Of the people with whom I am acquainted that appreciate the literary world, I am frequently reminded how lucky I am to have regular and serious (and, I might add, also intense) intercourse with the wonderful and wholly original creatures who inhabit that small but mighty Universe. I have never been more fortunate in my bountiful career, such as it is, to have, for the second time, spent some all-too-brief moments (this time on the shores of Lake Michigan at North Avenue beach in Chicago) with Uruguayan writer and soccer fan Eduardo Galeano.
Eduardo Hughes Galeano was born in Montevideo to a middle-class
Catholic family. He started his career as a journalist in the early
1960s as editor of Marcha, an influential weekly journal.
When in 1973 a military coup took power in Uruguay, Galeano was
imprisoned (see Lawrence Weschler's A Miracle, A Universe:
Torture In Latin America) and later was forced to flee. He
settled in Argentina, where he founded the cultural magazine Crisis.
In 1976, when the Videla regime took power in Argentina in a bloody
military coup, his name was added to the list of those condemned
by the death squads, and he fled again--this time to Spain, where
he wrote his nonpareil trilogy: Memoria del fuego (Memory
of Fire). Galeano returned to Montevideo at the beginning of
Though he has demurred being identified as a historian, his best known and revered works, Las venas abiertas de América Latina (The Open Veins of Latin America) and Memoria del fuego combine documentary, fiction, journalism, political analysis, and history—Galeano has declared, "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."
The Book of Embraces which was praised by Jay Parini as perhaps his most daring work and occasioned my first conversation with Galeano, was a collection of short, often lyrical stories presenting his views on a broad prism of emotion, art, politics, and values, as well as his unsparing critique of modern capitalistic society. (This was the last book Cedric Belfrage, his only translator and collaborator to date, translated before he died in 1991.) And Galeano's new opus, Voices of Time (translated by Mark Fried), is yet another collation of snippets and fragments (333) from his storytelling career. Galeano is a regular contributor to magazines around the world including English-language periodicals such as The Progressive, The New Internationalist, The Monthly Review and The Nation. Eduardo Galeano continues to live and write and follow soccer in Montevideo with his Irish Setter, Morgan.
Robert Birnbaum: This book, is it a culmination?
Eduardo Galeano: Culmination, I don't know.
RB: The end of an era.
EG: I don't believe—the best of my days is the day of tomorrow. I mean the day I haven't already lived. So I don't believe in culmination. The word "culmination" scares me a lot. It sounds like—
RB: —oh, I'm sorry—
EG: —like death. [both laugh] I think life is an amazing mystery and how can we die and be born so many times—no, so it's not a culmination, the book is just a something written on the road while I go on walking.
RB: Okay, does it mark a phase?
RB: Is it in some way a break with a past—is it a continuity—
EG: No, it's continuing. It's a way of saying that I—I think it's my own way of saying, writing which began many years ago sometime after I wrote Open Veins of Latin America, I began trying to look at the universe through the keyhole, I began to write these short stories that are integrated, always integrated in a huge mosaic of other stories inter-linking, sort of a conversation between different experiences, emotions, ideas, sounds, colors—
RB: You say in your introductory note in the beginning of the book, that these pieces were taken from writings over the years but that putting them together in this way changes their color and valence, so was it hard, laborious to look back at your body of work and put this together?
EG: No, no the book itself, the books, they write me. They decide, they decide everything. I am just their tool. And this book came from a lot of short stories I wrote—perhaps more than 600. And at the end, 333 decided to become a single one. And you know writing is like the job of a weaver, textile work and you have strings or threads of many different colors coming from different places. Colors and voices and they want to become a single chorus or a single carpet or something like this—
EG: Tapestry, a single tapestry. Then there are some of them that have no place there and it's terrible to renounce and I love all of them, all of the stories—
RB: I was going to ask if you would read a favorite but then that's a hard choice. Would you read the 1st and the last, which I would guess you chose with great deliberation?
EG: Let me see, the first one is—
RB: I read them to my son the other day and showed him the illustrations. We love them.
