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Eduardo Galeano: in celebration of contradiction.

The lyrical pen of this Uruguyan writer and social critic sings across the continents

IN RECENT YEARS, it has been almost impossible to follow contemporary events in the Americas and not encounter the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano. Despite his quiet, unassuming manner he seems to be everywhere--on a lecture tour of North American universities; publishing a perceptive commentary on the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado; keynote speaker at Chile Creates, an international meeting in support of democracy in Chile; and addressing the American Booksellers Association in Los Angeles on the occasion of the publication of his new book, We Say No.

Why the sudden interest in this avowed socialist? Ironically, with East-West tensions subsiding, Galeano is enjoying an ever greater audience even in those regions of the Hemisphere and sectors of society he has criticized most. After all, this journalist, essayist, and historian has been trafficking in words for nearly forty years. Although respected for his hard-nosed scholarship, sharp eye for detail, and majestic style, Galeano has been assailed for his strident tone and impassioned subjectivity. However, in recent books he has turned down the volume a bit, learned to smile through tears, and philosophically admit that it takes patience to change opinions. In the post-Cold War era his audience, too, has changed. Grave societal problems everywhere have demanded a renewed search for solutions even when it means reconsideration of ideas once blindly defined as antithetical for reasons of dogma. There has been a meeting of minds: both Galeano and his readers have come of age.

Many believe that Galeano found a new voice while writing Memoria del fuego (Memory of Fire), his sweeping trilogy which The New Yorker described as "nothing less than a unified history of the western Hemisphere." In taut, episodic chapters, which he has carefully sourced, Galeano marches through five centuries, illuminating events large and small from before the European Conquest to the present day. The project and its practical format suggested themselves in 1973 amidst the rubble of a novel that wouldn't come ("it was like making love without desire"), and the trauma of life in exile. Having escaped arrest on political charges in both Uruguay and late Argentina, Galeano was living in Calella de la Costa, south of Barcelona. Reflecting on the birth of Memoria, he comments, "It occurred to me that history could talk about itself. 'Story windows' or spaces open to time could help the reader relate to events as if they were happening now. That's why I wrote it in the present tense. I was reading some verses by the Greek poet Constantin Cavafis, and it was there that I discovered the form, the idea of seeing the whole of history as if through a keyhole.

Soon, with no preconceived notion of what he was looking for, Galeano was mining the rich holding of Spanish libraries. "Exile gave me the time, even a measure of objectivity that can only come from looking at familiar things from a distance. Sure, often it was boring work, drudgery, hard on the backside, and yet just as one person can inexplicably shine in a crowd, so too even the dullest of books can yield some nugget or magical turn or phrase that in miniature captures the essence of larger forces at work." In one musty volume Galeano spotted the words piel de dios (skin of god), a Chiriguano Indian term for the first sheets of paper introduced by the Europeans. Elsewhere, typical of cultures "talking past one another," he learned that Molucca Indians truly perceived small boats launched from Spanish ships as infants, born and suckled by the mother vessels. He identified the moment the first Americanism, canoa (canoe), entered a Spanish language dictionary (1495), also the moment when Pope Paul III, in his bull of 1537, said Indians are human beings, "endowed with soul and reason." The prominent figures of the Conquest--Pizarro, Cauthtemoc, Balboa, Malinche--certainly receive their due, but Galeano delights the reader most of all by highlighting that which is small and obscure: a slave owner who, in his will "thoughtfully" lowers the price of freedom for one Fabiano Criolla from 200 to 150 pesos (1618); dogs introduced by Spaniards which multiply into wild packs to maraud the island of Tortuga until they are fed the poisoned carcasses of horses (1668); and rats over-running the New world, God's punishment for sins committed in the Americas according to a sermonizing priest newly arrived (1622 and one of the funniest entries).

The first volume of epic work, Los naciminetos (Genesis), was published in Spain in 1982. Two years later, Galeano returned to Montevideo intent on applying his eclectic, microcosmic method to more recent centuries. Numerous Latin American libraries, as well as the new York City Public Library, became his haunts and with an uncanny nose for hidden truths and the discipline of a German soldier, he assembled the other two volumes. Las caras y las mascaras (Faces and masks), equally rich in its lore of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, appeared in 1984. El siglo del viento (Century of the Wind), which deals with the twentieth century, followed in 1986. The trilogy reached English-speaking readers during 1985-1988 through masterful translations by Galeano's close friend, Cedric Belfrage. Two years later it earned for its author the American Book Award.

