Eduardo Galeano: Remembering a Giant of Latin American Literature – posted 4/19/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/24/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on April 24, 2015 under the title “The Artful Teller of Truths”.
Possibly some readers will remember this incident from 2009. At the Summit of the Americas conference, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Obama shook hands. Chavez also gave Obama a book. The book was Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries in the Pillage of a Continent. The author of that book was the Uraguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano.
The book immediately soared on Amazon but based on his reaction, it appeared Obama was unfamiliar with the book. He was quoted saying he thought Chavez was giving him a book that Chavez himself had written. For whatever reason, probably a smart-alecky one, Chavez gave Obama the Spanish version. Obama doesn’t speak or read Spanish.
I thought of this incident when I heard Galeano had died on April 13. While he was famous in Latin America and he had been famous there since the 1970’s, he was much less known in the United States.You had to look around to find an obituary. I did hear a story on NPR about his death. When I asked various friends of mine about Galeano, most had never heard of him.
So why does Galeano matter? Honestly, we do not usually pay attention to any writers, especially those from outside the United States. I will give my reasons.
Galeano made me look at the world differently. He looked at Latin American history in a way most Americans have not considered. It is a bottom up history, sympathetic to the poor people of his region. Plus he is a great and charming storyteller and the history is anything but dry. He saw a connection between the underdevelopment of Latin America and the great wealth in the United States and Europe. A passage from the start of Open Veins will give a flavor:
“The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing. Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. Centuries passed, and Latin America perfected its role. We are no longer in the era of marvels when fact surpassed fable and imagination was shamed by the trophies of conquest – the lodes of gold, the mountains of silver. But 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 food destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them.”
Part of what set Galeano apart was not just his passion for remembering things others wanted forgotten. It was also his poetic and feeling style. In her introduction to The Open Veins of Latin America, Isabel Allende described Galeano this way:
“He is one of the most interesting authors ever to come out of Latin America, a region known for its great literary names. His work is a mixture of meticulous detail, political conviction, poetic flair, and good storytelling. He has walked up and down Latin America listening to the voices of the poor and the oppressed, as well as those of the leaders and the intellectuals…He has opposed military dictatorships and all forms of brutality and exploitation, facing unthinkable risks in defense of human rights. He has more first-hand knowledge of Latin America than anybody else I can think of, and uses it to tell the world of the dreams and disillusions, the hopes and the failures of its people. He is an adventurer with a talent for history, a compassionate heart, and a soft sense of humor.”
Galeano did live his convictions. After the military coup in Uraguay in 1973, Galeano had to go into exile. He had been imprisoned briefly. He first went to Argentina but he had to flee there as well. He then went to live in Spain. The right wing military governments in Uraguay, Argentina and Chile all banned Open Veins of Latin America. When Galeano left Argentina, his name was on the death squads list.
He was not able to return to Uraguay until 1985 when democracy was finally restored. The story of that era in Latin America in the 1970’s is not sufficiently understood. It was a horror show of dirty wars where Latin American militaries savaged their own civilian populations in the name of a war against terror. Galeano was fortunate to have escaped with his life.
After he returned to Uraguay in 1985, Galeano again took up journalism. He resurrected Marcha (renamed Brecha), a periodical which had been shut down by the military. Doing journalism was nothing new for Galeano. He had actually started his newspaper career at the age of 14 drawing cartoons for El Sol, the weekly of the Uraguayan Socialist Party. He then went on to write for Marcha and another left wing daily, La Epoca.
Even though he wrote many books, Galeano did not belittle journalism. In an interview with the Spanish newpaper. El Pais, he said,
“There is a tradition that sees journalism as the dark side of literature with bookwriting at its zenith. I don’t agree. I think that all written work constitutes literature, even graffiti. I have been writing books for many years but I am trained as a journalist , and the stamp is still on me. I am grateful to journalism for waking me up to the realities of the world.”
Galeano has written a number of other books that deserve mention. I liked Upside Down which is written in a very simple, direct style. There are many others but I will name Days and Nights of Love and War and Memories of Fire.
Galeano was also a soccer fanatic. He adored the sport and wrote a book titled Football in Sun and Shadow. I expect soccer fans would love it.
It made me sad that Galeano’s death was passing too unnoticed. I will end with another Galeano quote:
“One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness. One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behavior and language of those who read…One writes, in reality, for the people whose luck or misfortune one identifies with – the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels, and the wretched of this earth – and the majority of them are illiterate.”