Eduardo Galeano: The Open Eyes of Latin America


4-11-09, 11:35 am

On Mirrors, Stories of Almost Everyone

There are very few cases of writers who maintain total indifference toward the ethics of their work. There are not so few who have understood that in the practice of literature it is possible to separate ethics from aesthetics. Jorge Luis Borges, not without mastery, practiced a kind of politics of aesthetic neutrality and was perhaps convinced this was possible. Thus, the universalism of Borges’ precocious postmodernism was nothing more than the very eurocentrism of the Modern Age nuanced with the exoticism proper to an empire that, much like the British empire, held closely to the old decadent nostalgia for the mysteries of a colonized India and for Arabian nights removed from the dangers of history. It was not recognition of diversity – of equal freedom – but confirmation of the superiority of the European canon adorned with the souvenirs and booty of war.

Perhaps there was a time in which truth, ethics and aesthetics were one and the same. Perhaps those were the times of myth. This also has been characteristic of what we call committed literature. Not a literature made for politics but an integral literature, where the text and the author, ethics and aesthetics, go together; where literature and metaliterature are the same thing. The marketing thought of postmodernity has been different, strategically fragmented without possible connections. Legitimated by this cultural fashion, critics of the establishment dedicated themselves to rejecting any political, ethical or epistemological value for a literary text. For this kind of superstition, the author, the author’s context, the author’s prejudices and the prejudices of the readers remained outside the pure text, distilled from all human contamination. But, what would remain of a text is we took away from it all of its metaliterary qualities? Why must marble, velvet or sex repeated until void of meaning be more literary than eroticism, a social drama or the struggle for historical truth? Rodolfo Walsh said that a typewriter could be a fan or a pistol. Has this fragmentation and later distillation not been a critical strategy for turning writing into an innocent game, into more of a tranquilizer than an instrument of inquiry against the musculature of power?

In his new book, Eduardo Galeano responds to these questions with unmistakable style – Borges would recognize: with kind contempt – without concerning himself with them. Like his previous books, since Days and Nights of Love and War (1978), Mirrors is organized with the postmodern fragmentation of the brief capsule narrative. Nevertheless the entire book, like the rest of his work, evinces an unbreakable unity. His aesthetics and his ethical convictions as well. Even in the midst of the most violent ideological storms that shook recent history, this ship has not broken up.

Mirrors expands to other continents from the geographical area of Latin America that had characterized for decades Eduardo Galeano’s main interest. His narrative technique is the same as in the trilogy Memory of Fire (1982-1986): with an impersonal narrator who fulfills the purpose of approaching the anonymous and plural voice of “the others” and avoiding personal anecdote, with a thematic order at times and almost always with a chronological order, the book begins with the cosmogonic myths and culminates in our times. Each brief text is an ethical reflection, almost always revealing a painful reality and with the invaluable consolation of a beautiful narration. Perhaps the principle of Greek tragedy is none other than this: lesson and commotion, hope and resignation or the greater lesson of failure. As in his previous books, the paradigm of the committed Latin American writer, and above all the paradigm of Eduardo Galeano, seems to be reconstructed once again: history can progress, but that ethical-aesthetical progress has mythical origin for its utopian destination and memory and awareness of oppression for its instruments. Progress consists of regeneration, of the recreation of humanity in the same manner as the wisest, most just and most vulnerable of the Amerindian gods, the man-god Quetzalcóatl, would have done it.

If we were to remove the ethical code with which each text is read, Mirrors would shatter into brilliant fragments; but it would reflect nothing. If we were to remove the aesthetic mastery with which this book was written it would cease to be memorable. Like myths, like the mythical thought redeemed by the author, there is no way of separating one part from the whole without altering the sacred order of the cosmos. Each part is not only an alienated fragment but a tiny object that has been unearthed by a principled archeologist. The tiny object is valuable in its own right, but much is more valuable due to the other fragments that have been organized around it, and these latter become even more valuable due to those fragments that have been lost and that are now revealed in the empty spaces that have been formed, revealing an urn, an entire civilization buried by wind and barbarism.

The first law of the narrator, to not be boring, is respected. The first law of the committed intellectual as well: never does entertainment become a narcotic instead of a lucid aesthetic pleasure.

Mirrors has been published this year simultaneously in Spain, Mexico, and Argentina by Siglo XXI, and in Uruguay by Ediciones del Chanchito. The latter continues an already classic collection of black cover books which has reached number 15, represented meaningfully with the Spanish letter ñ. The texts are accompanied with illustrations in the manner of little vignettes that recall the careful art of book publishing in the Renaissance, in addition to the author’s drawings as a young man. Even though his conception of the world leads him to think structurally, it is difficult to imagine Eduardo Galeano skipping over any detail. Like a good jeweler of the word who polishes in search of every one of his different reflections, he is equally careful in the publication of his books as works of art. The English edition, Mirrors, Stories of Almost Everyone, translated by Mark Fried, will be published by Nation Books.

With each new contribution, this icon of Latin American literature confirms for us that additional formal prizes, like the Cervantes Prize, should not be long in coming.

--Jorge Majfud teaches at Lincoln University. Translated by Bruce Campbell.