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 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. [Read more…]