Eduardo Galeano, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, translated by Mark Fried, Nation Books, NYC, 2013 HB, 420p. $30
I picked up this book as an impulse buy, because I like the “calendar” approach to history as deployed recently by a number of major writers, most notably Gunter Grass, whose My Century (1999) is among his best books, and certainly among the unacknowledged classics of the last two decades. I also have a long history with Galeano, whose three-volume Memory of Fire (1986) opened new ground to left-leaning writers worldwide who weren’t prepared to accept party discipline or sacrifice language and accuracy to their radical values. He is also a primary influence on Canada’s Don Akenson and his massive and brilliant 2 volume An Irish History of Civilization, (2005) which since its publication I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen is both the finest work of literature—or history—ever written by a Canadian.
Galeano is an upper-middle class Uruguayan of European descent, and his political journalism and his books made him an on/off refugee from various dictatorships in South America, including the military dictatorship that overthrew the elected right wing government in Uruguay and kept him out of his home country until 1985 (most of Memory of Fire was written while he was living in Spain). He has lived mostly in Montevideo since, but has always been more a continentalist than a nationalist, and has participated widely in leftist movements across South and Central America.
What made Galeano’s work so attractive was its history-as-anecdote approach, which translated, in practice, as a pastiche/assembly of “stories”, rarely longer than a page, and most much shorter than that, which seemed to take you into the field of political and historical action to experience it dynamically—usually through the actions of its victims and heroes and villains.
This passage (From Faces and Masks, Volume 2 of Memory of Fire) offers a fair sense of Galeano’s technique:
More on Cannibalism in America
In his last cavalry charge, Colonel Juan Ramon Estomba hurls his horsemen against nobody. The war against Spain has ended, but much more atrocious is the war of Argentines against Argentines. Colonel Estomba raises his sword and howls: Charge! and in a whirlwind of war-cries and sword-thrusts the horses attack the empty horizon.
This torn country is mad with fury. The heroes of independence devour one another. Estanislao Lopez receives the head of Pancho Ramirez, wrapped in a sheep’s hide, puts it in an iron cage, and spends a whole night joyfully contemplating it. Gregorio Lamadrid loads the mother of Facundo Quiroga with chains and drags her through the streets, before Facundo falls in an ambush, a bullet in his eye. In a corral, on a carpet of cowshit, Juan Lavalle executes Manuel Dorrego; and ever since, the ghost of Dorrego has been following Lavalle, biting at his heels until one day he catches up to him and sews him with bullets to the nude body of his lover, so that Lavalle may have the pleasure of dying inside a woman.
All of these events depicted—there are seven of them in 182 words—are designed to execute a purely emotional fact: that newly liberated Argentina, in 1837, was a madhouse of revolutionaries murdering one another to gain power. Its Marxist subtext—that the seeking of power without ideological structure results in mayhem and chaos—is implicit, carried within the metaphoric heat of the prose. At the same time, Galeano isn’t simply manufacturing colour: for each anecdote, he cites a source. What accumulates over the three volumes is a vast array of “pro-revolutionary facts” carried in a structure that is both subtle and easily ingested. One comes away from reading him emotionally convinced of the justice of Marxism and the cruel arbitrariness of capitalism. One may, after the fact, attach caveats to that—I concluded at the time that Marxism probably was the answer for Central and South America, and was less convinced about it globally and locally, partly because the passages about North America’s past struck me as cherry-picked, and partly because I knew the brutal reality of the then-senile Soviet Union and Red China.
But as a way of doing historical and political writing I had no misgivings about Galeano. He had delivered his continent with a vividness and depth that felt as if it was beyond dispute, and my understanding of South and Central American political and cultural life remains influenced by him to this day.
Which brings me to Children of the Days, which did not convince me of anything, save that Eduardo Galeano seems to have become very old and self-indulgent and a bit fatuous, like a grandfather whose self-assured loquacity hides a smugness that hasn’t changed its mind about anything in decades. Its 423 pages dole out an entry per page, unlike Memory of Fire, which sometimes crowded three to a page, as if in a hurry to get readers to the next insight. Nor are the entries referenced, and many—too many—are embarrassingly rhetorical and arch, as if Galeano is sharing an in-joke he’s sure every reader will get, and if not, well, that’s not his problem.