EG: The drawings come from ancient times. Some of them are ten thousand years old. They look like they were done last week. Art that was created by Indians in Cahmarca in Peru a long time ago. And true art has no age. It's the oldest of the old but it sounds like something just recently done. So the first, the opening text, is this one I suppose, "Time Tells":
We are made of time we are its feet and its voice, the feet of time walk in our shoes sooner or later we all know the winds of time will erase the tracks, passage of nothing, steps of no one, the voices of time tell of the voyage.
And the last one, I don't remember now, which one is the last one—"Days Gone":
He is always first when the end night approaches; silence is broken by the one out of tune . . .
I don't know if my English pronunciation is okay. If it's not you should cut it and we then begin again, is this is okay?
RB: It's fine.
EG: He's always first when the end …The one out of tune, the bird who never tires, awakens the master-singers and before first light all the birds in the world begin their serenade at the window, sailing over the flowers and over the reflections. A few sing for love of the arts, other broadcast news or report gossip or tell jokes, or give speeches or proclaim the light. But all of them, but all of them, artists reporters, gossips, cranks, and crazies, join in single orchestral overture. Do birds announce the morning? Or by singing do they create it?
It was okay, my English? I do it again.
RB: It was fine. You haven't always worked with this book's translator, Mark Fried.
EG: At the beginning my translator was Cedric Belfrage. He was old and he is dead now—he died while he was translating the Book of Embraces. He did Open Veins, the trilogy Memories of Fire, which was quite a task, a difficult, a hard job. One thousand stories divided in three volumes and he was great. And Mark is perfect, I mean, I'm his twin brother. I think he is my other voice. And I am his and [I have] exactly the same feeling of certitude I had with Cedric. You know Cedric was a noble Englishman, the black sheep of his family.
RB: [laughs] I won't ask why.
EG: Expelled by Joseph McCarthy during that period. He was obliged to live in Mexico in Cuernevaca.
RB: That's not a bad place to live.
EG: He was one of the founders of Hollywood; at the beginning of Hollywood, Cedric was there. And he identified with me so much and I felt so identified with him that I received at that time when he was translating Memories of Fire, sometimes I received angry letters, from him. Angry letters sent by the mail—at that time we had no faxes, no emails or these sort of recent inventions.
EG: So it was the postman riding his donkey bringing letters, and some of his letters were terrible. I mean he got angry each time he found something that he would not say. If there was something in the book, anything, could be an idea or an adjective or an opinion or a description of something or an evaluation of anything, person or experience that he would not share, that he was unable to think or feel or believe that this was his own, then he got very angry. Like he had been betrayed by me. And then the letters would say, "How could you say that?!"
RB: That's very tricky. You want the person that you are working with who is translating to be your mirror, but the text is not of their creation.
EG: No, it's a perfect synthesis of life, life is this, we are always looking at others as possible mirrors and we feel betrayed when it doesn't work.
EG: But that's it. He was much, much older than I was, but we were like brothers, much more than brothers—twin brothers. And then he was very angry each time he realized that I was not him.
RB: Slowly, slowly, translators are getting their due. At least getting more recognition for the immensity of the task.
EG: Yes, this is improving. It's true, but they are still very badly paid everywhere, not only here. And therefore they don't have time enough to do it in the best way because it's very difficult, it's the translation of another music. Each language contains its own music and therefore when you are translating you are coming from one music and inventing another one. Which music would be the best in order to get these ideas, emotions, feeling, memories, possibly to be shared by other people from other cultures, from other languages. I don't believe really in God, nowadays.
RB: Did you ever?
EG: In my childhood, yes, I was very Catholic. And in my childhood I was a fervent reader of the Bible, then there were some stories that I didn't like too much but I didn't know why. And as time had gone by, years had passed, I am now able now to understand why for instance the Tower of Babel story was a story I didn't like at all. This God acting like a universal chief of police, punishing and hating and being—how could he find that giving us the diversity of languages was a punishment? The diversity of languages is one of the best treasures of the human condition, of the fact of being human in this earth. Because diverse is the best thing, I mean, the best of the world is the fact that the world contains so many worlds inside. And so many languages. We have different languages because we have different musics and we are walking musics. As we are walking time.
RB: When I was an undergraduate, I used to think that all the languages were like colors of a prism—and that all of them together were like a perfect white/light and in some sense the universal language. You had the sum total of all describable reality. Or another in the way all the language groups combined equal all human experience—all that was capable of being talked about. But barring that, we would always be looking at life piecemeal.
