. At the end of her days, Manuela muses, “perhaps I had loved a mirage, not a man.”