words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper


The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano is as well known for his journalism as for his books. In both forms, he is fiercely free of genre. His concerns circle around history, philosophy, fiction, reportage, memoir, and political analysis; he is also a brilliant essayist of the game of football. But it would be fair to say that his true subject is at the nexus of memory and amnesia, especially as it pertains to the South American continent.

At the April 2009 meeting of the Organization of American States, a regional body that brings together North and South American countries, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez gave Barack Obama a gift. The gift was a book by Galeano: The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

Chavez, a socialist with dictatorial instincts, has rattled more than a few sabers in the United States’ direction in recent years, and so, the media furore that ensued from the gift was entirely predictable.

Obama, having been once too often tarred with the socialist brush by domestic rivals, felt the need to distance himself from the Galeano book and said that he might not read it. The official excuses were that he doesn’t read Spanish (the copy he was given wasn’t translated) and that he has other books to read.

In any case, the mere fact of the gift made Open Veins of Latin America a best-seller in the United States. Now, hard on the heels of that unanticipated success, comes the English translation of Galeano’s new book, Mirrors.

Consider the pleasure of those distorting mirrors one finds in amusement parks. As you walk in front of one of them, you’re suddenly seven feet tall, or you’re a heavy-jowled dwarf, or your eyes grow to the size of ping-pong balls. The pleasure comes from the rarity of the thing, from its novelty.

But what if most of the mirrors in the world were actually distorting mirrors? What if only once in a great while did one encounter a mirror that showed things as they really were? No one wishes to live in such a world. Being seven feet tall would quickly become tiresome.

Galeano’s Mirrors, posits such a world, a world in which distortion is the norm, particularly the distortion of stories. Mirrors is a book of history, but perhaps “book of histories” is more accurate, for its span is wide.

It is in fact the widest possible span: as the jacket-copy reads, Galeano attempts to record “5000 years of history, recalling the lives of artists and writers, gods and visionaries from the Garden of Eden to twenty-first-century New York and Mumbai.”

How many pages would one need for such a task? Thousands. But Galeano’s 390-page text (with a lovely cover featuring a bronze head from Ife) has concerns other than comprehensiveness, and it accomplishes much in its relatively small space.

The technique he uses is one of vignettes, short stories through which the distorting mirrors of conventional histories are challenged. There are some six-hundred such stories in the book.

On the very first page, suggesting that Adam and Eve were black, Galeano writes: “The rainbow of the earth is more colourful than the rainbow of the sky. Even the whitest of whites comes from Africa.

Maybe we refuse to acknowledge our common origins because racism causes amnesia, or because we find it unbelievable that in days long past, the entire world was our kingdom, an immense map without borders, and our legs were the only passports required.”

The blend of myth and politics is typical of Galeano. On the stage of this book as on the stage of world history, Tlazolteotl (the Mexican moon goddess) strides with Pandora and Mitra (the female Hindu source of all life), and Prometheus is kin to both Hermes and Esu. All are called upon to shed light on our common predicament.

Contrasting sati (the now obsolete practice of widow burning in India) with the reverence in which the goddess Mitra was held, he writes: “Tradition orders widows to throw themselves into the fire where the dead husband’s body burns, but today few if any are willing to obey that command. For centuries or millennia they were willing, and they were many. In contrast, there is no instance ever in the whole history of India of a husband leaping into the pyre of his deceased wife.”

It would seem that early on in human civilization, men, in cultures from Greece to China, rode roughshod over the rights of women, and came up with stories to justify it.

Later in the book, the critique turns to, among other things, a tracing of the disastrous encounters between native populations and profit-hungry European explorers, and the way those encounters continue to resonate today. One story, titled “First Slave Rebellion in America” (all the stories are titled), reads in full: “It happens at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

A couple of days after Christmas, the slaves rise up at a sugar mill in Santo Domingo owned by the son of Christopher Columbus. Following the victory of Divine Providence and James the Apostle, the roads are lined with black men, hanged.”

And of an episode in Brazilian history, he writes: “The officially history of Brazil continues to call the first uprisings for national independence ‘inconfidencias,’ acts of disloyalty… The Bahian rebellion… sought not only an independent republic but also equality of rights for all, no matter the couloir of your skin. After much blood was spilled and the rebellion put down, colonial authorities pardoned all but four of the leaders.

Hanged and quartered were Manoel Lira, Joao do Nascimento, Luis Gonzaga, and Lucas Dantas. These four were black, the sons and grandsons of slaves.” Then he adds:  “And there are those who believe justice is blind.”Galeano certainly doesn’t have any such illusions. The miracle of Mirrors is not the knowledge it contains-though that is miraculous enough.

