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Hard Lessons

Eduardo Galeano is regarded as one of Latin America's fiercest voices of social conscience. Yet he insists that language -- its secrets, mysteries, and masks -- always comes first

November 30, 2000

Upside Down
Upside Down:
A Primer for the
Looking-Glass World

by Eduardo Galeano
translated by Mark Fried
Henry Holt
357 pages, $24.00

"The division of labor among nations," Eduardo Galeano proclaimed in the opening sentence of Open Veins of Latin America, "is that some specialize in winning and others in losing." A native of Uruguay who was forced into exile under the country's military regime during the 1970s, Galeano has always identified with the losing side. Open Veins, originally published in Mexico in 1971, employed captivating, elegiac prose to chronicle five centuries of plunder and imperialism in Latin America. Radically different in style, though not in content, from Marxist-oriented "dependency theory" of the 1960s -- which held that Latin America had been systematically marginalized by the world economy since the colonial era -- Open Veins quickly became a canonical text in radical circles, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in the Southern Hemisphere. In a period of social upheaval, guerrilla warfare, and dictatorship, the book, composed in three months of intense labor, was routinely treated as samizdat: when Open Veins was banned by the Pinochet regime, a young woman fled Chile with the book stashed in her infant's diapers.

Galeano went on to stake out new literary territory in his Memory of Fire trilogy, published by Pantheon between 1985 and 1988 in a translation by Cedric Belfrage. Unquestionably Galeano's masterwork, Memory of Fire is a kind of secret history of the Americas, told in hundreds of kaleidoscopic vignettes that resurrected the lives of campesinos and slaves, dictators and scoundrels, poets and visionaries. Memoirs, novels, bits of poetry, folklore, forgotten travel books, ecclesiastical histories, revisionist monographs, Amnesty International reports -- all of these sources constituted the raw material of Galeano's sprawling mosaic. In each volume (titled Genesis, Faces and Masks, and Century of the Wind, respectively), the episodes are structured chronologically, but the geographical settings are constantly shifting. The effect is beguiling and instructive. In an entry captioned "Havana, Cuba, 1588," with the title "St. Martial versus the Ants," Galeano writes:
Rapacious ants continue to mortify people and undermine walls. They fell trees, devastate farmlands, and gobble fruit and corn and the flesh of the absentminded. In view of patron St. Simon's inefficacy, the town council unanimously elects another protector. The city promises to celebrate his day every year. St. Martial is the new shield of Havana against the assaults of bibijagua ants. St. Martial, who three centuries ago was bishop of Limoges, is known as a specialist and is said to have great influence with the Lord.
And here is an entry dated 1948, simply entitled "Neruda." The dateline is "somewhere in Chile."
The main headline in the daily El Imparcial reads: Neruda Sought Throughout the Country; and below: Investigators locating his whereabouts will be rewarded. The poet goes from hideout to hideout, traveling by night. Neruda is one of many suffering persecution for being red or for being decent or for just being, and he doesn't complain of this fate, which he has chosen. Nor does he regret the solitude: He enjoys and celebrates this fighting passion, whatever trouble it brings him, as he enjoys and celebrates church bells, wine, eel broth, and flying comets with wings spread wide.
More than most writers, Galeano walks the tightrope between poet and pamphleteer -- a fact reflected in the critical response to his work. The Washington Post's Michael Dirda has compared him to Kafka and Borges, while Mike Davis, the author of City of Quartz, affirms, "No one has focused greater moral clarity on the inhuman conditions and radical inequalities that sustain the mirage of the New Economy." Galeano's new book, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, is his angriest and most didactic work to date. It consists of a series of mocking "lesson plans" with titles like "Injustice 101," "The Sacred Car," and "A Pedagogy of Solitude." Together, they lament the hollowness of Western consumer society, the waning of idealism, and the growing divide between North and South. "Poor countries," he writes gloomily, "have put their heart, soul, and sombrero into a global good-behavior contest to see who can offer the barest of bare-bones wages and the most freedom to poison the environment." The book is magnificently illustrated: Upside Down contains dozens of engravings by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), whose mordant humor had a profound influence on artists ranging from Frida Kahlo to Joseph Mitchell.