Take the entry for October 8th:
In 1967 seventeen hundred soldiers cornered Che Guevara and his handful of Bolivian guerillas in a ravine called Quebrada del Yuro. Che was taken prisoner and murdered the following day.
In 1919 Emiliano Zapata was shot down in Mexico.
In 1934 Augusto Cesar Sandino was slain in Nicaragua.
These three were the same age, about to turn forty.
These three Latin Americans of the twentieth century shared the same map and the same era.
And these three were punished for trying to make history instead of repeating it.
All of this is factual without being particularly revelatory, and the parallels are accurate enough—as far as they go, which is not very far. The reality is that all three men were profoundly different, and with quite different goals. Zapata and Sandino were of peasant origins who fought exclusively within their own countries for land reform, while Guevara was an Argentine medical doctor who fought for, and helped win the Cuban revolution but didn’t stay very long after it was secured—and operated from motives that are still hotly debated. Sandino and Guevara’s official enemy was U.S. exploitation, while Zapata’s battles for land reform were fought against Mexico’s upper classes, etc., etc. There are virtually hundreds of other rhetorical conclusions one could make from this conflation. But most telling is the absence of metaphor from this and a majority of other passages in the book—and the absence of the enormous metaphoric torque that powered Memory of Fire. Most of the entries contain one or more of the largely unexamined prejudices that render most of the contemporary left permanently shocked and appalled: that capitalism is inherently racist, gynophobic, and corrupt—which isn’t always true, particularly not when it comes to race, and that socialism automatically frees both individuals and political systems of those vices—which it doesn’t. It also supposes that theocracy is automatically evil (which it is) without recognizing the powerful element of theocracy in Marxist faiths.
Then there’s this entry, for July 2nd:
During the 1904 Olympic Games in the American city of St. Louis, a series of special competitions took place over the course of what they called “Anthropology Days”.
Taking part were Native Americans, Japanese Ainu, African pygmies and other specimens on display in the parallel world’s fair.
They were not allowed into the formal athletic competitions, begun six weeks earlier and continuing for another three months, although two Zulus in the Boer War exhibit obtained special dispensation to run the marathon and came in fifth and twelfth.
Fred Lorz, white and male, won that race, which was the most popular event. Shortly thereafter it came out that he had run half the route in a friend’s car.
That was the last piece of Olympic chicanery that did not involve the chemical industry.
From then on, the world of sport went modern.
Athletes no longer compete on their own. They carry whole medicine cabinets inside.
Aside from blaming the past for not sharing contemporary prejudices, and not bothering to point out that the 1900 Paris Olympics and the 1904 St. Louis Olympics were mere sideshows to the world’s fairs held in those cities, not noticing that of the 650 participants in St. Louis, 580 were American, and that supposing that every athlete since has been drugged to the eyeballs, Galeano doesn’t bother to note that Fred Lorz was a local bricklayer who only trained at night because he was working during the day, and that his win was an open practical joke that Lorz himself immediately exposed, leaving fellow American Thomas Hicks as the official winner even though Hicks had used strychnine as a performance-enhancer. (Lorz did win the Boston Marathon the next year in a respectable time of 2 hours 38 minutes, which might have been a more appropriate tale of working class accomplishment. )
Now, I’m not showing off my superior knowledge here. I found all this out in about 90 seconds on Google. I could expose any number of other entries in this book the same way—and so could you. I’m more interested in exposing the intellectual laziness of Galeano’s book, and more uneasily, since I have deep roots within the left myself, the ossification that has evidently occurred in the mind of a once-important writer. Galeano is a relatively youthful 72 years old, so infirmity-of-old-age is hardly an excuse. I guess the question it raises is whether Galeano is simply a good writer who has lost his stuff, or whether the left itself has become nothing more than a collection of social, political and intellectual prejudices to yank on for moral comfort while the fundamentalists—whether of the various religions or of unopposed capitalism—burn the world from underneath us.
The other thing worth noting is that if you once respected the work of Eduardo Galeano, don’t look to Children of the Days to either inform or inspire you.
June 22nd, 2013 1651 words