Galeano's career as a writer began inauspiciously and under unorthodox circumstances. From a working class family with roots in half a dozen European countries, the Montevideo native dropped out of school at age thirteen. "I never learned in school. I didn't like it. I felt like George Bernard Shaw who said 'when I was seven years old I was obliged to stop my education by going to school'." As a street kid, Galeano learned about life first-hand, from the ground up. "Montevideo of the 50's and 60's was a city full of cafes, a conversational city, not the fast food outlets of today. It was bad business from the cafe owner's standpoint but you could nurse hours of talk out of a beer or cup of coffee. "Like many Uruguayan youth, he dreamed of becoming a soccer player but lacking sufficient skill, he earned pocket money as a messenger for factories and offices, and as a political cartoonist for El Sol, a socialist weekly. He signed his drawings "Guis", the Spanish spelling for his Welsh patronym, Hughes. Driven more by audacity than knowledge, he also turned to writing: essays on art and on the labor movement which he signed "Galeano," his mother's family name. In September 1954, at age fourteen, he published his first article at the very moment of official passage from boyhood to young man--his transition from short to long pants.

In the early 1960s, Galeano's growing literary skills earned him a position as editor-in-chief of Marcha, one of the most respected socialist publications in the Hemisphere. He also held editorial positions with other Montevideo weeklies as well as the daily newspaper, Epoca. The Uruguayan capital was a publishing center for much of Latin America and from it flowed many ideas for radical reform. At the center of this maelstrom, Galeano wrote hard, not just pieces for newspapers but also a novel called Los fantasmas de dia del leon, and two works of political analysis, China 1964: Cronica de un desafio (1964) and Guatemala: Clave de Latinoamerica (1967). He capped this period of intense activity with Las venas abiertas de America Latina (1971) a carefully sourced study of imperialist exploitation. Las venas represented the "drainage of raw materials" and what he perceived as five centuries of despoliation of land, people, and culture. That Galeano wrote the book in a scant three months now seems obvious; it is a smoldering discharge, full of rage for which he does not repent (currently in its seventeenth edition). Nonetheless, in his Notes for a Self-Portrait, a brief chapter in the just-published We Say No, he admits that Venas reduces history to a single economic dimension. These days he favors a description of history as life, something that "sings with multiple voices."

Despite his vast experience as a writer and the admiration and respect he enjoys among friends and foes, Galeano remains modest and surprisingly suspicious of the entire process of committing ideas to paper. "Words are my food yet they can be a dangerous poison. Memory can be quite a trickster, especially with the passage of time." He is also refreshingly old-fashioned when it comes to technique. He resisted conversion to the electronic age of computers and word processors, favoring instead that lowest of technology: writing by hand. On small sheets of notebook paper he records the raw stuff of his books--a turn of phrase that may occur in the middle of the night, graffiti spotted in his wanderings, quotes from his voracious reading, tidbits from friends, "eavesdroppings." All in a minuscule hand, they are crammed into every corner, portions circled, arrows suggesting sequence, passages momentarily blessed and then doomed to oblivion beneath his merciless pen. Good writing, for Galeano, "must reflect struggle between what one wants to say and what one can actually say. Without that tension between desafio (panic/horror) and euforia, it emerges lifeless, dead." Elsewhere, (again Notes for a Self-portrait) he has likened writing to the process of drawing or painting: "First comes the image, then the word. I'm incapable of communicating a situation, an emotion, or an idea if I don't see it first with my eyes closed. And I always have difficulty finding words, to communicate that image, that seem worthy of its splendor. I believe that because I lack the talent for painting with paints, I paint when I write. Since I couldn't be a painter, I had no other choice than to become a writer. The woman you love ignores you, so you marry her cousin!"

