Saturday, April 18, 2009

My favourite living author

 Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, whom I've mentioned before. He's in the news today because Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, taking a liking to Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas, gave him a copy of Open Veins of Latin America. I sincerely hope that the new President has time to read it.

It's a one-book explanation for the current move to the left in a growing number of Latin American countries, tracing a centuries-long history of rapine and plunder, of genocide and dictatorship, first at the hands of Spain, and more recently under the baleful influence of the US, which operated directly or by proxy to ensure that nothing would ever change. That things are now indeed changing is a tribute to the spirit of the people, as well as being due, in part, to shifting American priorities: the continent is not, after all, a hotbed of Islamism.

But there was something almost mythic in
Chávez' act. It crystallized a moment in time in which a grim narrative of subjection, conquest and unimaginable suffering was handed to the representative of the most powerful nation in the world, after nearly two centuries of its hegemonic Monroe Doctrine and Theodore Roosevelt's Corollary. It was a plea, offered in the hope, at long last, of being heard.

Let Obama struggle with it. The promise of his election already grows faint: he is a leader who exonerates torturers, covers up for extraordinary rendition,
legitimizes homophobia, targets innocents like Maher Arar--well, the list goes on and on, from well before he was elected. Obama, in fact, is starting to appear simply as a darker, more intelligent George W. Bush, with deeper pockets.

But Galeano has much, much more to say, and, unlike Obama, he is beholden only to himself. His work is not simply critique, although one finds in it some of the best and at once the most reasoned, imaginative, passionate critique I have ever read. He invented a new genre, not the easiest task for a writer: his trilogy Memories of Fire, a history of Latin America that extends well beyond his more polemical Open Veins, is at once documentary, history, journalism, poetry and myth.

Galeano is a storyteller who can make any topic come alive.
For someone barely interested in sports of any kind, I couldn't put Soccer in Sun and Shadow down. It traces the evolution of the game from pick-up soccer in vacant lots to the World Cup, and intersperses accounts of legendary goals with the effects of big money on styles of play. Then there is Days and Nights of Love and War, a personal testament of life under the continual fear of political repression that somehow remains joyous. (Galeano was a political prisoner after the right-wing coup in Uruguay in 1973).

But for me, The Book of Embraces tops them all. I lent a copy of it to my late mother, who had little patience with my left-wing politics. She telephoned a couple of days later, wondering if I could pick up a few copies for her friends. I defy anyone to read that book without both weeping and laughing out loud. It humanizes politics to the point that the latter become universal, as contradictory as that might sound. Last words to him, to give the flavour of the book:

Christmas Eve

Fernando Silva ran the children's hospital in Managua. On Christmas Eve, he worked late into the night. Firecrackers were exploding and fireworks lit up the sky when Fernando decided it was time to leave. They were expecting him at home to celebrate the holiday.

He took one last look around, checking to see that everything was in order, when he heard cottony footsteps behind him. He turned to find one of the sick children walking after him. In the half light he recognized the lonely, doomed child. Fernando recognized that face already lined with death and those eyes asking for forgiveness, or perhaps permission.

Fernando walked over to him and the boy gave him his hand.

"Tell someone..." the child whispered. "Tell someone I'm here."

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