Eduardo Galeano was born September 3rd 1940, and died on April 13th 2015. It’s only because of the flood of obituaries that appeared online the week of his death that I learned of this extraordinary writer’s life and work, and all I can think to say is a sheepish: better late than never .
Still, in the light of what I know about Galeano today, and especially after having read his last book, the startling Children of the Days, A Calendar of Human History, I’m left scratching my head, wondering how his work could have escaped detection by my pretty active book radar all these years. It seems that geography and language have a lot to do with it.
All of his writing, which includes novels, master works of non-fiction, shorter journalistic pieces and other original, hybrid forms of writing, was produced in Spanish, and less than half of it was translated into English. The son of a civil servant, Galeano lived almost all of his life in South America, though he moved from his native Uruguay to Guatemala, then Argentina, then Spain, as a dramatic and violent wave of political instability swept through South America (in this period, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Chile all fell under the control of military dictatorships). He was more than once forced into exile. He eventually returned to Uruguay in 1985.
From everything that I’ve read about him, it seems that Eduardo Galeano was largely self-educated. When, at fourteen, he began drawing cartoons for El Sol, the weekly of the Uruguayan Socialist party, he had only completed two years of high school. Soon, he was writing pieces and working as an editor for other leftist papers and weekly magazines. But it would be a mistake to simply label Galeano a leftist writer; there’s so much more to him than that. Galeano was an extraordinary talent.
Children of the Days, his last book, which has knocked me off my pins and caused me to really pause and absorb his writing, is a wonderful expression of both his career and of the author himself: of his passions and of his hopes, of the moral outrage that drove him his whole life, and of his vast and consuming awareness of history which informed everything he wrote and deepened his sense of connection to every living thing throughout time.
We’re so lucky! The Library has four of his works in its collection. In addition to Children of the Days, there’s also The Book of Embraces (1991), Mirrors, Stories of Almost Everyone (2009), and Walking Words (1995). While Walking Words stays closest to traditional writing forms in its retelling of folk tales of rural and urban Latin America, the other two are, I think, much truer examples of Galeano’s unique brilliance. Both present the reader with strangely beautiful mixtures of poetry, fiction, autobiography, history, philosophy, fantasy and political commentary that combine to provide a lense through which to view the world―as though for the first time.
After reading just a handful of entries in Galeano’s Children of the Days, I felt startled, awake, upset, sorrowful, inspired, grateful, connected, compassionate, uncomfortable, humbled, angry, spellbound. And deeply, deeply moved. And very alive.
Galeano has given Children of the Days, A Calendar of Human History, the form of a medieval book of days, made up of entries (never longer than 150 words―he achieves so much with such economy) for each day of the calendar, including February 29th. Each day’s entry reads like prose poetry. Each gives the reader pause. Sometimes, a day’s message is thematically matched with its historical significance. At other times, a day receives the message that Galeano has chosen for it to bear. But each time, the reader’s expectation is subverted, Galeano’s words reaching a target the reader had not anticipated.
See, for instance, what Galeano makes of MAY 1:
INTERNATIONAL WORKERS’ DAY
The technology of shared flight: the first goose to take off opens the way for the next, who clears the path for the third, and the strength of the third raises the fourth, who then helps the fifth, and the impulse of the fifth pulls along the sixth, who offers wind to the seventh…
When the lead goose tires, he goes to the back of the line and leaves his spot to another, who moves to the apex of the V the geese form in the air. Each takes a turn, forward and back, and none of them believes he is supergoose because he flies first or that flying last makes him a loser.
Or JUNE 5: NATURE IS NOT MUTE
Reality paints still lives.
Disasters are called natural, as if nature were the executioner and not the victim. Meanwhile the climate goes haywire and we do too.
Today is World Environment Day. A good day to celebrate the new constitution of Ecuador, which in the year 2008, for the first time in the history of the world, recognized nature as a subject with rights.
It seems strange, this notion that nature has rights as if it were a person. But in the United States it seems perfectly normal that big companies have human rights. They do, ever since a Supreme Court decision in 1886.
If nature were a bank, they would have already rescued it.
Or NOVEMBER 24:
In 1974 her bones turned up in the rocky hills of Ethiopia.
Her discoverers called her Lucy.
Thanks to advanced technology, they were able to calculate her age at about three million, one hundred and seventy-five thousand years, give or take a day or two. And also her height: she was rather short, a little over three feet tall.
The rest was deduced or maybe guessed: her body was quite hairy and she didn’t walk on all fours, rather she swung along in a chimpanzee walk, her hands nearly grazing the ground, though she preferred treetops.
She might have been drowned in a river.
She might have been fleeing a lion or some other unknown who showed an interest in her.
She was born long before fire or the word, but perhaps she spoke a language of gestures and sounds that could have said, or tried to say, for example,
“Don’t leave me alone.” Even now, re-reading these three entries, I’m struggling with a welling up of feelings. Every time I read these last three lines of “Grandma”, my breath catches, and an “Oh!” escapes me. It’s the sound of their impact upon me.
Do you see what I mean about Galeano?
To history’s long list of cruelties and injustices, Galeano offers up an antidote of compassionate memory, and of courage.
A reviewer in The Guardian recently wrote that Galeano’s more recent work “mixes history with fiction, poetry and memoir to produce books that resemble mosaics. The method that one might call refractory. The effect is dizzying, like staring up close a very long time at the walls of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família”
Galeano’s writing takes us beyond political philosophy, activism and stark reality, to a timeless place where solidarity and diversity are the inseparable elements of life.
In an interview with poet, author and journalist Jaime Manrique, in 2001, Galeano spoke of these, saying that: “In addition to discussing diversity, we can put it into practice, beginning with the recuperation of solidarity. To me, solidarity is horizontal while charity is vertical. Solidarity is practiced among equals, born from mutual respect; charity is practiced from above to those below—and this is important to underline, because charity is practiced every day and solidarity is discredited. We need to restore one another’s vision, which is the key to the real possibility of accepting our diversity as our reality.”
While Galeano’s point of view is clear, it’s also clear that his writing elevates his vision from language, to art.
In 1944, in the tourist resort of Bretton Woods, it was confirmed that the twin brothers humanity needed were in gestation.
One was to be called International Monetary Fund and the other World Bank.
Like Romulus and Remus, the twins were nursed by a she-wolf until they took up residency in the city of Washington, cheek and jowl with the White House.
Ever since, these two govern the governments of the world. In countries where no one elected them, the twins impose obeisance as if it were destiny: they keep watch, they threaten, they punish, they quiz: “Have you behaved yourself? Have you done your homework?”
Galeano’s entry for JANUARY 12, titled “THE RUSH TO GET THERE” seems the most apt day upon which to leave you:
“On this morning in the year 2007, a violinist gave a concert in a subway station in Washington, DC.
Leaning against a wall, alongside the usual litter, the musician, who looked more like a local kid, played the works of Schubert and other classics for three-quarters of an hour.
Eleven hundred people hurried by without slowing their pace. Seven paused a bit longer than a moment. No one applauded. Some children wanted to stay, but were dragged off by their mothers.
No one realized he was Joshua Bell, one of the most esteemed virtuosos in the world. The Washington Post had organized the concert. It was their way of asking: “Do you have time for beauty?”
If you have time for beauty, then do read Eduardo Galeano. You will be richly rewarded.