It is in the tone of the writing: certainly strident, but at the same time charming; forthright but also resolutely ironic. These are talents that he shares with Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Jose Saramago and indeed the granddaddy of all Hispanic, Cervantes.

The story titled “Mercenaries” begins with the unforgettable line: “Today they would be called ‘Contractors.'” And as in the stories by Kafka that end in fiction but are continued the next day in the newspapers, Galeano’s hybrid of a book is continuous with our own headlines, because the absurdities of the past are the progenitors of today’s injustices.

When we look into history’s crazed face, when we consider the long line of iniquities and inequities of which humanity’s story is comprised, we can neither be blithely happy about it, nor can we take in its full maddening tragedy. We need a tragicomic worldview.

I love the story Galeano tells of Bebel Garcia, a gifted professional football player (played lefty, lived lefty) who was executed by Franco’s goons in 1936. As he stood before the firing squad, he opened his trousers, button by button, and took a long piss. Then he buttoned up (keep in mind this is a twenty-one year old) and said, “Go ahead.”

Our greatest poets and writers bury shards of humour inside their work. For how else could we bear the bitterness of reality? But this is not the easy, disaffected irony of pop-art; it is the humane irony of those who know that most of what we see is a distortion.

The compendium form works very well, and it evokes Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary and Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas (both of them masterpieces of irony).

But Mirrors, shocking, various, spirited and mutant, speaks boldly to our times. I can’t think of a book I would more highly recommend to President Obama or, for that matter, to President Yar’Adua.


Filed under: literature

permeable dreams

“I can never remember faces, only feelings,” says the narrator of Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons.

The narrator in question is himself pure feeling, pure memory. As a man he is insubstantial; in fact, he is not a man at all. As we realise with a start after the first chapter of the novel, he is a gecko. He lives in an old book-lined house in Luanda, a house that is a bit like an old steamship hauling itself through the river mud. He is the lifelong pet, or more accurately the friend, of an old man called Félix Ventura, a bibliomaniac, romantic, and dreamer.

When the story begins, Félix Ventura is inviting a nameless stranger into his house. The stranger comes with demands. Félix obliges him, for it is his work precisely to work with nameless strangers, and to turn them into men with names, with identities, with noble genealogies. This particular stranger, though, wants more than stories: he wants a passport, certificates, authentic official documents. “I invent dreams for people,” Félix says, “but I am not a forger.”

But a bag full of money, five-thousand dollars to be exact (with more on the way), soon convinces him that perhaps being a well-paid forger isn’t the worst of fates. Within a few weeks, he has created for the stranger a solid new identity as José Buchmann, war photographer, and scion of one of the most noble families of Sao Pedro da Chibia, in the south of the country.

All this is told from the point of view of the gecko. Now, I am not necessarily fond of animal narrators—I have no inclination to pick up Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, narrated by a dog, or Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home starring the eponymous bear as a New York jazz musician. I prefer my stories to be narrated by human beings. Call it speciesm. But perhaps I have misjudged the genre. Agualusa shows one way of doing it right: give the talking animal enough human sympathies to keep our interest in the story alive.

In the case of the gecko (not a chameleon, but more about that later), these sympathies come from the fact that, in a previous life, he was a human being. And so, though he is but a laughing gecko now, a rare reptile kept as a domestic pet, he is attuned to the shifts and turns, the longings and deceptions of human beings. He can scuttle to the ceiling or behind a bookcase, and be privy to any and all conversations. The reader imagines too that the narrative, with its short, sharp takes, is a mirror of the reptilian brain. Events flick in and out quickly, like a gecko’s tongue extending and retracting at speed, as it consumes mosquitos.

“Whenever I hear about something completely impossible, I believe it at once,” Félix says at one point, to Angela Lucia, another photographer he has befriended. Agualusa’s method seems to be that of accruing weirdness, defying disbelief. And though his prose style is brazenly indebted to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and to Jorge Luis Borges, I find that the sensibility also echoes that of Lusophone writers like Fernando Pessoa and Antonio Lobo Antunes—a wise, declarative style, plainspoken when viewed from one angle, but almost deliriously lush when viewed from another.

The emotional core of Agualusa’s tale is in the matter of shifting identities. Félix introduces himself as a genealogist, an inventor of pasts. But at a certain point, it’s not even clear whether he can distinguish between what really happened in the past, who was whose grandfather. All assertions threaten to become the truth within the swirl of his memory. As an albino, his appearance is ambiguous. He is neither white nor black; he is an Angolan who looks vaguely European.

