While writing his memoirs, Gabriel García Márquez recalled the afternoon in his home village of Aracataca when his grandfather set a dictionary on his lap and said: “Not only does this book know everything, it’s the only one that is never wrong.” The young García Márquez asked: “How many words are in it?” “All of them,” his grandfather replied.

As the eminent Mexican historian Enrique Krauze shows in Redeemers, politics and words became inextricably entwined in twentieth-century Latin America. Indeed García Márquez, struck by the possibility of a book that knew “everything”, went on to write the magnificent One Hundred Years of Solitude. His 1967 novel holds up a hallucinatory mirror to a century of Latin American experience and won the Colombian author the Nobel Prize for literature, even if it did not enjoy universal admiration. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges commented wryly: “One Hundred Years of Solitude is all right but it would be better if it was 20 or 30 years shorter.”

Redeemers is a magisterial history of the ideas, books and politics that shaped modern Latin America, from 19th-century liberalism to revolutionary commitments and back again towards modern, more democratic versions of liberal thought. Ideas are its main protagonists. But Krauze expresses them through the lives of notable thinkers and politicians who developed them with a “religious or almost theological seriousness”. They are heroes all and many were also martyrs.

The first of Krauze’s 12 intellectual biographies are of the precursor “prophets”, as he calls them – writers such as Cuba’s José Martí and Mexico’s José Vasconcelos. They were the first to configure the continent’s revolutionary vocation with an apostolic zeal and a spirit of sacrifice that stems, Krauze argues, from the certainties of a culture still intent on salvation and domination. This, in turn, was a legacy of 16th-century attitudes held by the missionary church towards the pre-Colombian inhabitants of the New World. Hence, in part, the religiosity of the book’s title and the moral certainty of many of its figures.

Octavio Paz is one of the exceptions. The great Mexican poet first rejected liberal democracy but later returned to it, albeit never wholeheartedly, an intellectual journey mirroring that of the continent itself. Two “secular saints” – the Argentines Eva Perón and Che Guevara – take the history into the middle of the century. García Márquez and the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa bring it into the present via their contrasting treatments of that classic Latin American theme, dictatorship.

This is one of the continent’s great dividing lines – even if an apparently typical Latin American predilection for “strongmen” stems from the hero-worshipping ideas of a Scotsman, Thomas Carlyle. García Márquez, even amid the twilight of the Cuban revolution, remains if not an apologist for Fidel Castro, a faithful friend. “Eventually history makes both aesthetic and moral judgements,” is Krauze’s own, elliptical judgment. By contrast, Vargas Llosa has continued to protest against all forms of authoritarianism, be that of the left or right. Thus last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature could describe Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as author of the “richest and most innovative poetry in the Spanish language …and, also, of hymns of praise to Stalin”.

In the 1980s and 1990s theology and revolution are married in the lives of two Mexican redeemers: Samuel Ruiz, the late bishop of Chiapas, and Subcomandante Marcos, a masked rebel leader whose wit and revolutionary flair won praise from Norman Mailer.

At the end, there is a vivid portrait of Hugo Chávez, a classic Latin American strongman brought into the modern age by Twitter and high production television techniques. A man “not of ideas but neither a man without ideas”, the Venezuelan president’s redemptive message is based on anti-imperialism, veneration of the great War of Independence leader Simon Bolívar, who once famously said only a benign despot could rule Latin America, and a vaporous ideology called “21st-century socialism”.

There are no Brazilians in Redeemers. So the different traditions – more lyrical and less epic – of half of the region are unexplored. This is a shame, because the recent rise of social democratic Brazil has probably done more to shift the region’s intellectual landscape than the fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, the “Brazil consensus” – a pragmatic mix of generous social policies and orthodox macroeconomics, both buoyed by high commodity prices – has become the continent’s new political orthodoxy. Whether this shift lasts, should commodity prices fall, remains to be seen.

Krauze concludes this erudite and wise but, at times, perplexing history with a gentle warning. Liberal democracy, often fragmentary, gradual and certainly less stirring than other alternatives, has proven more revolutionary in Latin America than revolution. Yet, as long as nations remain poor and unequal, redeemers will appear. “The temptation of political absolutism and ideological orthodoxy …is still alive,” Krauze warns. A lingering faith in old traditions – including books that know “everything” – endures.

John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s Latin America editor and author of ‘The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon’ (Penguin Press)

Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America, by Enrique Krauze, Harper, RRP$29.99, 544 pages

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