Galeano likes to talk about the "music of words, their melody, color. Good writing should have a clean sound. In my travels, wherever I go, I'm intrigued by the way people put things, their song. I'm a terrible thief with words but I don't feel too guilty. Eventually, I give them back." Even now, once the draft manuscript eventually takes shape in his manual typewriter and undergoes numerous rewrites to remove the wheat from the shaft, Galeano always reads aloud what he has written, to friends, to himself, often to his wife, Helena Villegra ("my most pitiless critic"). Typical of the relentless distillation that characterizes all of Galeano's prose, is one beautiful entry for 1848 in Memoria del fuego of which he is justly proud. "They are two by an error that the night corrects." Referring to the star-crossed lovers, Camila O'Gorman and the porteno priest with whom she eloped, it perfectly capsulizes their dilemma while setting the stage for their eventual execution on orders from Argentina's President Juan Manuel de Rosas. (The tragedy was featured in the 1985 film Camila, directed by Argentina's Maria Luisa Bemberg).

Galeano confesses that he conceived his entire trilogy in musical terms, a symphony in three movements, cyclical, with recurring themes and variations. It was his hope that people would read each short descriptive passage "like singing to one another," then pause and share their own experiences in an act of collective storytelling. Galeano bemoans the death of the oral tradition which has been replaced by television. "The screen produces a ready-made reality. The viewer is passive. That's the problem of consumer culture: it consumes culture. Once the storyteller was universal to all people but gradually local cultures are being crushed by global culture imposed around the world. In the name of diversity, they are killing diversity. Control of the media is very undemocratic."

Interviews with the writer and various autobiographical asides in his books are peppered with the disclaimer, "I'm not a historian." Perhaps, but as one reviewer has observed, "Although a writer/journalist by trade, Galeano possesses a grasp of history and historicism that is often missing in the writing of persons trained in the field." It is precisely because history in school for him "was like a visit to a wax museum or the land of the dead" that he decided to seek a more vital alternative. "I distrust the frontiers of past and present, that's my problem with history. I am very hungry, thirsty, for the magical sense of life, the fluid of other's lives. That's why I'm not a historian. I deal with life." Galeano often talks about "the amnesia of history, peoples, lands condemned to forget themselves." In his essay, "Language, Lies, and Latin Democracy" (Harper's, February 1990) he says: "Latin America is a world where only rarely does the sound of words coincide with their meaning and where the vast majority of the people are condemned to the mute language of fear and solitude." He is particularly critical of historical treatments of Latin America written by outsiders. "You can't separate the soul and body, the heart from reason. You see, just administered by another who doesn't understand is never fair." In Libro de los abrazos (The Book of Embraces), he states: "I write for the downtrodden, those waiting to get into history." He quotes an African proverb once spotted on a poster: "Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter."

In recent years, perhaps coming full circle to his youthful days as a political draughtsman, this perfectionist with words has paid increasing attention to the physical appearance of his books. "It's a kind of vengeance, getting even for past failures. You see, when I was little, I always felt sorry for adults with their boring books. Kids have pictures. Adults don't." Intent on changing that, believing a book should be a feast for the eye, Galeano began to insert little Aztec motifs between each of the entries at the beginning of Memoria del fuego. He expanded on the idea and indeed allowed text to mirror image in Libro de los abrazos, which is both a verbal and visual collage. Its dust jacket reads, a "seamless blend, a multiplicity of voices." In this case the promotional hype describes accurately Galeano's patented vignette style--parable, paradox, anecdote, dream--all fragments of himself and the world around him. Scattered throughout the text are fish with umbrellas, hands out of hors, a boy with hoop and an octopus head. The graphics are no more surreal than the contradictions of life central to his work.