His finest invention, José Buchmann, is not José Buchmann, but a man playing that role, a man who vanishes into the role invented for him. Another major character, the previously mentioned Angela Lucia, is a beautiful woman. She also happens to be a photographer, though she prefers to describe herself as a collector of light. Felix harbours hopes that she will soon invite him to bed. In her every gesture, both a yes and a no are present. Her inconstancy wafts through the old house like a perfume.

And the gecko, most intriguingly, inhabits the slippery boundary between his reptilian present and his human past. At moments, one is almost convinced that he is a personified homage to Borges himself (indeed, the epigraph of the novel is from Borges).

Scattered across the book are short, weird dreams—no weirder, it must be said, than the regular narrative of the novel—and these dreams with often involve the gecko’s past self in one interaction or another with Felix. The day afterwards, without fail, Félix would recount the exact same dream to a friend or acquaintance of his. At a loss at what to call this man who keeps appearing in his dream, Félix names him Eulalia, seemingly plucking the name out of the air. The name seems to code something: Eulalia literally means “the one who talks well.” It is an ironic name for a gecko who is restricted to an uncanny human-like laugh. The irony is deepened, perhaps, by the awareness that even Agualusa, the author’s name, is an assumed name.

The repeated telling of Félix and the gecko Eulalia’s shared dreams intensifies the playful, hallucinatory atmosphere of the book. Navigating this story is like moving through a Murakami novel that has been transposed to Central Africa. Readers who like the latter author will find much to cheer them in Agualusa.

The book, towards its end, takes a late twist into Angolan politics, a blood-soaked foray that, perhaps, does not arise organically from the preceding tale. Nevertheless, who requires an invented past more urgently than a war-troubled country? The real strength of The Book of Chameleons is not in the characters it evokes, as they are mostly fabulous and rather unrealistic, nor is it in the plot, which is barely there at all. The strength is in Agualusa’s summoning of moods: their quicksilver changes, the fleeting beauty which, in his magic-realist inflected prose, affects the reader viscerally—evocations of rain, of piano music, of feminine beauty, of the character of night.

By the time the reader lays aside the book, he or she, like Eulalia, can’t really remember the faces. Only the swirl of feelings remain. But what vivid and human feelings they are, feelings finely mixed to the point of hallucination.

Credit is due to the translator, Daniel Hahn, who Englishes Agualusa’s Portuguese very effectively. Their joint achievement was recognised with the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction prize. I would quibble only with the decision not to render the original title O Vendedor de Passados in a direct translation, The Seller of Pasts. That, I think, would have captured the spirit of the book more poetically and more exactly.

Filed under: literature

in the shadow of plague

Disaster is by now familiar. We have all seen exploding cars and imploding buildings, battle scenes and massacres. But for most of us, this experience is secondhand, absorbed through the media of film and television, and often viewed as entertainment. The cable news networks make their money by dramatizing the awful for us. Watching the World Trade Centre crumble in 2001 evoked in many a strange but entirely predictable response: “It’s just like a movie.”

This over-familiarity with the imagery of disaster affects how nations, when faced with the threat of a crisis, respond. Leaders instinctively go into superhero mode, as though they were the stars of their own movie. The drama around the event, whether it be natural disaster, military conflict, or public health issue, is amplified. Fear leaps out of the shadows, and citizens are easily persuaded to surrender their civil rights. The language of politicians becomes even emptier than usual.

To observe the coverage of the recent swine flu scare was to watch all of this unfold. I was struck by how, in the United States, almost all the initial statements about the scare were made not by the President or the Secretary of Health, but by the Secretary of Homeland Security. The ominous pronouncements combined necessary diligence about public health with a vague sort of xenophobia. This, we were made to understand, was a Mexican flu. The threat was cast as an insidious thing that involved foreigners. You could have believed that fighting the flu was simply going to be a continuation of the war on terror.

Disease is often enough used as a pretext for xenophobia. In the media here, AIDS and the Ebola virus are taken to be African, and SARS and avian flu are thought of as Chinese. If we go all the way back to 1918, to the biggest of the twentieth-century’s flu pandemics, we will discover that the earliest cases were in Austria and in Kansas. But, of course, it wasn’t called the “Kansan flu.” It was called the “Spanish flu.” This was for no other reason than the fact that, although every country in Europe was infected, only Spain did not censor the true facts about the death tolls.

