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

%d bloggers like this: