When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez gave U.S. President Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America, thousands of Americans bought the book, pushing it to the number two slot on Amazon.
Although Galeano’s trilogy, Memory of Fire, was published in English (and a couple dozen other languages), he has enjoyed only a cult following in the U.S. Memory of Fire will hopefully now receive a wider readership, perhaps carrying with it some of the other great but ignored writers of Latin America.
At once grand in scope but full of close-up details of the most personal kind, Memory of Fire traces the history of Latin America - the continent, its people, gods, plants and animals - from its origins to the present day. Galeano eschews the grand narrative tradition with its fascistic master tropes in favor of the strategic vignette, which opens for both writer and reader contemplative freedom in a vast landscape of possibility. For my money, Galeano’s approach is the honest one, and his latest book, Mirrors, proves why.
Although contained within a single volume, Mirrors is even grander and just as intimate as Memory of Fire. In just over 600 miniatures, Galeano tells the history of the world. (In an interview, Galeano said he was emboldened to attempt the project by an old tune which says that the world can’t be all that big if it fits into only five letters.) Like many Latin American historians but like shamefully few U.S. historians, Galeano is concerned not with the winners but with the makers and underdogs of history. We think we know who built the pyramids - slaves - but who built the Taj Mahal and the White House? Why do Christians claim such a unique and exemplary history when their holy book is clearly the story of a genocidal god who murdered his fellow gods and goddesses in order to take his place as the sole deity? More, why then is there such a striking parallel between the stories of Adam and Eve and the much more ancient Egyptian story of Osiris and Isis?
So perhaps Galeano isn’t exclusively interested in the story of the underdog as he is in the way our cultural overlords erase the history that makes them appear anything less than pure and godly. Where in the history of science, for instance, are the theorems of the Arab scientists Mu-ayyad al-Din al-‘Uri and Nasir Al-Din Tusi without which Copernicus, three centuries later, could never have “invented” astronomy?
Galeano said that he would like “to speak a language capable of uniting all literary genres, in which form merges with content and thus manages to unite past and present.... I wanted to write a book without borders... and that is why from the very outset, writing Mirrors was an adventure in freedom.”
For readers, too, Mirrors is an adventure in freedom: intoxicating, inspiring, liberating. No doubt, it is not for everyone; the narrow-minded and the pig-headed will be offended by Galeano’s penchant for upsetting apple carts and poking holes in all the sacred peccadilloes that hold up the walls of their little-enough-for-comfort worlds. Ah, well, so it goes.
For you, though, who seek wings and air sweet enough to fly through, grab a copy of Mirrors. Start anywhere, and read until your eyes, full of tears, and your heart full of yearning, force you to put the book down and pick up a pen with which to kiss the page yourself.