Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 1, 2010

Beautiful histories

Memory of Fire, Eduardo Galeano, tr. Cedric Belfrage, Pantheon, 3 Vols. published 1985-1988

It was a review in The New Yorker that inspired me to pick up this trilogy, a work in three volumes rather than a series. Galeano, an Uruguayan writer, using extensive primary sources (nearly 1,000 for the entire set), tells the history of the Western Hemisphere, with a spotlight on Central and South America. His goal here–to cure Latin America’s amnesia about its past (WG Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction has a similar goal for Austria/Germany after WWII).

The first volume begins with Native American creation myths (and here, “Native Americans” inhabit both continents, from Hudson Bay to Patagonia). Animals, gods, weather, trees, vegetables, people–Galeano shows us an Eden that we, as 21st century readers, know is doomed. The end begins with the arrival of Europeans in 1492.

Throughout, Galeano writes in vignettes, each usually shorter than a page, but each with over- and undertones that reverberate. Some read almost like poems. Here’s an example, dated 1493: Pasto (in the Peruvian Andes), and titled “Everybody Pays Taxes”:

Even these remote heights far to the north are reached by the Inca Empire’s tax collector.¶The Quillacinga people have nothing to give, but in this vast kingdom all communities pay tribute, in kind or in labor time. No one, however far off and however poor, can forget who is in charge.¶At the foot of the volcano, the chief of the Quillacingas steps forward and places a bamboo cylinder in the hands of the envoy from Cuzco. The cylinder is full of live lice.

The first volume takes us to 1700, the second to 1900, and the third to 1986. I’d love to see a fourth volume, bringing us up to current times.

No doubt, Galeano’s trilogy provides an anti-US, anti-Europe view of the past 500 years of history, and every historian is guilty of slanting his writing in favor of his own side. But the power of what’s included here–voices of writers not generally included in most history books (Bartolomé de las Casas is a critical early European voice protesting the treatment of the South American indigenous people)–has to make a reader open to alternative views of accepted history. Not just because Galeano gives us the non-Western view, but because he includes Western voices opposed to colonialism, enslavement, and genocide.

Galeano’s beautiful retellings of other people’s stories (in what I hope is terrific translating by Belfrage) add to the power. I could never read many pages in a row–the writing is so rich and dense that a few pages satisfy and leave me with lots on which to meditate.

Genesis, Faces and Masks, Century of the Wind

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