When this handsome man of weary eyes and resonant voice carefully reads from this collection (as he did during a series of North American appearances last year), he conjures similar paradoxes of disturbing clarity. His singular lines have a kind of "hang time," they linger in the mind. Obviously they were meant to be read aloud. The broad range of Galeano's interest is most apparent in We Say No, the anthology which W.W. Norton published this year in an English language edition, evidence of the writer's growing reputation in North America. Subtitled Chronicles 1963-1991, it contains early journalistic sketches on Pele, who wanted to be an airplane pilot and whiled away his hours reading scholarly books on sociology; Che Guevara, who "had a marked inclination to do everything he could not do," such as play futbol despite acute asthma; and Juan Peron, who told Galeano that power makes one ignorant, only in exile did he have time to read. In travel pieces, Galeano the Vagabond, reveals his remarkable ear and eye for irony. Amidst the squalor of a mining camp within the diamond fields of Venezuela, where prostitutes and merchants do better than mines, during a torrential downpour a wise old woman tells Galeano: "Next to glory lies hell. You take one step and in you fall." He describes Caminas, the oil town which produced Venezuelan black gold for half a century, now a swamp without sewers, with big-bellied barefoot kids wandering about, a wasteland of iron skeletons hovering over dead wells. In Bolivia, stranded in an overcrowded boxcar by a railroad strike, Galeano spots an ad for "Beautiful Dawn" cream which in four short weeks promises lighter skin. He's the only white person on the train. The collection has its quiet moments: reflections on exile, retrospective comments regarding Memoria del fuego, brief autobiographic notes alluding to his three marriages, his need to live by the sea, and his once-bushy head now bald, as well as his distaste for opera, plastic tablecloths and computers. More turbulent in mood are essays like Fascism in Latin America, Chronicle of Torture and Victory, and The Structure of Impotence.

Less Galeano's readers fear that he has gone soft, "lost his piss and vinegar," they will see that his most recent speeches and essays still contain the sting of young: We Say No (a speech delivered in Chile in July, 1988), Otherside: For Five Centuries the Rainbow has been banned from America's Sky (on the Columbian Quincentenary), Wrong Corpse (reflections on Nicaragua), and War on Fallacies (the Persian Gulf War). In May of this year, a bit of the rascal in Galeano revealed itself when he addressed the aforementioned ABA convention. He called his talk Mea Culpa (My Fault) and with mock ignorance and wry humor, he badgered his hosts with what he perceived as hypocrisy in the United States regarding immigration, trade quotas, drug addiction, and most of all military adventures in Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf. Later, with a broad grin, he professed innocence, insisting he had written the speech long before he knew the identities of other luminaries who would share the dais. The night before his talk none other than General H. Norman Schwarzkopf had been the ABA's guest speaker.

This talent for ending up in unlikely places also occurred in written form when a Galeano interview by Juana Ponce de Leon entitled Damn Yanquis audaciously appeared within the glossy, perfumed pages of the May, 1992 issue of Town and Country, a magazine in the United States best known for its coverage of debutante balls, country clubs, and posh resorts. In this interview he stated, "The more I walk these American paths, the more I am convinced that those who have the most to say are the ones who are least attended. What we have right now in the ruling classes is a long tradition of scorn for that which comes from within and from below, and a long tradition of dominance by that which comes from the outside and from above. As the gaucho Marin Fierro said, 'The fire that really warms comes from below'."

Galeano's solidarity with common folk, obviously rooted in his own origins, is something he celebrates in his taste for art, the people he spends time with, even his dog Pepe Lumpen (from the Marxist term, lumpenproletariat, i.e., the idle delinquents and rabble who make no contribution to the workers' cause). The writer still lives in a working class neighborhood of Montevideo, in a house full of popular art: a Huichol yarn painting from Mexico, Kuna molas from the San Blas Islands, retablos made of gesso and potato paste from Ayacucho, Peru. Particularly noteworthy is a montage of printing blocks that greets the visitor in the hallway, mostly natural wood but for the popular images black with ink, no up, no down, jumbled like the world itself. The incised blocks are the work of Jose Francisco Borges, engraver, poet, and publisher of small pamphlets that recount news, legends and folktales of Northeastern Brazil in verses, known as cordeles, and images. Galeano loves to imitate the way Borges chants his texts, "the song of his words," to attract customers for the leaflets he hawks in backwater towns. Galeano had admired these pamphlets for years but assumed the artist was either aged or dead. Not so. With the help of friends, he located Borges who, in his late fifties, was very much alive and active in Bezerros, a small town in Pernambuco State. After several arduous trips into these hinterlands, Galeano developed a friendship with Borges and now the two men are involved in a collaborative undertaking tentatively called Americuentos (Ameristories). They do not envision some sort of literal "image equals text" approach to illustration but more of a synergetic kind of "free invention, an exercise in creative liberty, the joy of making something together." The stories themselves, evocative of different times and places throughout the Americas, perhaps separated by parenthetic commentaries, will be a bit longer than usual. "At least they seem to need more space," he explains. "they are writing me, forcing me to give them more space, it is not a rational decision made in advance." Published this summer in the literary journal Grand Street (Vol. 42), the first of this collection is a perverse yarn entitled The Story of the Lizard who made a Habit of having his Wives for Dinner. Faithful to the original plan, Borges' five woodcuts do not strictly illustrate the tale. Rather, they engender the same delight one associates with the work of the Mexican artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada, whom Galeano admires. Americuentos may appear in finished form two years from now, but there is no fixed timetable. As Galeano says, "I write when I want to write, when 'she' wants to. I never oblige my bird to sing."

