Eduardo Galeano Contemplates History's Paradoxes

Eduardo Galeano i i

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, 68, was arrested and forced out of his homeland after the 1973 military coup. Marcelo Isarrualde hide caption

itoggle caption Marcelo Isarrualde
Eduardo Galeano

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, 68, was arrested and forced out of his homeland after the 1973 military coup.

Marcelo Isarrualde

At a Summit of the Americas last spring, Hugo Chavez, the frequently anti-American president of Venezuela, gave President Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America.

First published in 1971, the book presents author Eduardo Galeano's version of the history of "five centuries of the pillage of a continent."

Galeano's name may be unfamiliar to most Americans, but in South America, he's a legend — revered in some circles, reviled in others.

Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone
By Eduardo Galeano
Translated by Mark Fried
Hardcover, 400 pages
Nation Books
List Price: $26.95

Read An Excerpt

Now 68, the Uruguayan author spends most days at his favorite cafe in Montevideo, Uruguay, where fans phone to ask if he is there or when he's expected. Sometimes they leave letters and books for him to sign. Galeano says he was formed in this cafe and others like it:

"These were my universities. Here in cafes is where I learned the art of storytelling — great anonymous storytellers that taught me how to do it," he says. "I love these places where we may have time to lose time. It is a luxury in this world."

A left-wing intellectual, Galeano was arrested and forced out of Uruguay after the 1973 military coup. He spent 12 years in exile and was put on the Argentine military government's death list.

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Galeano visits his favorite cafe, Brasilero, on most days. He says his identity as a storyteller was formed in this cafe and others like it. Susan Stamberg/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Susan Stamberg/NPR
cafe

Galeano visits his favorite cafe, Brasilero, on most days. He says his identity as a storyteller was formed in this cafe and others like it.

Susan Stamberg/NPR

Now back in his homeland, Galeano has the luxury of time. He writes in his hometown cafe about themes that have preoccupied him for a lifetime.

"Always in all my books I'm trying to reveal or help to reveal the hidden greatness of the small, of the little, of the unknown — and the pettiness of the big," he says.

If President Obama were to read Open Veins of Latin America — an indictment of capitalism, corporations, colonialism and, yes, the U.S. — Galeano says he hopes the president might understand "a certain idea about the fact that no richness is innocent."

"Richness in the world is a result of other people's poverty. We should begin to shorten the abyss between haves and have-nots," he says.

Galeano admits that his notions about power and underdogs are "absolutely out of fashion."

"I am quite prehistoric, absolutely prehistoric," he says.

But the author's "prehistoric" preoccupations are also quite current. Take his thoughts on war, for instance:

"Each time a new war is disclosed in the name of the fight of the good against evil, those who are killed are all poor. It's always the same story repeating once and again and again," he says.

Poverty, injustice, powerlessness, exploitation — no wonder people keep asking Galeano whether he finds any cause for hope in this world. His answer: "It depends on the hour of the day."

"Sometimes I am optimistic at noon, and then at 3 o'clock I am absolutely down on the floor. Later I recover, and then I fall again and so on," he says.

Back in the cafe, a waitress practices the harmonica while Galeano autographs a copy of his latest book, Mirrors, for a fan. Mirrors is his unofficial history of the world — 5,000 years' worth — told in short squibs — a quick paragraph here, a few lines there.

Galeano re-imagines history through the stories of unknowns and better-knowns — like jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt:

He was born in a gypsy caravan and spent his early years on the road in Belgium, playing the banjo for a dancing bear and a goat.

He was eighteen when his wagon caught fire and he was left for dead. He lost a leg, a hand. Goodbye road, goodbye music. But as they were about to amputate, he regained the use of his leg. And from his lost hand he managed to save two fingers and become one of the best jazz guitarists in history.

There was a secret pact between Django Reinhardt and his guitar. If he would play her, she would lend him the fingers he lacked.

"This is a revealing story about paradoxes as a source of hope, because, you see, this man with how many fingers — two? — he was the best!" says Galeano.

Galeano loves the paradox of Reinhardt. He also loves the paradox of slaves in the American South creating jazz, the freest of music. He contemplates such mysteries and writes his wistful musings in this small cafe, in the small capital of one of South America's smallest countries.

When it's time to leave the cafe, a friend appears outside to give him a lift. Galeano doesn't drive, nor does he use his cell phone much. He suspects his computer — and all computers — drink whiskey at night when nobody's watching.

"And that's why next day they do some enigmatic things that nobody can understand," he says.

Excerpt: 'Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone'

Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone
By Eduardo Galeano
Translated by Mark Fried
Hardcover, 400 pages
Nation Books
List Price: $26.95

Lost and found

The twentieth century, which was born proclaiming peace and justice, died bathed in blood. It passed on a world much more unjust than the one it inherited.

The twenty-first century, which also arrived heralding peace and justice, is following in its predecessor's footsteps. In my childhood, I was convinced that everything that went astray on earth ended up on the moon.

But the astronauts found no sign of dangerous dreams or broken promises or hopes betrayed.

If not on the moon, where might they be?

Perhaps they were never misplaced.

Perhaps they are in hiding here on earth. Waiting.

. . .

Origin of modern art

West African sculptors have always sung while they worked. And they do not stop singing until their sculptures are finished. That way the music gets inside the carvings and keeps on singing.

In 1910, Leo Frobenius found ancient sculptures on the Slave Coast that made his eyes bulge.

Their beauty was such that the German explorer believed they were Greek, brought from Athens, or perhaps from the lost Atlantis. His colleagues agreed: Africa, daughter of scorn, mother of slaves, could not have produced such marvels.

It did, though. Those music-filled effigies had been sculpted a few centuries previous in the belly button of the world, in Ife, the sacred place where the Yoruba gods gave birth to women and men.

Africa turned out to be an unending wellspring of art worth celebrating. And worth stealing.

It seems Paul Gaugin, a rather absentminded fellow, put his name on a couple of sculptures from the Congo. The error was contagious. From then on Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Giacometti, Ernst, Moore, and many other European artists made the same mistake, and did so with alarming frequency.

Pillaged by its colonial masters, Africa would never know how responsible it was for the most astonishing achievements in twentieth century European painting and sculpture.

From the book Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano, translated by Mark Fried. Excerpted by arrangement with Nation Books (www.nationbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009.

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