As a teenager, you dreamed of being a writer and I imagine you dream of it still. When young, you were a cartoonist and, ever since, you’ve noted the exaggeration in our world. You were the editor-in-chief of a newspaper and, with the skills you honed, you’ve never stopped editing our history — from our first myths to late last night. You were imprisoned and it left you with an understanding of how we’ve imprisoned this planet and its inhabitants. You went into exile and so grasp the way many in this uprooted world of ours never feel, or are allowed to feel, at home.
You’ve traveled this planet so widely that, as a friend of yours once told you, “If it’s true what they say about the road being made by walking, you must be the commissioner of public works.” And on those travels, you’ve discovered that boundaries between states (and states of mind) are not to be trusted, so as a writer you’ve never felt cowed by categories or hesitated to merge journalism, history, scholarship, and the thrilling feel of fiction, of recreating other worlds so intensely that we seem to inhabit them ourselves.
And none of this would have happened if your youthful dream — to be a soccer player — had come true. Instead, you’ve played “the beautiful game” on the page. You’ve even explained our unjust, unequal world by noting the only place where North and South meet on “an equal footing” — a soccer field at the mouth of the Amazon River that the Equator cuts right through, “so each team plays one half in the South and the other half in the North.”
You’re so well known in Latin America that, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met President Barack Obama, the only gift he chose to give him was a copy your early book Open Veins of Latin America, whose subtitle explains why it remains so relevant 42 years after its publication: “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.”
Your work has been translated into 28 languages, which is undoubtedly part of the reason you mourn the loss of words on this planet. You have a way of finding people. Your first English translator, Cedric Belfrage, was a former British journalist who covered the silent movies in Hollywood for the Beaverbrook press, helped found the left-wing National Guardian in the U.S., was deported in the McCarthy period, and ended up in Mexico. You seem to have known everyone who was anyone, for better and sometimes worse, over the last several thousand years, and many who could have been someone if their circumstances and the powers-that-be hadn’t made that impossible. You’ve taken us with you to visit Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz as she first enters a convent in “New Spain,” studies “the things God created” that were forbidden to women, is set upon by the Inquisition, forced to renounce literature, and “chooses silence, or accepts it, and so America loses its best poet.”
You’ve been with Ben Franklin as he sends up a kite and discovers “that heavenly fires and thunders express not the wrath of God but electricity in the atmosphere,” while his sister Jane “resembling him in talent and strength of will,” has a child every two years and toils raising those that live, forgotten by history, but not by you. You’ve been with Joseph Stalin’s son Yakov, after his suicide attempt, when his father standing at his hospital bedside tells him, “You can’t even get that right.”
You somehow take our embattled world and tell its many stories in ways no one else can. And perhaps because people sense the storyteller in you, they regularly — I’ve seen this myself — come up to you and spill their guts. So one more volume from you, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, a daily prayer book for our moment, is cause for elation. We should celebrate you for stealing the fire of the gods, like the Cakchiquels, descended from the Mayas, who reputedly hid it “in their mountain caves,” or in your case, in your books which, from Open Veins to Children of the Days, burn ever bright. Tom
The Life and Death of Words, People, and Even Nature
From Walking Libraries and a God Named “Word” to What Sherlock Holmes Never Said
By Eduardo Galeano
[The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s new book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (Nation Books).]
Memory on Legs
On the third day of the year 47 BC, the most renowned library of antiquity burned to the ground.
After Roman legions invaded Egypt, during one of the battles waged by Julius Caesar against the brother of Cleopatra, fire devoured most of the thousands upon thousands of papyrus scrolls in the Library of Alexandria.
A pair of millennia later, after American legions invaded Iraq, during George W. Bush’s crusade against an imaginary enemy, most of the thousands upon thousands of books in the Library of Baghdad were reduced to ashes.
Throughout the history of humanity, only one refuge kept books safe from war and conflagration: the walking library, an idea that occurred to the grand vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, at the end of the tenth century.
This prudent and tireless traveler kept his library with him. One hundred and seventeen thousand books aboard four hundred camels formed a caravan a mile long. The camels were also the catalogue: they were arranged according to the titles of the books they carried, a flock for each of the thirty-two letters of the Persian alphabet.