The 1918 flu was both highly communicable and seriously pathogenic. Probably 20 per cent of the world’s population caught it between 1918 and 1919, and of that number, between 2.5 per cent and 5 per cent died. The numbers are staggering: some 50 million or more people lost their lives. It is in the record books as the biggest medical disaster of all time.

The flu of 1918, and milder but nevertheless devastating recurrences in 1957 and 1964, are the historical background to the current flu worries. The 1918 flu, SARS, avian flu, and the current swine flu are all caused by influenza viruses and related to one another by a complex network of avian, porcine and human infection patterns. The big problem is that although the influenza virus only has eight genes, and although the proteins those genes code for have been studied in detail for decades, the virus itself is highly susceptible to mutation. It is a tricky creature, always one step ahead of scientists.

So, the threat of this one, a variant of the virus scientifically known as “novel H1N1,” is real. However, much of the approach to the problem by governments in these past weeks has been theatrical as well as hysterical. This swine flu has behaved rather similarly to the seasonal flu that infects thousands every year. I have therefore found myself curious not only about the disease, but also about what the threat of disaster, does to societies.

For instance, the U.S. Vice-President, Joe Biden, went on record to say that he wouldn’t advise anyone to go on a plane, a subway or any “enclosed spaces.” His office quickly apologised for spreading misinformation. The Chinese government, meanwhile, decided to confine hundreds of Mexicans in a Hong Kong hotel, because one person appeared to be sick. This set off a diplomatic firestorm. And the Nigerian Health Minister, Babatunde Oshotimehin, added his own, cautioning Nigerians against travelling to the United States and Mexico. Nigerians should not go to America? Was he joking?

These kinds of reactions are mirrored well in the literature of disaster. For public officials, it seems, there is no cure for the habit of only doing too much or doing too little. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, is about a pandemic in the Algerian town of Oran. The spread of the disease is at first disbelieved by all but a few, but shortly afterwards, it becomes the cause of mass hysteria. Only a handful of people, notably Dr. Rieux and Dr. Castel, serve the greater good. Everyone else is unhinged by fear. Some even profit from it, such as Father Paneloux who uses the plague to promote his own profile within the town, and Cottard who becomes rich by smuggling goods in and out of the barricaded town.

What if, I asked myself, this swine flu really became widespread and deadly? Quite apart from our medical readiness, are our societies emotionally prepared for real disaster? I turned to a much older novel as I mused on these questions: Daniel Defoe’s fictional account of the 1665 plague that devastated the city of London. The unnamed narrator of the story decides to remain in the city as the disease rages, and the story he tells is a grim one: burials, bodies piled on carts, the appointment of watchmen and nurses, and increasingly draconian rulings by magistrates. Similar to the people of Oran in Camus’ book, the Londoners of A Journal of the Plague Year become more superstitious, seeking out quacks instead of authentic doctors. Many go mad from fear and desperation, undone by their terror at being undone. The sleep of reason, as it is said, produces monsters.

And this, I suppose, is what we really should expect: the mere threat of suffering pushes people towards irrational beliefs. Though the North American expression of this latest flu seems now to be under control, it isn’t clear that all the danger is past. Leaving aside CNN’s gleeful reporting, the public urgently needs to be educated about the flu. Yes, it is highly communicable. No, it isn’t usually fatal. No, there isn’t a vaccine for this particular mutation yet. Yes, there probably will be one soon. If the flu does come back in about a year, as some say it might, we will (medically speaking) be readier for it by then.

I think there’s something to learn about what life under a pandemic might be like from books about the AIDS crisis (Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On and Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country are two powerful examples that come to mind). Officials, we will realise, are generally self-serving liars; irrationally fearful people make poor, and sometimes hateful, choices; and some of the deepest and noblest instincts of human emerge from the shadow of plague.

Should we ever have to face a deadly flu pandemic again (and sooner and later we will) it would be a shame if it became an occasion for hating foreigners or for needless suffering. Instead of playing superhero or looking for excuses to impose martial law-the equivalent of shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre-governments need to help their citizens refrain from panic.

For now, though, things are stable. The experts say we should feel free to eat bacon, ride the subway, and take planes. And I’ll add to that: should you be in possession of a visa and plane ticket, don’t mind the Health Minister. Carry your load and come to America. I can absolutely guarantee that once you get here, you’ll be so busy dealing with unemployment, racism, bills, violence and flavourless chicken, that swine flu will be the least of your worries.

Filed under: literature