Remembering Eduardo Galeano: Master narrator, saboteur of master narratives

Two Canadian authors reflect on the life of the literary dissident.
By: /
April 21, 2015
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Professor of English at the University of Guelph

In early 2014, Canadian academics Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy, along with novelist Thomas King and his partner painter Helen Hoy, visited Eduardo Galeano in Montevideo. Little did they know, the Uruguayan writer would be gone just over a year later. Galeano died last week, on April 13, at age 74. “No epitaph will suffice,” Fischlin and Nandorfy write here, reflecting on a man whose life and storytelling deeply influenced social movements, politics, and literature in Latin America and beyond(The Spanish version can be found here.)

Some 13 years after eating, drinking, and breathing the words of Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano for a book we co-wrote on his work, we made the trip to Montevideo, Uruguay, in February 2014 to meet the legend in person.

He had returned to his beloved city in 1985 after over 10 years of living in exile, first in Argentina, and then in Spain. Persecuted for his journalistic provocations, Galeano spoke truth to power and inspired readers to stand up to the fascist terror and militarism that had gripped so many Latin American countries for decades.

An indefatigable risk-taker and provocateur, Galeano served as editor of important journals like Crisis, which he had co-founded and which focused much of its substantial intellectual energy on critiquing abuses of power in Uruguay and elsewhere in Latin America. On receiving a death threat at the editorial offices one evening he calmly replied that the hours for phoning in such threats were nine to five. His imperturbable cool mixed with his incisive, unrelenting capacity to lay bare the logic of injustice and inequality was magnified by his affective power as a storyteller.

On receiving a death threat at the editorial offices one evening Galeano calmly replied that the hours for phoning in such threats were nine to five

Journalism and political writing made him a marked man in those years, leading to the long exile that produced his momentous history of the Americas from below, the three-volume Memory of Fire. To this day, the trilogy remains an unparalleled blend of storytelling, meticulous research, and resonant aesthetics that literally reinvented how history gets written. Some called him a modern-day Herodotus; others made facile comparisons with North American intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn; yet others deplored or admired how he conjoined the affective power of literature with global rights struggles to achieve a world in which the nobodies who are actually somebodies gain voices that matter.

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Eduardo agreed to meet us at Brasilero, his longtime favourite café, replete with stories both disheartening and inspiring he later shared with us. While waiting for him to arrive, we noted his presence in telltale details like a specialty coffee on the menu bearing his name: the café Galeano (featuring cream, dulce de leche, and amaretto), and a photograph of him hanging on a wall. This was clearly his public place. There he regularly picked up packets from people all over the world who sent him books, heartbreaking testimonials, tokens of appreciation, and whatever talismans of respect one offers to a writer of his stature, whose incendiary public appearances were legendary for their capacity to inspire passion.

In co-writing our book we had seen rare footage from Chile crea, a Chilean documentary about the gathering of artists and political dissidents that Galeano gave a riveting speech to “Nosotros decimos no!” [“We say no”]. The event played a key role in bringing down the fascist Pinochet government in Chile. When Galeano spoke, not only did people listen intently, they wept openly; they shouted with outrage; they laughed at the humour and uncanny wit; they felt united and profoundly moved by the remarkable affect of his words—sharp as swords, precise as a great musician’s fingers reaching for an impossible note.

When Galeano darted into the Brasilero to meet us, the café went still for a brief second then broke into commotion with people approaching us to embrace him, speak a few words, and weep with emotion at having encountered him. We looked at each other thinking how remarkable this was: the likelihood of a similar spontaneous eruption happening in Canada under similar circumstances seemed entirely unlikely. The spontaneous outpouring reminded us of how distinct literary cultures—let alone the respect for artists of Galeano’s stature—are as one travels through the Americas. And while it should not have come as a surprise, that a writer so deeply influential across all of Latin America would be greeted as Galeano was, it was profoundly moving to observe how respectfully people waited to say a few words of gratitude, or have their photos snapped with him. He warmly and patiently responded, clasping their hands, listening to them with full attention, alternating Spanish, Portuguese, and English and finally when the last person had been attended to, turned to us shrugging his shoulders humbly as if to say “this is how it goes.”

The story Galeano told us of Café Brasilero’s multiple reincarnations relates to so many other stories he tells in celebration of perseverance and even resurrection. For Galeano stories carry forward in time ineluctably and they retain their power, if they take us to a truth and are well told, to generate affect, the ethereal substance that gives us all creative, historical, and political agency—the power to break free of orthodoxy, apathy, and amnesia.

Founded in 1877, Brasilero became a hangout for artists and intellectuals (then called Bohemians), and so a place to congregate and discuss politics, philosophy, art and other topics that were potentially subversive. Galeano told us the place had been ransacked and gutted numerous times by those hostile to the free exchange of ideas. Disheartening yes, but his story of the communal place that would not die then focused on how the café was rebuilt after each attack, and now once again hosts the peaceful imbibing of coffee and ideas after 12 years of fascist dictatorship in Uruguay.

Galeano conjoined the affective power of literature with global rights struggles to achieve a world in which the nobodies who are actually somebodies gain a voice that matters

Resurrection is a metaphor for Latin America in Galeano’s chronicles. One memorable example occurs in a vignette entitled ‘Celebration of Continuous Birth,’ where Galeano converses with Salvadoran revolutionary, poet, and journalist Miguel Mármol. Like the mythical Inkarí, Mármol is an avatar of earlier indigenous heroes of mythic proportions like Atawalpa, Manku, and Tupac Amaru. The close encounters of Mármol with execution, assassination, and death by enemy fire, are described by Galeano as ‘his eleven deaths and eleven resurrections over the course of his combative life.’ Interactive storytelling, that is, the dialogue between two politically engaged writers discussing a political understanding of reincarnation, leads to Galeano’s assertion that Miguel is “the truest metaphor for Latin America. Like him, Latin America has died and been born many times. Like him, it goes on being born.”

Weighing contradictory understandings of resurrection—with Catholics attributing it to pure Providence and Communists to pure coincidence—Galeano proposes that they jointly found Magical Marxism: ‘one half reason, one half passion, and a third half mystery’ (Book of Embraces, 223). The playful a-logical mathematics and recasting of the literary term ‘magical realism’ provides much food for thought, striking an evocative balance among wonder, anti-positivism, and deep attention to the flesh and blood of history interwoven through his writing in over 40 works of journalism, fiction, and deeply personalized storytelling.

***

Canadian First Nations writer Thomas King triggered our visit with Galeano. In spite of his loathing for air travel, Tom had insisted that now was the time to go. Luckily we listened to Tom’s intuitions and set out on the pilgrimage to look into the eyes of a man for whom we all had the deepest respect. Tom’s The Inconvenient Indian was on the cusp of winning an array of awards and we both remembered how in visiting Tom during the writing of that book, copies of Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy lay strewn about his workspace. An insight shared by both writers is that we understand the world through stories, that storytelling is world making, and changing the world depends on changing the stories we tell in all realms: science, law, politics, education, sport. Story is to be found everywhere and anywhere—among misfits, outliers, the invisible, and the unheard.

At the Brasilero, Galeano told us how his beloved partner Helena Villagra regularly asks him what he had dreamt the night before. In unexpected contrast with the imaginative vitality of his storytelling, Galeano seemed genuinely embarrassed about how mundane his dreams were compared to the fantastic dreams Helena would recount each morning over coffee.

How, we thought afterword, did this story relate to Galeano’s literary legacy?

Storytellers have to be deep listeners, sly conversants with a sharp ear for detail and respect for the ambiguities of memory that create distortions leading to unexpected insights. This balancing act has to be tempered by a deep sense of humility in the face of so many other stories in which truth, as the saying goes, remains stronger than fiction. Face to face with Galeano, one had a strong sense that all these were in play. We had no intention of conducting a conventional interview, and decided instead to let conversation lead us where it may. He immediately took charge, never once offering anything up about himself as someone apart from the stories he told us with great animation. To find solidarity with others in Galeano’s terms, one has to find solidarity with the spirit of the stories they tell you.

Since Galeano’s death, much has been made in the press about Hugo Chavez, the former President of Venezuela, giving American president Barack Obama a Spanish copy of Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. The latter was a work unknown to the American president and to most of the American public until this highly publicized act, after which it hit #2 on Amazon’s best seller list in 2009, 38 years after its publication. The topsy-turvy reception of this book spins its own stories—it has after all sold millions of copies throughout Latin America and elsewhere.

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Chavez giving Obama a copy of "Open Veins of Latin America" during a meeting at the Summit of the Americas in 2009 (Reuters)

Galeano made a self-deprecating remark at a book fair in 2014 about how he would keel over if he had to read Open Veins again, saying that he hadn’t really been qualified to undertake that kind of economic analysis when he wrote it, and that the book is badly written, its prose leaden. While a firestorm erupted over the political implications of these remarks, the trajectory of Galeano’s writing shows not a change from leftist to conservative politics as some interpreted it, but rather a change from a single perspective speaking in a single voice, to a plethora of perspectives speaking in diverse voices. Deeply suspicious of cant, of reductive interpretations, Galeano had moved away from looking at reality exclusively through the lens of economics voiced in political discourse. His later works allow readers multifaceted encounters with the most elemental aspects of being in the world.