Perhaps it is the frustrated painter in Galeano that found expression in the facade of his house, festooned as it is with bright red nahuatl motifs, almost the only spot of color in an otherwise grey, barren neighborhood of concrete houses. "Actually, accounts of Montevideo in the mid-nineteenth century describe a community of bright colors," he explains. "The neighborhoods sang. It was not until the turn of the century when the dominant class, the owners of power, wanted to emulate London and Paris. Colors were not European. That's when Montevideo became a sad city." Still very much the civic activist, the native son has encouraged the current mayor to make available paint in vibrant, optimistic tones to those who want to transform their dwellings. "It must be purely a voluntary business," he explains. "People must decide. We have already done this with art students from the university. They helped paint in bright colors Barrio Sur, one of the poorest districts in the city and the people have found a measure of hope."

Galeano has other proposals, adaptations of ideas spotted in his travels, to make Montevideo the first ecological city in Latin America and to mobilize the young who are without steady jobs. "We need green brigades to plant trees, replace those lost to neglect and pollution. Also, our city, our tiny country, is deal for bicycles and bicycle paths. In the process, we'd become less dependent on expensive foreign oil, have less pollution, and gain some healthy exercise. All is gain, no one loses!" In Holland, Galeano saw buses covered with paintings--moving canvases--literally vehicles for art. "That's what we need: art without pretension, less stuff in the elitist galleries where it is appreciated by few, more that is portable, bringing joy to everyone."

Much of Galeano's writing analyzes the ever maddening pace and confusion that is called progress. As he says in his essay To Be Like Them, "people don't work to live, they live to work." Contrary to what one might think, he points out that technological progress, by increasing productivity has not diminished the time devoted to work. Material possessions are the trap. The more you have, the more you want. "To be is to have." Despite the automated factories, many people actually work harder, in a dizzying effort to consume more things for which they lack free time to enjoy. This social critic does try to follow advice from a poet friend who told him not to take seriously anything that does not make him laugh. In his talk, Mea Culpa, Galeano describes his inability to buy another airline ticket when the bankrupt Pan American Airlines stranded him far from home. He had no credit card. After resisting for years, he finally gave in, got a card, and went into debt. In a variation on his definition of existence, "Now I owe, therefore I am!" In Libro de los abrazos, under the caption Alienation/3, he shares an encounter between poet/translator Alastair Reid and a fisherman from the Dominican Republic who spotted an advertisement in a magazine from the United States: a strange thing called a rowing machine that is used indoors, without water, fish, sun and sky!" "Rowing is the one thing we hate. What is it for?" "Exercise", is the reply. "Ah, exercise, what is that?"

Multiple viewpoints, the inability to see as others do, the flipside, the downside of progress, no documenting the first auto in his country but the first Uruguayan killed by an auto, this is what Galeano, who has resisted learning to drive a car, is all about. Any number of passages by this immensely quotable writer could serve as a concluding example of his fights, but Celebration of Contradiction/2 from Libro de los abrazos seems particularly appropriate: "Every promise is a threat, every loss a discovery. Courage is born of fear, certainty of doubt. Dreams announce the possibility of another reality, and out of delirium emerges another kind of reason. What it all comes down to is that we are the sum of our efforts to change who we are. Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case, but rather the endless astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life. I believe in that fugitive faith. It seems to me the only faith worthy of belief for its great likeness to the human animal, accursed yet holy, and to the mad adventure that is living in this world."

Caleb Bach, freelance writer and visual artist, teaches art and Spanish at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:Uruguayan writer
Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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