In 1901, the day after Queen Victoria breathed her last, a solemn funeral ceremony began in London.
Organizing it was no easy task. A grand farewell was due the queen who gave her name to an epoch and set the standard for female abnegation by wearing black for forty years in memory of her dead husband.
Victoria, symbol of the British Empire, lady and mistress of the nineteenth century, imposed opium on China and virtue on her own country.
In the seat of her empire, works that taught good manners were required reading. Lady Gough’s Book of Etiquette, published in 1863, established some of the social commandments of the times: one must avoid, for example, the intolerable proximity of male and female authors on library shelves.
Books could only stand together if the authors were married, such as in the case of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The World Shrinks
Today is International Mother Language Day.
Every two weeks, a language dies.
The world is diminished when it loses its human sayings, just as when it loses its diversity of plants and beasts.
In 1974 Angela Loij died. She was one of the last Ona Indians from Tierra del Fuego, way out there at the edge of the world. She was the last one who spoke their language.
Angela sang to herself, for no one else, in that language no longer recalled by anyone but her:
I’m walking in the steps
of those who have gone.
Lost, am I.
In times gone by, the Onas worshipped several gods. Their supreme god was named Pemaulk.
Pemaulk meant “word.”
Fame Is Baloney
Today, World Book Day, it wouldn’t hurt to recall that the history of literature is an unceasing paradox.
What is the most popular scene in the Bible? Adam and Eve biting the apple. It’s not there.
Plato never wrote his most famous line: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
Don Quijote de la Mancha never said: “Let the dogs bark, Sancho. It’s a sign we are on track.”
Voltaire’s best-known line was not said or written by him: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel never wrote: “All theory is gray, my friend, but green is the tree of life.”
Sherlock Holmes never said: “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
In none of his books or pamphlets did Lenin write: “The ends justify the means.”
Bertolt Brecht was not the author of his most oft-cited poem: “First they came for the Communists / and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist…”
And neither was Jorge Luis Borges the author of his best known poem: “If I could live my life over / I would try to make more mistakes…”
The Perils of Publishing
In the year 2004, for once the government of Guatemala broke with the tradition of impunity and officially acknowledged that Myrna Mack was killed by order of the country’s president.
Myrna had undertaken forbidden research. Despite receiving threats, she had gone deep into the jungles and mountains to find exiles wandering in their own country, the indigenous survivors of the military’s massacres. She collected their voices.
In 1989, at a conference of social scientists, an anthropologist from the United States complained about the pressure universities exert to continually produce: “In my country if you don’t publish, you perish.”
And Myrna replied: “In my country if you publish, you perish.”
She was stabbed to death.
Nature Is Not Mute
Reality paints still-lifes.
Disasters are called natural, as if nature were the executioner and not the victim.
Meanwhile the climate goes haywire and we do, too.
Today is World Environment Day. A good day to celebrate the new constitution of Ecuador, which in the year 2008, for the first time in the history of the world, recognized nature as a subject with rights.
It seems strange, this notion that nature has rights as if it were a person. But in the United States it seems perfectly normal that big companies have human rights. They do, ever since a Supreme Court decision in 1886.
If nature were a bank, they would have already rescued it.
Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America’s most distinguished writers. He is the author of Open Veins of Latin America, the Memory of Fire Trilogy, Mirrors, and many other works. His newest book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (Nation Books) has just been published in English. He is the recipient of many international prizes, including the first Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom, the American Book Award, and the Casa de las Américas Prize.
Mark Fried is the translator of seven books by Eduardo Galeano including Children of the Days. He is also the translator of the recently released Firefly by Severo Sarduy. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Eduardo Galeano
This post is excerpted from Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History Copyright © 2013 by Eduardo Galeano; translation copyright © 2013 by Mark Fried. Published by Nation Books, A member of the Perseus Group, New York, NY. Originally published in Spanish in 2012 by Siglo XXI Editores, Argentina, and Ediciones Chanchito, Uruguay. By permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York City, and Lamy, N.M. All rights reserved.