This deeply democratic poetics has been evolving in many circles and cross-pollinating to change the relationship between literary and political discourse. Galeano was involved with the Zapatistas, for example, and their postmodern revolution, waged primarily on the Internet, revolutionized political speech by breathing life into it through indigenous storytelling techniques, poetry, and humour. Subcomandante Marcos, then spokesperson for the Mayan uprising, learned from indigenous storytelling techniques to forge collectively the word that is their weapon. Similarly, Galeano saw his role as gatherer and disseminator of silenced stories, even if as an artist he agonized over the quality and import of each word.

The profound influence of Galeano’s writing and his visit to a Zapatista community prompted one of the EZLN leaders—José Luis López Solís—to assume Galeano’s name. This educator in the escuelita (or ‘little school’), an experiment in indigenous pedagogy, was assassinated in May 2014 by the CIOAC (Independent Central of Agricultural Workers and Peasants); and he was remembered as ‘Galeano’ even by Eduardo himself who responded to his death by saying: ‘Ojalá no haya muerto en vano ese otro Galeano: yo lo continuaré, de todos modos’ [May he not have died in vain that other Galeano: in any case, I will continue in him / he will continue in me].

But the story of migrating voices and identities doesn’t end there. Subcomandante Marcos unexpectedly showed up at the memorial to the Zapatista Galeano, and in turn assumed his name. Reading from the communiqué ‘Between Light and Shadow’ he announced his own death (the death of his Marcos persona), and that he was now Subcomandante Galeano. Name switching to resurrect the dead confounds Western conventions of attaching one name to one identity of one individual—yet that is exactly the generative mindset that this brotherhood of Galeanos symbolizes: you are therefore I am.

***

The trajectory of Galeano’s writing shows not a change from leftist to conservative politics as some interpreted it, but rather a change from a single perspective speaking in a single voice, to a plethora of perspectives speaking in diverse voices

Galeano rejected master narratives, reductive ideologies, and dogma. He skewered hypocrites and mandarins, the greedy and the violent. Departments of defence he unmasked as departments of offence; the legal system as the tool of the rich to corral the poor into the prison-house of their enslavement; news media as a by-product of advertising and unsustainable economies of consumption, spewer of self-serving lies and intoxicating distractions; war as a pathology obscuring civil and creative alternatives to violence and respect for difference.

Bad stories all.

Galeano exposes the quotidian first-hand experience of systemic oppression and brutality, the domestication of violence and apathy, and alienation from the history of everyday life. But he does not stop there. His stories give testament to the rich array of experience to be found in the most humble of circumstances. He deliberately collected and upcycled voices never before published. He fashioned a hybrid form of journalistic fiction and literary journalism based on an artful mash-up of individual and collective experience.

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Galeano with Thomas King

Like the great Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo who so influenced his approach to writing, Galeano wrote with an axe, paring away words to give his prose the distilled force of poetry. His handwritten manuscript pages were a dizzying array of scratchings and erasures, sketches and dismissals—words carrying arterial energy shaped into the finely etched prose that has transported and inspired millions of readers across so many languages. Galeano borrowed the term sentipensante (feeling-thinking) from Colombian fishermen to remind his readers that true knowledge is born of the heart and mind together, and the artfully crafted titles to his many books remind us of elemental connections to the embrace, to walking, to memory, to fire, to leaves and trees, to children and song.

He was earthy and physical; passionate and committed; humble and quick to smile; as charismatic as he was sympathetic; and capable of great empathy—a trickster- tlamatini, a Nahuatl word meaning a “wise one,” a light and a thick firebrand that never smokes. He is a pierced mirror, a mirror perforated on both sides…He makes wise the faces of others, he makes them take on face and develop it … He holds up a mirror before others … so that their face appears” (León-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture, 10); a multitude-person—or a blue tiger in an immaculately pressed cotton shirt tuned to a cerulean that mirrored his eyes and the oceanic sky on the day we met him.

The Zapatistas had proclaimed ‘Galeano vive’ [Galeano lives], a vision of life beyond the reach of death that occurs when communities sustain story, and a reality that Galeano’s own words ceaselessly sought to make clear: ‘the light of dead stars travels, and by the flight of their splendor they look alive. The guitar, which does not forget its companion, makes music without any hand. The voice travels on, leaving the mouth behind’ (Walking Words, 328).

Galeano’s epitaph?

No epitaph will suffice …

Except the ongoing stories he shaped from a life of endless engagement and inquiry—stories that compel us to re-invent ourselves, to activate the creative as opposed to the destructive, and to find solidarity in those others without whom we would have no meaning, without whom the voice traveling on would be unthinkable.

The storyteller who fuses with the story that must be told is always already travelling into a future whose memory is yet to be made.

— Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy, authors of Eduardo Galeano: Through the Looking Glass. April 20, 2015