In April 2009 a gift passed from the colossal fist of Hugo Chávez into the delicate, writerly fingers of Barack Obama. A gift, but at the same time — this was Chávez after all — a rebuke: it was a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Eduardo Galeano’s seminal jeremiad against the despoilment by Western imperialist and capitalist powers of the land and the aboriginal peoples of the Americas.
Galeano wrote Open Veins in the evenings of three months in 1970, while he toiled during the day as a political journalist in his native Uruguay. It’s a marvellous book, despite its doctrinaire, almost quaint Marxism and despite Galeano’s tendency to whitewash any figure that appeals to him ideologically. The Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, an object of fear and hatred in many stories and one great poem by Borges (“his tyrannical image loomed huge on the moment . . . shadowy, vast, and remote/like a darkening mountain . . . the implacable butcher”), is for Galeano nothing more sinister than “the best rider in the province, guitar-strummer, dancer, and noted horsebreaker, who on stormy starless nights chewed some blades of grass to locate his whereabouts”.
Anyway, each of these descriptions has its charm. Composed of short chapters, elegantly arranged by theme and rigorously foot- and end-noted, Open Veins is alive with bold similies (“What happened to Latin America’s industrial bourgeoisie was what happens to dwarfs: it became decrepit without having grown”; “The World Bank responds to the United States like thunder to lightning”), striking primary source material (according to a Nahuatl text, “[the Spaniards] lifted up the gold as if they were monkeys, with expressions of joy, as if it put new life into them and lit up their hearts”), and black comedy (the towns in Venezuela “where even whores are known by oil nicknames, such as ‘The Pipeline,’ ‘The Four Valves,’ ‘The Derrick’. . .”). It is so charismatic a book, even in the later chapters awash with economic statistics, that few readers will come away without having adopted a little of Galeano’s brightly burning indignation on behalf of the old peoples of the New World and their Latin-American descendents.
And it was a timely book: within a few years of its publication, freedom in the Southern Cone was smothered by US-backed military dictatorships and dirty wars under the hideous rubric of Operation Condor. Like many of his fellow intellectuals, Galeano was sent to prison. Subsequently he was one of the fortunate ones who made it into exile.
In Spain, his development as a writer led him deeper into the interesting borderland where non-fiction narrative meets literary art. His next major work, a trilogy called Memory of Fire, took eight years to complete. It tells the same story, essentially — the one big story it was Galeano’s calling to tell, more or less directly, with every book he wrote — but in this case the short chapters have become one- or half-page vignettes, beginning in the chaos of pre-Colombian myth and continuing with one or a handful of entries for every year from the momentous “first contact” in 1492 up to Reagan-era “rollback”. No authorial comment accompanies the sparely sketched, disconnected scenes. It resembles in various ways John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, especially the factual but heavily stylised miniature biographies of historical figures interspersed throughout those novels. But in USA the non-fiction element works as counterpoint and punctuation in a long, complex (and high-class) work of realist fiction. In Memory of Fire there is no fiction — footnotes to each vignette refer to its documentary source in an enormous bibliography. No character is developed for more than a few pages. The odd scene stands out with more effective literary shape than others, but generally there is nothing in the foreground, everything is background. The prose style is low-key. It is basically a work of collage or assemblage — Galeano described it as a mosaic — better appreciated, somehow, as a whole, for its epic scope, than in any one of its constituent parts. But then again, there are those things that neither dry reporting nor fictionalisation will readily serve to relate, for which the strange form of Memory of Fire actually feels indispensible:
They lie in rows, crushed against each other, their noses touching the deck above. Their wrists are handcuffed, and fetters wear their ankles raw. When portholes have to be closed in rough seas or rain, the small amount of air rises to fever heat, but with portholes open the hold stinks of hatred, fermented hatred . . . and the floor is always slippery with blood, vomit, and shit.
The central objective of Galeano’s career has been to make serious material as widely and deeply accessible as possible. He broke the generic mould to that end, with success. Sadly, his latest book, Children of the Days, is a dumbed-down travesty that perfects the most dubious tendencies of the earlier work without preserving any of its considerable qualities. His vignettes are now merely anecdotes just a few sentences long, plucked whimsically from world history, ancient to modern, with no organising principle. There is an entry for each day of the year: sentimental homages to things Galeano likes (animals, athletes, martyrs, workers of the world, feminists, local craftsmanship, homeopathic remedies, etc); indictments of things he hates (the US, people from the US, war, accredited experts, men, etc), where moral outrage has been replaced by ideological sarcasm. The only subject in the entire book towards which Galeano seems ambivalent is the life of Kim Il-sung. It claims to be a kind of alternative history for the underdog, but contains nothing much below the surface of the mainstream, and no detail. Footnotes, bibliography — all out the window. Certain pages exhibit some half-hearted trappings of prose-poetry. It’s the work of a writer no longer seeking to inform, but only to affirm.