The magical reality of Eduardo Galeano

The Uruguayan author’s socialism never lost its heart or its ambitions. It was closely aligned with the dreams of ordinary people to transform this extraordinarily harsh world into something humane.

Published : Apr 29, 2015 12:30 IST

Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015), a 2012 photograph.

Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015), a 2012 photograph.

Eduardo Galeano’s last connection to India came through his most important book, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971). P.K. Rajan from the Chennai-based Bharati Puthakalayam sought permission for this landmark book to be translated into Tamil. The prospect pleased Galeano. He had strong opinions about translation, wanting his original Spanish edition to be the basis and not Cedric Belfrage’s English version (Belfrage, an English film critic and socialist, had lived in Mexico from the 1960s and introduced writers such as Galeano to the English-speaking world). When it became clear that a Tamil translation was already in the works and that finding a Spanish to Tamil translator would not be easy, Galeano consented. He was eager to have his classic book available to readers of Tamil.

Not long after this exchange, Galeano left the world. But he can never really leave it. Shelves of books by Galeano remain his gift to the world, from Open Veins to Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2011), along with his writings on football ( Football in Sun and Shadow , 1995) and on the North-South divide and its uncomfortable history ( Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World , 1998). These are remarkable books for their cutting analysis of imperialism and capitalism, but more so for their genuine hopefulness. Galeano’s socialism never lost its heart or its ambitions. It was closely aligned with the dreams of ordinary people to transform this extraordinarily harsh world into something humane.

Born in 1940 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Galeano made his mark early as a journalist and editor (of such important journals as Marcha and Época ). Galeano’s peers in this world of Uruguayan journalism included such figures as Mario Benedetti, the author of the poem “El Sur también existe” (The South Also Exists), which would become an anthem for Hugo Chávez during his years in power. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 excited the continent. It provided a sense of possibility, but also of foreboding. Earlier attempts at independent assertion had been met with harsh retribution from the domestic ruling classes, egged on by Washington, D.C. In a widely circulated essay from 1961, Ernesto “Che” Guevara warned: “Dark days lie ahead for Latin America.” It was in this context that Galeano sharpened his journalistic skills.

Across the continent, scholars had begun to assess the reasons for the failure of formally independent South America to move toward economic development. Work by the Argentinian intellectual Raúl Prebisch had suggested that the institutional structure of world trade, built on inequality driven by colonialism, would prevent former colonial states from breaking out of their stagnation. These parts of the world, Prebisch argued, would remain as exporters of raw materials and importers of finished commodities. It was into this debate that a generation of young Latin American scholars, led by the Brazilian sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, entered. They pushed Latin American social science to the Left. Galeano read these scholars diligently, seeking the narrative arc within which to slot his own journalism.

When Uruguay’s economy plummeted in the 1960s, the dependency school provided the most effective analysis of the chaos. Agricultural prices crashed, leaving dependent Uruguay unable to balance its books. Unrest became the order of the day, with a left-wing guerrilla group (the Tupamaros) making its debut in 1966. Across South America, similar developments presaged open war between the ruling classes (allied with Washington, D.C.) and the fledgling Left. Galeano held fast to the pen. He wanted to understand the history that led to this impasse—the terrible toll being exacted on people who had known suffering for centuries. This was the context in which he wrote Open Veins , a book that is as much rooted in dependency theory as it is in the emerging literature of magic realism, as much reliant upon the work of Cardoso as Gabriel García Márquez. Open Veins is, in many ways, the historian’s equivalent of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

In 1973, Márquez told The Atlantic : “Surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” This was not a literature of fantasy; it was a mode that mimicked the convoluted social forces of contemporary South America.

The reaction to Open Veins was remarkable despite being banned in most of South America. Galeano recalled: “The girl who was quietly reading Open Veins to her companion in a bus in Bogotá, and finally stood up and read it aloud to all the passengers. The woman who fled from Santiago in the days of the Chilean bloodbath with this book wrapped inside her baby’s diapers. The student who went from one bookstore to another for a week in Buenos Aires’ Calle Corrientes, reading bits of it in each store because he hadn’t the money to buy it.” The book ends with hope despite its terrible catalogue of misery; it is probably why people took to it, seeking a light of utopia at the end of the tunnel of repression. “In the history of humankind,” Galeano wrote, “every act of destruction meets its response, sooner or later, in an act of creation.”

Galeano fled Uruguay when the military took over. From Spain, he looked back once more to write his Memory of Fire trilogy, a longer and more meditative account of the colonial history of South America. Galeano returned to his homeland in the 1980s, when the military junta fell and the people, as he wrote, “voted against fear”. Old Tupamaros, such as José Mujica, set aside their rusty guns and tried out the ballot box. Mujica’s ascendency to the presidency in 2010 allowed Galeano to be celebratory but cautious, for the election was “born blessed with the enthusiasm of the people, the fervent hope of the people, and this is something to take care of, to be careful to not defraud. It is a day of celebration but also of compromise.” The historian of pain and hope saw the two hands combined here. Mujica’s cabinet included Raúl Sendic, the son of the founder of the Tupamaros. The Left, long in exile, now remains in charge.

When Galeano died, Mujica said that his friend had a “huge love of life”. That is evident in his prose. In Days and Nights of Love and War (1978) Galeano notes: “One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness.” There is an urgency in his writing, a desire to get as many stories out there as quickly as possible, to get as much of the emotional intensity of life onto the page as possible. Even lung cancer did not stop Galeano. Siglio XXI published his Mujeres: antología (2015) just as he died. It draws together stories of women from his oeuvre. This will join the other dozen or so of Galeano’s books that remain with us to remember him.

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