Syme’s stated goal in Garibaldi was to write an accessible, short biography for a reader who “wants to find out what happened” to the Italian patriot and to avoid “subjective speculation.” At the same time, Syme also hoped to avoid “the condensation of Garibaldi’s own life into a dry and colorless catalogue of historical facts.” The finished book lives up to this double promise and has gracefully withstood the test of time since its first publication.
Garibaldi himself enters this biography both through authorial description and in his own letters, from which Syme quotes intelligently and selectively (but which are not referenced in this footnote-free book). Thus, Garibaldi’s growth from an impatient young man ready to depose an aged, bumbling, and vindictive old king is well described. Once Garibaldi has become a mature fighter, whose political passion is coupled with enough pragmatism to bring him to offer his services to the newly crowned and good-natured Sardinian king Victor Emmanuel, the reader has gained a believable insight into the full complexity of Garibaldi’s personality.
Nevertheless, some readers may wish for a bit more fleshing out of crucial scenes in Garibaldi’s life. When he enters the jungles of South America to defend the country of Uruguay, it is not merely the results of the skirmishes—the exact number of the captured enemy guns and ships, for example—that are of interest. Others might also welcome a glimpse into the mind of the Italian exile and his wild followers as they cut their path through dangerous lands. Similarly, when Garibaldi’s wife, Anita Riberas, dies from a fever after Rome is recaptured for the pope in 1849, Syme is perhaps too quick to turn away from Garibaldi at this moment of intense private grief.
On the other hand, all of Syme’s facts are carefully researched, and his accounts of the battle scenes in Italy offer a clear sense of the struggle at hand. Thus, Garibaldi honors the historic facts and does not yield to the temptation of altering history so that the story becomes more dramatic. When Garibaldi arrives in Italy in 1848, Syme’s narrative chronicles how he is sidelined in the battle against the Austrians, who rule over large parts of Northern Italy; the book chronicles the frustration of a fighter kept back against his will. Likewise, Syme is frank about how, despite...
(The entire section is 602 words.)