Life Sings with Many Voices
Eduardo Galeano didn’t abandon politics—he discovered art
Apr 24, 2015
8 Min read time
Eduardo Galeano began as a propagandist, convinced of a single dogmatic truth. He became an artist.
Eduardo Galeano in 2008 / Jose Francisco Pinton
Last spring, when the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano made some rueful comments about his classic anti-globalization, anti-imperialist history Open Veins of Latin America (1971), the Economist was delighted. At last there could be agreement that “capitalism is the only route to development in Latin America,” the magazine crowed. Galeano’s recantation could hardly have been more significant: “it was almost as if Jesus’s disciples had admitted that the New Testament was a big misunderstanding.”
Indeed, in the forty years since its publication Open Veins had achieved semi-mythic status. Uncompromising and accusatory, the book told of a centuries-long capitalist plunder operation, in which fruit companies, oil drillers, slave traders, and conquistadors collaborated to despoil the Americas. That story, containing more than a little truth, resonated with populist movements. The book became an international bestseller and the scourge of right-wing governments. It may have reached the height of its notoriety when Hugo Chavez gave Barack Obama a copy at the Summit of the Americas in 2009.
Galeano eventually did away with overarching moral narratives, reflecting the growing sophistication and humility of his thought.
Hence the shockwaves when Galeano publicly recanted the work. Open Veins, he said, was badly dated. He found his leftist prose unreadable. The New York Times reported that Galeano’s disavowal “set off a vigorous regional debate, with the right doing some ‘we told you so’ gloating, and the left clinging to a dogged defensiveness.” Monthly Review’s Michael Yates dismissed Galeano as just another writer gone conservative in old age.
On April 13, Galeano died at the age of seventy-four. Already his legacy is crystallizing in obituaries that portray him as no more than a once-brash post-colonialist who lost his political fire and recently produced some fine writing on soccer. But this narrative is mistaken. It omits Galeano’s most important literary-political achievements: the beautiful new form of writing he crafted and the revealing lens through which he came to view human affairs.
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By the time Galeano published Open Veins in 1971, he had already gained some notoriety as a leftist journalist. But his signature style would come later. Beginning with 1978’s Days and Nights of Love and War, he developed an inimitable collage technique that he would deploy for the rest of his life.
The Galeano technique is difficult to precisely describe, but it is easy enough to read. The word most often applied is “fragmentary,” though the fragments are carefully arranged into unified wholes. Such works consist, usually, of brief stories, never much more than a page, each a snapshot of some moment in the life of a person, a country, the world. The subjects range from famous writers to dictators to nameless members of the underclass, all depicted in Galeano’s sparse, graceful prose. A sample from Mirrors (2009):
Reichstag, Berlin, May 1945.
Two soldiers raise the flag of the Soviet Union over the pinnacle of German power.
This photograph by Yevgeny Khaldei portrays the triumph of the nation that lost more sons in the war than any other.
The news agency TASS distributes the picture. But before doing so, it makes a correction.
The Russian soldier wearing two wristwatches now has only one. The warriors of the proletariat do not loot dead bodies.
The piece has all the hallmarks of Galeano’s late writing. He uses not a word more than necessary, yet the style feels poetic rather than skimpy. The sentences are terse, but emotional impact is never sacrificed for brevity. His former dogmatism has been displaced by a sense of the absurd that does not take predetermined sides. But his humanist sympathies are also clear. He views war as a colossal folly and expresses compassion for struggling people bound by circumstance.
Galeano collected thousands of these anecdotes, all poignant or ironic. He sifted the raw material of history, gathering not just the textbook turning points but also scores of ordinary human moments with something to convey. He lovingly escorts the reader through his vast gallery, a wise and captivating tour guide. The name of Scheherazade has understandably been invoked in describing Galeano; it is hard to think of anything in our time comparable to his magical trove of a thousand and one little tales.
Galeano’s greatest achievement is Memory of Fire (1982–86), a trilogy encompassing the entire history of the Americas, from creation myths to the publication of Memory of Fire itself. He wrote it out of his growing dissatisfaction with Open Veins. That book, he worried in 1983, “may reduce history to a single economic dimension” when life “sings with multiple voices.” Thus, over nearly a thousand pages, Galeano brings us not just the pillaging of mineral rights but a grand kaleidoscope of the Western Hemisphere.
He crosses the continents chronologically, drawing scenes from every sphere of life—high and low, transformative and quotidian. We visit Cuzco in 1523, Key West in 1895, Chile in 1973. With the Spanish colonist Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, we taste guavas, medlars, and pineapples. Among all the New World fruits, the pineapple is best: “Oviedo knows no words worthy of describing its virtues. It delights his eyes, his nose, his fingers, his tongue. This outdoes them all, as the feathers of the peacock outshine those of any bird.” In 1917 we stand on a hillside with Pancho Villa as he contemplates the retreat of General Pershing. Then it’s off to New Orleans to witness the invention of jazz.
