History recognizes Manuela Sáenz, mistress of the brilliant revolutionary and Colombian president Simón Bolívar, as one of South America’s earliest feminists and greatest patriots. She earned the nickname “La Libertadora del Libertador” – the liberator of the liberator – for helping her lover escape an assassination attempt in 1828. In his bold and lyrical fourth novel, Manrique vividly portrays the passionate woman whose love affairs with one man and his vision were inseparable in the end.
“I was born a rich bastard and died a poor one,” Manuela tells us, beginning her tale with her childhood schooling at a convent in Quito. The nuns’ cruel treatment of Manuela, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy criolla by a Spanish nobleman, turns her against Catholicism for life. In her eyes, the Spanish remain a symbol of repression and slavery, and she grows up intensely admiring Bolívar and his ideals. Although her father recognizes her at last, he forces her to marry a wealthy Englishman; this cements her negative opinion of his countrymen. Manuela’s all-too-brief relationship with the legendary Bolívar, the great love of her life, is the culmination of her dream to unite with the revolutionary cause.
In alternating between the viewpoints of Manuela and her African slaves, Jonotás and Natán, Manrique gives us further insight into Manuela’s character. His prose is direct yet evocative, full of the vibrant color of colonial South America – its flowering plants, its wild fauna, its horrible, bloody violence. Romantic and tragic in equal measure, Our Lives Are the Rivers is well worth reading by anyone familiar with South American history, and especially by those who aren’t.
Our Lives Are the Rivers was published by HarperCollins/Rayo in 2006, and the paperback is still in print ($13.95, 384pp). The original Spanish title is Nuestros Vidas Son Los Rios (same publisher and price). Parts of this post appeared previously in the Historical Novels Review.