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Readings for Writers: Between History and Myth

I never imagine Eduardo Galeano sitting at a desk writing. I imagine him wielding a sword, brutal in its discernment of the distance between how things are and how they could be. In an age of sound bites and “truthiness,” Galeano dares to connect past and present in order to tell the story of our time. As writers, we have several lessons to learn from him. His clear, unflinching voice; his struggle to forge a narrative form that can hold together side-by-side fragments of history and fragments of lived political experience; and his focus on inconvenient people–these are all skills and conscious decisions worthy of emulation. Galeano was, by his own assessment, obsessed with the history of the Americas; his ambition to heal our collective amnesia. The title of his posthumous volume, Hunter of Stories, reveals something of the task he set for himself as a storyteller in search of that moment that lies somewhere between history and myth.

Born in 1940 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Galeano’s most important recognized work, Las venas abiertas de América Latina, was published in Spanish in 1971. The English edition, Open Veins of Latin America, appeared in 1973. That same year, Galeano was imprisoned after Bordaberry, the country’s president, and a junta of generals took over the government. The grand theme of Open Veins is “the morality of wealth which nature bestows and imperialism appropriates.” As Galeano observes:

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.

Here Galeano, the writer Isabel Allende describes as having “almost superhuman talent for storytelling,” turns the fundamentally zenophobic narrative about Latin America on its head. It is because we are bountiful that you stole from us, Galeano insists. Moreover, the cause of underdevelopment is imperial piracy. And any history that glorifies and normalizes economic development as a zero-sum game is a lie.

No surprise, Open Veins was banned in Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina. Galeano sought exile in Argentina, where he lived for three years. When the Videla regime staged a coup, Galeano had to flee to Spain because his name appeared on the hit lists of right-wing death squads. Exiled for a second time, Galeano remained undaunted, writing, among other works, Days and Nights of Love and War. While Open Veins is a book of political history written in the voice of a poet-prophet, Days and Nights of Love and War is a shattered narrative built of fragments–lyrical and prosaic, aphoristic and autobiographical. The story is a retelling of the political chaos Galeano experienced in Uruguay and Argentina and his identification with those pushed to the margins–the indigenous and the guerilleros, the prostitutes and the orphaned children. The book won the Casa de las Américas Prize [1] in 1978, one of the most prestigious Spanish-language awards.

There is something deeply reminiscent of Ovid in Galeano’s exploration of epic form as a counter-narrative to standard histories of Latin America. For the Romans, exile was a fate worse than death. The emperor Augustus banished Ovid when the poet offended him. Perhaps the Metamorphoses could only have been written in exile, the magnitude of Ovid’s loss spurring an encyclopedic retelling of history that extends, as he explains, “from the world’s beginning to our day.” When the boundaries of place are shattered, what happens to a poet’s identity? How do the formal constraints of genre shift, merge, fade? Scholars struggle to situate the Metamorphoses firmly–this “epic” without a hero, without all but the most tenuous transitions among its fifteen books, without a central point-of-view from which to reinforce the most staid values of nation and culture. For Ovid the only organizing principle is change, the question of whether the immortal and the merely mortal can adapt to life’s exigencies.

Galeano’s second exile lasted nearly twelve years. It wasn’t until 1985, following successive strikes by the people of Uruguay against the regime and the eventual restoration of the nation’s constitution, that he was able to return from Spain to Montevideo. In Memory of Fire, a trilogy published from 1982 to 1985, Galeano navigates the intersection of history and mythology. Like Ovid, he writes “from the world’s beginning to our day,” from the pre-Columbian epoch to 1984. Like Ovid, he is absorbed by the idea of cyclical time. His critics, however, dismiss the story he tells in Memory of Fire. It is too personal and too encyclopedic to be accurate. Galeano tells the story of the terror the US incited in Chile on September 11, 1973, from the discounted point-of-view of Chileans. Galeano faces the torrent of causes and effects, the metamorphoses, triggered by imperial necessity, and identifies a narrative line.

I dare say what galls some critics about Galeano’s work isn’t its lack of subjectivity, but rather the writer’s ability and willingness to call out the hypocrisy, the willful blindness that sustains imperial narratives. Consider how Galeano pits official history against the story of “The Nobodies” in his 1989 The Book of Embraces:

. . . the no-ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way. Who are not, but could be. Who don’t speak languages, but dialects. Who don’t have religions, but superstitions. Who don’t create art, but handicrafts. Who don’t have culture, but folklore. Who are not human beings, but human resources. Who do not have faces, but arms. Who do not have names, but numbers. Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the crime reports of the local paper. The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.

That same year, 1989, in an interview on Democracy Now!, Galeano noted that “not only the United States, also some European countries, have spread military dictatorships all over the world. And they feel as if they are able to teach democracy.” Galeano explained to his interviewers that history never ends; but rather, like a “subterranean river,” continues to flow, appearing and disappearing, an idea that complements the loosely associational narrative of the Metamorphoses.

Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (2008) and Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2011) demonstrate the full trajectory of the project Galeano began with Open Veins. Mirrors is exactly that–a narrative that offers itself to us as a smooth, reflective surface where we can locate and question ourselves in relation to history. Fragments such as The “Origin of Concentration Camps” and the “Origin of Disappearances,” for example, challenge our often comforting assumption of beginnings; while fragments such as “The Ages of Sitting Bull,” “Martí,” “Mark Twain,” situate these figures in their time, revealing their prescience; or, like General Nelson in “Sword of the Empire” or Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in “Muscles,” their immorality. Consider, for example, the fragment “One Terrorist Fewer,” which Galeano titles “July 1,” allowing the passage of time to reveal the Reagan Administration’s official lie about Mandela, an attempt to silence an inconvenient voice against imperial forces–South African and US:

In the year 2008, the government of the United States decided to erase Nelson Mandela’s name from its list of dangerous terrorists.

The most revered African in the world had featured on that sinister roll for sixty years.

Do you see yourself in historical time, Galeano seems to ask? Do you see yourself as part of the continuum of human history, that “subterranean river”? Children of the Days insists we break out of our amnesia.

In an April 2014 interview, Galeano, near the end of his life, reflected on Open Veins and his own limits: “I simply didn’t have the necessary education [to write a book on political economy]. I do not regret writing it, but it is a stage that I have since passed.” After his critics pounced on him, he responded in a later interview to their “bad faith”:

‘[Open Veins], 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.’

“Brief and untrammeled” may well be the best description of Galeano’s development as a writer. It may well be the best way to describe the arc of his exploration of the limits of official history, which so often become concrete in their service to some, and the greater truth revealed in myth, fluid, mirror-like “stories of almost everyone.”


Do you read writers who challenge your assumptions of how to tell a story?

Have you ever explored myth in your own storytelling?

About Elizabeth Huergo [2]

Elizabeth Huergo [3] was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at an early age as a political refugee. A published poet and story writer, she lives in Virginia. The Death of Fidel Perez is her first novel. You can learn more about Elizabeth on her website [3], and by following her on Twitter [4].