EG: Yeah, you are allowed to know just a little apart of the whole, no? And especially because there is another language. Which is perhaps more powerful, which is the language of silence.
EG: I am working and trying to deserve the privilege of speaking, writing, and knowing perfectly well that the only words which really deserve to exist are words better than silence, but it's not easy to find these words. Because language is such a word. The language of silence seems to be much more powerful. It's a great challenge. That's why I go on working and working, looking for words, chasing words.
RB: There is a writer, Alan Furst, who wrote so-called literary thrillers of WWII years in Europe and what I like about his writing is what his characters in their conversations, what they leave unsaid—
EG: Umm, yes, the unsaid.
RB: About translation, it appears to me it is really another work, as a movie is not of the book.
EG: No, it's a recreation. A recreation, I wouldn't say entirely new but new in the sense that if it's too tied to the original version of a book or story or an essay or article, anything, it would be, in the name of loyalty, it would be betraying its own purpose—because it should be free to fly with its own wings. Otherwise it is too orthopedic, too artificial.
RB: I find it puzzling how it's said that some book or other can't be made into a movie. Every year there is a movie made from something that supposedly couldn't be done. Ondaatjes' The English Patient comes to mind.
EG: If it's opening new spaces of freedom in the art of creation with no borders, with no fears, no limits, then it may go on, it may walk the best way. Sometimes it doesn't finally work and a translator cannot do it. Cannot do it and then it's just a sad shadow of the original work, but in most cases when you have the time and the energy, to work in freedom, it's a beautiful work, it's a nice job, unfortunately also it pays very badly, as I told you.
RB: [chuckles] In this country we have few who are getting recognized—Edith Grossman and Esther Allen.
EG: No, in this country and some European countries they are not so very well paid but at least paid in a decent way, but in Latin American countries it is really something—a despised job. You can translate perfectly well 10 pages per day or 15—I wouldn't be able to translate 15 words in a day, not to say 15 pages—
EG: It implies a certain respect for words. Words may be sacred, why not—if silence is sacred also?
RB: When you come to the United States are you doing missionary work?
EG: No—I hate missionaries. [both laugh] No, all these messianic peoples thinking that they should save other people, no, no, I don't want to save anybody—except myself. Which is quite a task. I mean, what a hard job to do.
RB: This occurs to me because your view of the world is, your view of politics is so very, very much different from the conventional nordamericano wisdom. And popular perception, yet there are people in the U.S. who avidly appreciate your point of view—what is the reality of conversation about your point of view in the States?
EG: It's really diverse. This is a very diverse country. And with so many United States inside the United States. It's amazing for me I am always discovering new and new—realities inside reality here. And, of course, I am not trying to save anybody. There is a very important difference between charity, it's called charity in English? Caridad, charity and solidarity. I don't know if you know this old African proverb saying that "the giving hand is always above the receiving hand." So charity is humiliating. But solidarity is not because it's a relationship between equals. A respectful relationship. And my relationship with readers or people going to hear when I am doing, a reading is a relationship founded on solidarity, not charity. I don't think I am above anybody. The mission, it was the conception that some intellectuals had and still have about their own importance. I am the owner of the light. Then, I am going to walk in darkness—
EG: —and give this marvelous gift to the poor blind people—nah. This is horrible.
RB: You're right, bad choice of words.
EG: No, but it's very good to say it, to tell it. It's something that—it's an unusual question.
RB: Given all the ugly facts in the world—one thing I believe you try to remind readers of is that over two billion dollars a day is spent every day in which we kill each other.
EG: In fact it's more—
RB: 2.6 billion.
EG: 2.6 billion dollars every day—it's a scandal! Can you imagine this! In the art of killing other people.
RB: In view of that and much more, how is it that you even want to continue speaking out and discovering more and more of these ugly facts?
EG: Ah, because I believe in contradictions. I believe that the real source of all energies of life is contradiction. So if you have dark, you have light. If you have day, you have night. If you have evil, you have good and everything is quite mixed. If I'm speaking about horrors, I am always also speaking about the hidden marvels that horrors hide inside. And that's why. I am a really—I fall down several times each day. And I get up. I don't know how. I don't know why. But I get up. But I mistrust full-time optimistics.