Galeano reproduces classified ads selling slaves; vendors crying in the streets of Mexico City, 1840 (“Candies! Coconut candies! Merr-i-i-ingues!”); excerpts from revolutionary oratories; President William McKinley’s speech exhorting the United States to civilize the Philippines. The cast of characters is one of the grandest in all of literature, full of saints, devils, and rogues: José Martí, Augusto Pinochet, Simón Bolívar, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Pablo Neruda. Cantinflas and Leon Trotsky, Carmen Miranda and Eva Peron. Sergei Eisenstein shoots films in Mexico, and Enrique Santos Discépolo composes tangos in flea-ridden Argentine dressing rooms. We witness hurricanes, slave revolts, military coups, torture, bloodshed, romance, soccer. Occasionally, we find heroes. Bartolome de las Casas, champion of the Indians, tries to “halt the plunder that uses the cross as its excuse.” Far more common, though, are close-ups of the wars and abuses whose memories are so often buried with their victims. The Viceroy of New Spain watches as heretics are hanged in 1574; 380 years later, the CIA installs a repressive dictatorship in Guatemala.
Yet if Galeano focuses on memorializing suffering, he also depicts simple pleasures, as when Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin first perform together, in Limelight (1952). There are love affairs and dances and endless ordinary people fighting to preserve their dignity. Alongside folly, mishap, and travesty are painful beauty, coincidence, and wonder. Memory of Fire documents what it feels like to be alive at one’s moment in time.
In his subsequent books, Galeano continued to experiment with formats, concocting his singular brew of journalism, memoir, folktale, and history. Upside Down (1998) presents satirical lessons from a comically bizarre syllabus on the “inverted” world wrought by globalized capitalism. Quotes from Noam Chomsky join macabre woodcut drawings of skeletons, alligators, and aristocrats. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995) he applies his method to sports, producing an acclaimed and eclectic history of the game.
For their inventiveness alone, Galeano’s books would be a treasure. But to truly appreciate their significance one must understand their author’s evolution. He was a propagandist who became an artist. Galeano realized that all-explaining stories, such as the Marxist story and the capitalist story, fail to capture the chaotic mosaic of human existence. He decided that we should never see our realities through the filter of our politics, but our politics should emerge from our realities. Thus he came to detest those “dogmatic versions of Marxism that proclaim the Only Truth and that divorce man from nature and reason from emotion.” The lack of overarching moral narratives, the abandonment of linear storytelling, the shattering of the text into hundreds of tiny shards—all reflected the growing sophistication and humility of Galeano’s thought.
But as he changed, Galeano never renounced his leftist economic analysis. He was enriching his commitments rather than discarding them. His later works are still full of references to capitalist robbery and U.S. imperialism. But he layered new insights atop these. Economics was not life; life was also ideas, geographies, cultures. Sometimes corporate predation destroyed people, and sometimes bureaucracy destroyed them. Sometimes they destroyed themselves. The important thing was to always be with the victims against the victimizers, to show boundless compassion, and to bear witness.
Galeano sought to gather up the overlooked injustices of history, to ensure that, whatever their lessons, they would never be lost. He insisted he was not a historian but “a writer obsessed with remembering.” In his words, forgetting is “the only death that really kills.” His way of serving the people he loved was to keep as many of them alive in his work as he could.
This was not the project of Open Veins. As Galeano admitted, that book is marred by its Marxist materialism. The best parts of it—the sensitive storytelling, the sense of monumental historical sweep, the moral clarity—would be deepened in subsequent writing. The parts that didn’t work—the communist orthodoxy, the mono-causal trajectories, the leaden economics—would be ditched.
Open Veins took off because it gave readers what they most wanted: a straightforward explanation of why things are and how they came to be. Later, as Galeano’s sociological eye became more refined, he would realize that simple answers are cheap, that life takes forked paths, that the “thousand voices” of the earth are irreducible. Meaning, such as it can be found, cannot be imposed but must arise naturally from recurring patterns in the emergent composition. Galeano had once wanted to be a painter, and it was with a painter’s sensibility that he realized human beings were too intricate to be depicted in broad strokes.
There was a wry irony in Chavez’s gift to Obama. It could fit perfectly into one of Galeano’s collections of scraps: the story of one ruler giving another ruler a book opposing all rulers, a book neither of them would read. Those leaders didn’t understand Galeano, just as the Economist didn’t understand him, just as the Marxists who thought he had turned right wing didn’t understand him. Subtlety is unintelligible to the fanatical.
Through his evolution as an artist and a thinker, Galeano showed how to free oneself from the fanatics, how to remain radical in sympathy for the weak and hatred of tyranny while never sacrificing one’s integrity or independence of thought. He demonstrated not just a dynamic new way of writing, but also a way to form our ideas, to see ourselves in history, and, above all, to remember.
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April 24, 2015
8 Min read time