Galeano was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1940. In his youth, he toiled as a factory worker, a bill collector, a sign painter, a messenger, a typist, and a bank teller. At the age of fourteen, he began to contribute cartoons and articles to left-wing newspapers and magazines. He was briefly jailed, along with tens of thousands of his countrymen, in the months leading up to the Uruguayan coup of 1973, after which he fled to Argentina. When Argentina, too, succumbed to military dictatorship in 1976, Galeano took refuge in Barcelona, and finally returned to Uruguay in 1985, when civilian rule was restored. He has since become one of Latin America's pre-eminent authors, producing a series of genre-defying works that freely combine parables, folklore, children's stories, satire, history, dreams, and poetry. These titles include The Book of Embraces (1992), Walking Words (1997), Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1998), and Days and Nights of Love and War (1983), which has just been reissued by Monthly Review Press.

Eduardo Galeano spoke with Scott Sherman on October 28 at the Milburn Hotel in Manhattan. The conversation was mostly conducted in Spanish, and was translated by Sherman and Amy Prince.

Eduardo Galeano
Eduardo Galeano  

In his essay "Why I Write," George Orwell confessed, "My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice." What is your starting point?

I only write when my hand is itching, when I feel the need to do it. I learned that from a marvelous Cuban musician who played drums like a god. That was his secret too: "I only play when my hand is itching." I write only when I feel the need to write, not because my conscience dictates it. It doesn't just come from my indignation at injustice; it is a celebration of life, which is so beautifully horrible and horribly beautiful.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interview: "A Life (More or Less) Revolutionary" (November 20, 1997)
Jorge G. Castañeda, the author of Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, explains why the legacy of Latin America's iconic revolutionary figure hasn't lived up to the legend.

From The Atlantic:

"Ferocious Differences," by Jorge G. Castañeda (July 1995)
Why did the Mexican currency devaluation in late 1994 take Wall Street and the Clinton Administration by surprise? The reason, argues Castañeda, goes beyond international finance and reflects how profoundly different Mexico's national character remains from that of the U.S.

In his 1993 book, Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War, Jorge G. Castañeda argued that Latin American intellectuals have always fulfilled a "central function." They are, in his words, "keepers of the national consciousness, critics and constant demanders of accountability, bulwarks of principle and honesty." In the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, many artists, writers, and musicians seem haunted by the poverty and injustice around them. The Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago, for instance, travels frequently to Chiapas, Mexico, to express his solidarity with the Zapatista rebels. Why do Latin American writers generally have a higher level of political consciousness than writers here in the U.S.?

I mistrust generalizations; I don't really want to speculate about the "role" of the intellectual or the "function" of the writer. I believe it depends on the location, and it would be unjust to generalize. Saramago is a splendid writer; he is able to dig deeply into the souls of his characters. He is driven by an impulse of solidarity, one that I share and applaud. But there are other writers who are not explicitly political. There are some writers who have helped greatly to reveal the hidden identity of their people; they have done political work of great value without knowing it. This is the case with the great Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, in my opinion the best Latin American writer of the twentieth century. He was someone who was capable of unmasking reality, in the deepest sense -- not merely daytime reality, but the reality that includes dreams ... the delirium of reality as well. But one has to be careful in terms of definition. These days, there is a tendency to label individuals. "Political writer" is just a label. We are all political even if we don't know we are. An explicit political identity is not the only possibility. This business of labeling is very dangerous.

So if we have the example of Saramago on the one hand, and Rulfo on the other...

No, not "on the other hand." Both men were -- are -- involved in the same enterprise, for Rulfo is alive as long as his works are alive; he is still communicating with us. Both were -- are -- working to unmask reality, to unveil it. Ayudar a ver: To help to see. That is the main function of art.

If a writer has political commitments, how does he express himself artistically without falling into a propagandistic mode?

I don't see myself as a "writer with political commitments." I am a writer trying to get inside the mysteries of life and the secrets of society, the hidden zones, the obscured zones -- because reality is masked. My political engagements and my work as a writer are one in the same. I don't, therefore, have to confront the problem of propaganda. Generally, propaganda is not efficient. It belongs to an instant. That's okay. But it's not art. In some cases, there are works of art that function as propaganda but later go on living. Casablanca was a propaganda film. The films by Eisenstein were propaganda, made during the Stalinist period, and they are beautiful, great works of art. So propaganda is not always ephemeral, but usually it is. As you can see, I don't believe in schematic formulations. Reality is very complex.

So Jean-Paul Sartre, to cite one possible example, was wrong to believe that writers have an obligation to behave in a certain way?

I don't think writers should be political. I think writers should be honest, honest in what they are doing. They shouldn't sell themselves. They shouldn't allow themselves to be bought. They should respect themselves. They should keep their dignity, as human beings and as professional writers. They should say what they want to say. The words have to be genuine, and they have to come from the heart, otherwise they're artificial. When you give the order to be political, it's a disaster. The so-called "socialist realism" is the result. It's as disastrous as "capitalist realism."

In Memory of Fire, you write effusively, and at length, about Gabriel García Márquez, César Vallejo, and especially Pablo Neruda. But there is only one brief reference to Jorge Luis Borges, in an entry from 1935, datelined Buenos Aires. "Everything that brings people together, like football or politics, and everything that multiplies them, like a mirror or the act of love, gives him the horrors. He recognizes no other reality than what exists in the past, in the past of his forefathers, and in books written by those who knew how to expound that reality. The rest is smoke. With great delicacy and sharp wit, Jorge Luis Borges tells the Universal History of Infamy. About the national infamy that surrounds him, he doesn't even inquire."

When Neruda was accomplishing his duties as a member of the Communist party, as a militant, he wrote the worst poems, like the homages to Stalin and those sorts of things. The worst parts of the Canto General occurred in that period. The best parts of the Canto General were when he was simply singing of happiness and horror, of joy and shit, of having been born in Latin America.

Borges, on the other hand, has never had a special place in my heart. I don't feel the electricity of life in his work. I admire his style, his skill, his craftmanship. He was an intellectual, a man with only a head. No heart, no sex, no stomach -- just a head. A brilliant, super-smart head. But he was elitist, racist, very reactionary. He paid homage to military dictators like General Videla in Argentina and Pinochet in Chile. I don't feel close to him. He was un escritor sentado -- a seated writer, an intellectal in the library. Neruda was engaged with the world in a different way. In his poems, we see the celebration of life, of fruit, of the sea, of love.
Are you suggesting that Neruda was a better writer -- or a better man -- because of his left-wing politics? The passage on Borges in Memory of Fire doesn't seem as generous as your portrayal of Neruda.

Perhaps it's true that, in the book, I am more generous to Neruda than to Borges, but not because of their respective political commitments. Reading Neruda, I feel that here is somebody who was living through the horrors and marvels of life, and was falling and rising up again, and was hurt by the blows of love and time and death. I feel there is an electricity of life inside some of Neruda's works that is missing from most of Borges's works. In some of Borges's works I feel it, but always in a painful way, as something sad -- but very valuable too.

An entire generation of Latin American and Iberian writers is growing old: García Márquez, Saramago, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Monsivaís, Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, among others. Will the next generation of Latin American writers share their political commitments? Will they care about the Cuban Revolution the way García Márquez has cared about the Cuban Revolution?

As a prophet I am a disaster. If I prophesize something, it tends to turn out the opposite way. If I were a professional prophet, I would be a beggar in front of a church, pleading: "Please give me a dollar." I don't know what will happen with the next generation. At the moment, there is a process of massive depoliticization. That is the truth. The political consciousness of the people -- not of the writers -- is much lower than it was. But history moves in cycles; things change. Reality is not destiny, it's a challenge. I don't know what will happen with the young people.

As for writers, they must be honest individuals who don't use literature as a commercial tool, but rather as a way of expressing the words that must be said. That, for me, is fundamental. The words that deserve to be said are the ones that are born of the need to say them. That's all I ask of people who write; the rest is less important. Lots of left-wing writers with the best intentions tell me nothing deep about humankind. Lots of political writing is atrocious, frightful. Many political writers don't seem to understand that everything is possible as a subject: a fly buzzing in the air, a lighter, a window, the sound of footsteps. The most important thing is a point of view: Where are you placed? From which point of view are your eyes seeing? From which point of view will you tell us what you are feeling, or what you think? In some ways, Upside Down is a political book; in other ways, it's not. But one must be careful when discussing these matters. It's easy to disqualify a writer or an artist, by saying, "Oh, but he's political." It's like saying it's shit.

Thirty years ago, when you wrote Open Veins of Latin America, your goal was not to describe the beauty of a butterfly, but to document U.S. imperialism in Latin America.

Yes. That was it. At that time, thirty years ago, I was grappling with questions and looking for answers. When underdeveloped countries are called "developing" countries, it's a way of saying they are like children -- growing, developing. And it's a lie. They are underdeveloped because more powerful countries are growing at their expense. Third World underdevelopment is a consequence of First World development, and not a stage toward it. That was the main argument of Open Veins. The history of wealth and the history of poverty are closely intertwined. The book tried to show how this came about through five centuries. U.S. imperialism was part of the story, but not all of it. It was written as a political pamphlet, and I saw it as something that might last two or three years. It turned out to be a book that endured. In a certain way, it was a propaganda book. Yes, it was. But later I tried to write different things, so as not to repeat myself. Upside Down is written in an entirely different language from Open Veins, but I am still loyal to the ideas in that book. I'm proud of the book. It's a book I love. When it comes to Open Veins I am unrepentant.

Open Veins is now considered a classic in Latin America. How many copies have been sold?

I don't care about that.

Writers tend to care about the sales of their books.

It's enough that I earn a living as a writer. It's honest work. I don't do it to get rich. There are certain things I need to say. But I don't care about how many books I sell, or where they are on the bestseller lists. I don't give a damn.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites:

"Writings of Subcommander Marcos of the EZLN"
Selected essays and letters in English translation (1988-2000) by "Subcomandante Marcos," the pen name of the main spokesman for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico. Site includes a link to a page of EZLN communiqués.

These days in the U.S. we don't hear very much about Subcomandante Marcos, the charismatic leader of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico. But Marcos is a celebrity in Europe and Latin America. In fact, some critics who have followed his communiqués in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada since 1994 consider him to be among the finest writers in the region, and in Mexico it's widely known that his major literary influences are William Shakespeare, Federico García Lorca, Julio Cortázar and ... Eduardo Galeano.

I don't know if I have had any influence on him. I think he embodies the collective hopes of the movement he represents, a movement born from the protest of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. Thanks in large part to him, what began as a local movement mushroomed into something national and then international in scope. The Zapatistas changed the rules of the game. Mexico is not a democracy because the Mexican economy is not democratic; that is clear. But, politically, Mexico has made major advances in the direction of democracy. To a considerable extent, those advances are the result of pressure from the Zapatistas. They have harnessed and directed the energies of civil society. And they have had a tremendous impact internationally -- thanks, in large part, to the language of Marcos. In my view, it's a splendid language, a language that contains indignation, poetry, and, above all, a sense of humor. We need humor as much as we need food or water. That's his greatest merit as a writer.

Who are the American writers and intellectuals you admire, and why?

I don't want to answer that question, because there are so many. The ones who influenced me at the beginning were Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and J. D. Salinger. I was very struck by the humor in Twain and Bierce.

In the preface to his first book, Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin declared, "I want to be an honest man and a good writer." What kind of man -- and what kind of writer -- do you want to be?

I want to be an honest man and a good writer, as James Baldwin was. I greatly admired him. He once told a story that I used in the third volume of Memory of Fire. He was very young, and he was walking down the street with a friend, a painter. They stop at a red light. "Look," says the friend. Baldwin sees nothing, except a dirty pool of water. The friend insisted: "Look at it, really." So Baldwin takes a good look and sees a spot of oil spreading in the puddle. In the spot of oil, he sees a rainbow, and the street moving, and people moving in the street; and he sees madmen and magicians and the whole world moving. The universe was there in that little pool. On that day, Baldwin said, he learned to see. For me, that's an important lesson. I am always trying to look at the universe through the little puddles in the streets.

Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Scott Sherman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in The Nation, Lingua Franca, and The Washington Post.

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