RB: Probably they are on medication.
EG: They are not very human. We humans are weak. We are contradictory, and human faith is as contradictory as we are. I am optimistic for instance in the morning, up to 11 o'clock, then I begin being pessimistic—
EG: Uh, at one or two in the afternoon, some voice, a secret voice inside me would say, "Well okay, so you believe in so and so and so and humankind and the human condition, and you, yesterday, you said that we are very badly done, wrongly done but we are unmade, so you are optimistic. Well, Eduardo you are drunk."
RB: [laughs heartily]
EG: "You are denying evidence, like drunk people do." "Let me see," this secret voice is saying inside me, "2:30 pm, you begin drinking six, why do you say the things you are saying?" Well, this is what happens until 2, 5, 6, 7 and then I'm optimistic again and at night I have strange feelings—crossing, interlinking, denying each other and so I am the result of all this contradictory synergies, inside.
RB: A result of—you are able to balance or accept, uh, process these contradictions because you have lived long enough to see that that's the way it goes. When you are younger you don't see that when you are confronted with obstacles, you think that's it, you don't think you can get past it. Whereas the longer you live there are bad and good things happening and you manage to keep going—a hard lesson to learn. Many people get stuck at one pole or the other—
EG: Yes—but what you really learn going on and on the road walking day by day, year by year is that reality is amazing. That she is a beautiful, horrible, mad woman full of poetry and that she is able to give you so many surprises. The best thing about life is the fact that we receive so many surprises. Unexpected news, who knows what's waiting for me in the next corner perhaps a car, a criminal car that will crash into me, perhaps? But perhaps I may find a beautiful person, a brother, a lover, someone with whom I may share my insides. And the problem is that we are all doomed to suffer an international system, a world system which daily teaches us to mistrust the others. You see—no, no, no, the other is not a promise, the other one is never a promise. It's a menace, it's a threat. He may kill you, rob you, rape you, cheat you, I don't know what. [chuckles] And so if you really believe that life is surprising and there are bad surprises and good surprises, we should begin to fight against this system that is training us to fear, to fear everything because as you said at the beginning they need alibis to justify this scandal. Why are they spending, the owners of the planet, $2.6 billion in the military industry? Why? Well, because we live in a dangerous place. Earth is a dangerous place. So we are trained to feel fear of everything. To live in panic and I am against fear. I feel fear like everybody else, but I don't think fear should be my guiding star, that I am obliged to adore fear.
RB: The connections I make are that I see people my age or even younger who are frozen and no longer seem to enjoy life because they don't feel or see that there are going to be any surprises. And they are already disappointed at what life has given them and they don't think it can get better.
EG: They think or they feel that least that tomorrow is another day. Just another name for today.
EG: You are doomed to repeat life, to repeat history but you can't change.
RB: And also not that many people when you compare their standard of living against the rest of the world's are probably in top 1 percent. All the toys, forget about sufficient necessities, they could probably feed Central American provinces with their waste, you know.
RB: So they have all this and, incredibly they have no happiness. This is of course endemic to the U.S. And it looks like a big trap.
EG: Yes, they are prisoners. We are all prisoners. Prisoners of fear in the world but the richest people are suffering fear in such a proportion they cannot imagine life without this panic of being kidnapped and feeling that people hate them or I don't know—it must be terrible. That's why we are not rich. [laughs] I am rich enough to have my great friend, Morgan [an Irish setter] who is my dog and you have your Rosalie who is now hearing us. She is inside our talk—in silence, in silence.
RB: So things are changing in Latin America, in Brazil, in Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, even Chile. You have been quoted as saying that were there not a war in Iraq, those governments might be in danger—but given there is a war in Iraq there are—[EG's a body language is obvious] You didn't say that?
EG: No, I didn't say so, no. Ahem, because there are different ways of playing this dirty game of war. Sometimes experts, technocrats, bankers are more dangerous than armed soldiers. And we have terrible difficulties in Latin America to build a real democracy. And I think this because leaving aside the fact that the world is organized like an immense war machine—but there are also super governments, governing the governments. And it's also part of this terrible landscape, a world that has become a madhouse and a slaughterhouse and is in the hands of a handful of a few people, a few countries—the International Monetary Fund is a super government, for instance. And it's managed by five countries—especially by one that has the right to veto—which is the one that we are now in, talking.
