Sunday, April 19, 2015

In memory of Eduardo Galeano

In my post about 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I wrote that Eduardo Galeano's Memoria del Fuego trilogy (1982-86; translated as Memory of Fire by Cedric Belfrage, Pantheon, 1985-1988) is "a history of the Americas from before Columbus to the present day, told through a series of vignettes full of outrage, humor, and sadness. Galeano employs the skill of a historian, the techniques of a journalist, and the sensibility of a poet." In his later books Galeano continued use the medium of the miniature, the vignette, to illustrate large truths about historical and contemporary injustice, and also about the resilience, courage, and deep humanity of his subjects: the marginalized, the struggling, and those who, despite everything, remain hopeful.

Eduardo Galeano died on April 13, 2015. Exactly 24 years earlier, on April 13, 1991, I joined an audience of 500 others at a sold-out Victoria Theater in San Francisco's Mission District to hear Galeano read from what was then his latest book, El libro de los abrazos (1989; translated as The Book of Embraces by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer, W. W. Norton, 1991). It was an extraordinary event; he was greeted like a hero by the majority Spanish-speaking audience. In reading from El libro de los abrazos, Galeano alternated Spanish and English, but read different passages in each language. Amazingly, even though my Spanish is very limited, I understood him no matter which language he was speaking—mainly because of Belfrage's faithful and fluent translation, which I had read before the event.

After the reading, Galeano signed books, but in a way that was unlike any other author I'd ever seen. Instead of sitting behind a table stacked with books like so much product, he stood by himself onstage. As each person approached him, he engaged them in conversation, often ending in an embrace, and only then would ask how they wanted their book inscribed. Several hundred people lined up to meet him. He had already greeted and spoken with probably 40 or 50 people before my turn came, and yet he did not seem fatigued. From my few moments with him, I remember primarily a sense of how attentively he listened and took in what I was saying, and how warmly he responded. The copy of The Book of Embraces I brought to that reading is one of the most treasured books in my library.
The Function of Art/1
Diego had never seen the sea. His father, Santiago Kovadloff, took him to discover it.
They went south.
The ocean lay beyond high sand dunes, waiting.
When the child and his father finally reached the dunes after much walking, the ocean exploded before their eyes.
And so immense was the sea and its sparkle that the child was struck dumb by the beauty of it.
And when he finally managed to speak, stuttering, he asked his father:
"Help me to see!"
The Book of Embraces, p. 17
Eduardo Galeano's beautiful, sad and inspiring works help us to see.

Postscript: I can't end this post without commenting on something included in Galeano's New York Times obituary. After mentioning his book Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina (1971; translated as Open Veins of Latin America by Cedric Belfrage, Monthly Review Press, 1973), the journalist Simon Romero writes, "But Mr. Galeano stunned many of his supporters on the left as well as his critics on the right when he disavowed the book, saying that it was poorly written and that his views of the human condition had grown more complex." This follows a previous New York Times article by Larry Rohmer, "Author Changes His Mind on ’70s Manifesto: Eduardo Galeano Disavows His Book ‘The Open Veins’"; the article also uses the word "renounce."

Open Veins of Latin America opens with a section entitled "Mankind's Poverty as a Consequence of the Wealth of the Land," and in its original version its final chapter was entitled "The Contemporary Structure of Plunder." In his introduction, Galeano wrote,
...our region still works as a menial. It continues to exist at the service of others' needs, as a source and reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and foods destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them...Latin America is the region of open veins.

For those who see history as a competition, Latin America's backwardness and poverty are merely the result of its failure. We lost; others won. But the winners happen to have won thanks to our losing: the history of Latin America's underdevelopment is, as someone has said, an integral part of the history of world capitalism's development. Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others—the empires and their native overseers. In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.

Open Veins of Latin America, pp. 11-12
So talk of "disavowal" seems to imply that Galeano no longer held these views. But this is what Galeano actually said during a group interview at the 2nd Biennial of Books and Reading in Brasilia on April 11, 2014, as reported by Cynara Menezes:
"...after so many years, I don't feel as attached to that book as when I wrote it.  Time has passed, I started to try other things, to get closer to human reality in general and political economy in particular—for Open Veins tried to be a book of political economy though I didn't have necessary training.  I don't regret having written it, but I've gone beyond that stage. I wouldn't be able to read that book again—I would keel over.  For me, that prose of the traditional left is too heavy, and my body can't take it. I would have to be admitted to an emergency room.  The question would be: 'Got any open bed?'" Laughter.
It's clear that Galeano is distancing himself from the style of the book, and its abstraction: its focus on large-scale economic forces, rather than the individual stories which show the impact of those forces on "human reality" (not a generalized "human condition"). In a later e-mail exchange with Jorge Majfud, Galeano repudiated those who seized on his remarks as an indication that he had undergone a political conversion:
"The book, written ages ago, is still alive and kicking.  I am simply honest enough to admit that at this point in my life the old writing style seems rather stodgy, and that it's hard for me to recognize myself in it since I now prefer to be increasingly brief and untrammeled...The other voices that have been raised against me and against The Open Veins of Latin America are seriously ill with bad faith."
This exchange was posted in November 2014. For Simon Romero and his New York Times editors to repeat the distortion that Galeano disavowed Open Veins indeed shows bad faith, or worse.

The final words should be Galeano's:
On his deathbed, the man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela's ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:
"The grape," he whispered, "is made of wine."
Marcela Pérez-Silva told me this, and I thought: if the grape is made of wine, then perhaps we are the words that tell us who we are.
The Book of Embraces, p. 18

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