Reviewed by Jeremy Garber
Eduardo Galeano, famed Uruguayan journalist and author, has said of himself, "I'm a writer obsessed with remembering, with remembering the past of America above all and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to amnesia." That credo has been ably demonstrated throughout works spanning four decades, including Open Veins of Latin America, the Memory of Fire trilogy, and The Book of Embraces. In his newest book, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, Galeano continues his poetic illumination of the forgotten, offering his most sweeping, cohesive, and empathetic effort to date.
Written in the singular style that has come to characterize all of his previous books, Mirrors is composed of some six hundred beautifully crafted vignettes. Galeano, in a dazzling display of literary prowess, recollects five thousand years of human history, from the early civilizations of the ancient Near East through the emergence of the 21st century.
Adam and Eve were black?
The human adventure in the world began in Africa. From there, our ancestors set out to conquer the planet. Many paths led them to many destinies, and the sun took care of handing out colors from the palette.
Now the rainbow of the earth is more colorful than the rainbow of the sky. But we are all emigrants from Africa. Even the whitest of whites comes from Africa. Maybe we refuse to acknowledge our common origins because racism causes amnesia, or because we find it unbelievable that in those days long past the entire world was our kingdom, an immense map without borders, and our legs were the only passport required.
The breadth of material from which these stories were culled is as varied and inexhaustible as history itself, and thus the scope of Mirrors, as well as Galeano's adeptness in presenting the stories as a unified narrative, is nothing short of breathtaking. Galeano, as any reader of his works knows well, pays due attention to the silenced, neglected, and disregarded individuals and groups of days past and present. History has demonstrated that injustice is rarely accounted for, and even more rarely atoned for, yet Galeano, in his resistance against the fading of memory, reasserts the roles of those long forgotten, allowing them their once-denied place in the annals of official history. Episodes of the book are devoted to the treatment of women and the misogyny they've endured for millennia, to slaves and the commodification of their lives, to wars and those left maimed and massacred, to trade and those victimized by imperialism and greed, and to the environment left poisoned and plundered in the pursuit of profit. As evidenced by his account of the creation of Uruguay's founding document, Galeano is not easily fooled by the whitewashing of history:
So it was throughout the Americas, from north to south. All our countries were born of a lie. Independence disowned those who had risked their lives fighting for her, and women, poor people, Indians, and blacks were not invited to the party. The constitutions draped that travesty in the prestige of legality.
The range of subjects upon which Galeano's pen alights is extraordinary. Mirrors considers many of the world's richest cultures (the Mexicans, Egyptians, Hebrews, Hindus, Chinese, Romans, Greeks, Amazons), some of the world's most important religious figures (Zeus, Osiris, Isis, Odin, Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus), handfuls of the world's greatest artists, musicians, and writers (Sappho, Antonio Vivaldi, Vermeer van Delft, Murasaki Shikibu, Abu Ali al-Ma'arri, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Ludwig von Beethoven, Fernando Pessoa, Miguel de Cervantes, Omar Khayyam, Billie Holiday, Oscar Wilde, Hieronymus Bosch, Walt Whitman), history's most renowned thinkers and leaders (Thomas Edison, Emiliano Zapata, Charles Darwin, Nicolaus Copernicus, Evo Morales, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Stalin, Harriet Tubman, Galileo Galilei, Aristotle), and scores of other individuals whose lives and accomplishments have been misappropriated, misapplied, or misunderstood. Historical events that have shaped the lives of peoples and nations are not immune from Galeano's gaze, and even some of the most well known of these events are infused with his tenacious honesty, providing the reader with a different perspective from which to reconsider their relevance and import.
Darwin told us we are cousins of the apes, not the angels. Later on, we learned we emerged from Africa's jungle and that no stork ever carried us from Paris. And not long ago we discovered that our genes are almost identical to those of mice.
Now we can't tell if we are God's masterpiece or the devil's bad joke. We puny humans:
exterminators of everything,
hunters of our own,
creators of the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and the neutron bomb, which is the healthiest of all bombs since it vaporizes people and leaves objects intact,
we, the only animals who invent machines,
the only ones who live at the service of the machines they invent,
the only ones who devour their own home,
the only ones who poison the water they drink and the earth that feeds them,
the only ones capable of renting or selling themselves, or renting and selling their fellow humans,
the only ones who kill for fun,
the only ones who torture,
the only ones who rape.
the only ones who laugh,
the only ones who daydream,
the ones who makes silk from the spit of a worm,
the ones who find beauty in rubbish,
the ones who discover colors beyond the rainbow,
the ones who furnish the voices of the world with new music,
and who create words so that
neither reality nor memory will be mute.
While Galeano's fidelity to memory, justice, and truth are indeed remarkable; it is the grace, humor, and compassion with which he writes that set his works far beyond the realm of his contemporaries. Mirrors is a powerfully evocative book, one that is sure to anger those with an interest in maintaining accepted realities. Galeano does not profess to speak for the voiceless, yet his works amplify the muted calls for dignity and justness that have resounded for many thousands of years from the mouths of the silenced. Although no mess of paper and ink can halt the onslaught of war, brutality, and inhumanity that is much of mankind's legacy, Mirrors, above all else, assures us that we cannot absolve ourselves of our responsibility to others by drifting aimlessly onward amidst the deluded comforts of collective amnesia. The book's subtitle, Stories of Almost Everyone, is perhaps an invitation to author the chapters still to be written, an invocation to eschew passivity and wrest control from those who have, through conquest of one kind or another, been masters of a story that had no other characters but themselves.
The twentieth century, which was born proclaiming peace and justice, died bathed in blood. It passed on a world much more unjust than the one it inherited.
The twenty-first century, which also arrived heralding peace and justice, is following in its predecessor's footsteps.
In my childhood, I was convinced that everything that went astray on earth ended up on the moon.
But the astronauts found no sign of dangerous dreams or broken promises or hopes betrayed.
If not on the moon, where might they be?
Perhaps they were never misplaced.
Perhaps they are in hiding here on earth. Waiting.
Books mentioned in this post