RB: [laughs] We are in the country of Chicago right now.
EG: —the World Bank, how many countries? It's called World Bank. How many countries manage the World Bank? Eight countries. And the WTO has a right to vote but it has never voted, never. All the resolutions are taken like in Stalinist old times.
EG: By acclamation.
RB: Today when one says Stalinist it's laughable, it's a cartoon, but when you think about it—
EG: That's the way they work. Like guided by Stalin or his ghost, because they never vote. And they're doing terrible things against poor countries in the name of the few rich. And the same thing in the United Nations, for instance. It's supposed to be—a beautiful way for realizing that we are diverse but one. That we all countries have something in common—which is the need to respect each other, to be peaceful and so on. Well, the General Assembly where we are all represented is just symbolic. It never makes decisions, it makes recommendations and who really decides everything is the—
RB: Security Council.
EG: Yes. Inside the Security Council the five counties with the right to veto—five countries, are the owners of the world, they decide everything. To decide if a country will or will not be annihilated. What will happen with this planet? In the hands of five countries—they are taking care of peace and they are at once the main producers of weapons.
RB: The five leading arms dealers.
EG: They are making the business of war and they are supposed to be peacekeepers. So it's absolutely undemocratic, it's not democratic. When I come here, for instance, to the United States—this my fifth day here, a lot of journalists have asked me about democracy in Latin America, will we be able to build it? It's very difficult. Why? Because the entire world is not democratic. Yeah. It's not a problem, of course we are coming now in Latin America finally to the exit door, I hope so, from long years of military oppression, dictatorships, and it was terrible. But this was also part of the world order. It's not something that came from—
RB: One needs to look at the U.S. Military's School for the Americas.
EG: And the Plan Condor—it was like a common market of death with foreign advisers and so on. But we still believe that democracy is possible and I believe it's possible but it's a challenge, not yet a reality. Something to be done, to be conquered by people and in this sense it's very meaningful, the fact that Evo Morales was nationalizing the oil and—
EG: —gas, and he's perceived as a scandal. Why, because he committed a cardinal sin in Latin America and in the world. He did what he has promised to do. This identification between facts and words is forbidden. Facts and words ought to be divorced, otherwise you perhaps are a populist or demagogic president or perhaps a terrorist even, if you think that if you say "yes," you should act in the same way. Being as they are divorced, facts and words never, never greet each other when they by accident cross paths. They never say, "Hello, how are you?" Because they don't recognize themselves. When words say, yes, the facts make no. When words say yes, then facts make no. And so on. And this is one of our worst colonial heritages in Latin America. It's not our sad privilege.
RB: In Latin America, is Chavez considered a demon? Has he been demonized in the south as he has been here?
EG: For some people yes. The big media, of course, is against him. Of course, it's an homage paid to a true democracy that he is building now in Venezuela. He won eight elections. This tyrant, this dictator, this horrible person won eight elections—eight clean elections
RB: You were an electoral observer.
EG: Yes, in the plebiscite.
RB: He won by an astounding margin.
EG: He was giving back power to people. Not frequent in human history, isn't it? A president organizing a plebiscite to ask people, "Do you want me to stay or go?" I was the delegate of all the independent international observers, and I spent the last night with James Carter and Gaviria, from the Carter Foundation and the OAS, watching what was happening and finally it was clear that it was a fair election. A fair popular consult, a fair popular referendum and anyway they went on, the owners of the big media went on saying he is suppressing people—
RB: If he had been suppressing people, he would have shut them down—yes?
EG: Yeah, that's it. The fact is that this upside-down world needs demons, needs satyrs to go on killing and to go on living to kill. And spending these absolutely absurd sums in exterminating each other. And they need an alibi. What, so why? It's like the Iraq war—they needed something, a reason, of course the reason was a lie. But this war born from a lie, is still there, going on and killing people.
RB: You quoted your mother, "Lies have short legs."
EG: When I was a child my mother would say that.
RB: Mark Twain said, and it is often attributed to Winston Churchill, "A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." [This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but it has never been verified as originating with Twain. This quote may have originated with Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92) who attributed it to an old proverb in a sermon delivered on Sunday morning, April 1, 1855. Spurgeon was a celebrated English fundamentalist Baptist preacher. His words were: "A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on."]
EG: Lies' legs are very long and they run very fast. When liars say it was not true, I'm sorry, like Bush or Blair, people rewarded them, reelecting them as it happened in those countries.
RB: It's beyond surreal.
EG: Yes, that's the way it is. I mean, nowadays the technology of manipulation was unknown in past times. The capacity for lying and establishing your lies as universal truth was never acquired by other civilizations.
RB: That's progress.
EG: Yeah, technological progress in which I don't really believe too much. I always have the suspicion that machines dream at night.
RB: [laughs] Right. Your country, Uruguay, seems to be doing better these days.
EG: Yeah, we hope so.
RB: Too early to tell?
EG: We are living also some contradictions between hope and reality. We'll see. I am now fighting in my own country against the identification of Uruguay with giant corporations in planting their paper paste factories and this is very welcome by everybody including the progressive government. "They are creating jobs, we have so many jobless people" and people perhaps prefer to die from contamination and pollution rather than die from hunger. And so ecology is not a popular cause in Latin America and I suspect in other regions also. It's very difficult to say—"Well, it's a single struggle, the same struggle, social justice and environment." And we should stop divorcing human kind from nature.
RB: We presume our superiority to everything—humans own everything else. We are more important and superior to dogs and birds and spiders.
EG: [chuckles] We are part of the same. This is a beautiful heritage coming from Indian culture in all the Americas—this communion with nature, this certitude that everybody is our relative, that we are all members of the same family, all who have legs or paws or fins or wings or roots, that we are part of everything.
RB: I recall in the late '70s when the environmental movement was vocal and real trouble spots were being identified and there was an admirable bit of muckraking on it and in New Jersey when workers at chemical plants which had high incidents of cancer, were asked, they would make a conscious choice, "My family has to eat." So what do you do?
EG: Well, this one of our problems and the other is we have an inside-out government, I feel, my own government that I have fought for during years and years, for a left-wing government, and we have it now, but part of it is now saying we should be realists and pay homage to this cynicism as the only possible form of realism. That reality is at it is. In this reality the market is god. So we shouldn't irritate him, he may be very angry against us.
RB: It's an insult to dogs that the word "cynicism" comes from the Greek word for dog—when it is such a misguided pathology. And it appears that the distinction between cynicism and skepticism has been blurred.
EG: When it becomes political behavior, it is very dangerous. Because they are working against democracy. Against the prestige of democracy and against the prestige of words. If you conquer the government, if you win the government promising people that you will keep the country aside from any form of free trade agreement because it's a big lie, because it's a prop, because free trade doesn't exist, then how can you afterwards do it? A part of our government, not all of it, some people that would welcome a free trade agreement with the U.S. and so, the same with Lula in Brazil, the whole campaign of Lula speaking against tragenics, trangenicos, genetically modified seeds, then when he was in the government, he approved them. I mean, he spoke against it and later he said, "Well, okay, it's a reality, I cannot do anything against it."
RB: Bill Clinton is the poster child of talking progressive and acting centrist and right.
EG: The problem is the prestige of democracy and the prestige of words. Especially, especially Robert, this is very important for me—in the eyes, seen through the eyes of the new generation. Of the young people. In these recent Chilean elections, which had a very good result—I think it's good that a woman becomes president in countries in which women are half of the population. [laughs] It's funny, some people are speaking about women as an exploited minority. Minority of what? They are 50%. Well, so I really think the elections had a good result but there is a detail about it and it's that 2,200,000 people didn't vote and they are all young people who don't register to vote. 75% of young people in Chile, 3 of each 4 didn't vote. And this should sound an alarm for all of us. Be careful what are we doing. Perhaps they don't believe in us. It's not just that they are lazy. "So it's too complicated to go and register and I prefer to stay home." No, perhaps it's something much deeper than this, than laziness. Much deeper and so we should be careful. Careful in the use of words. Indians believe that words are sacred. They were not wrong. And they go on believing in it and it's true. Words are sacred. That's all. [pause] I don't want to go on speaking.
EG: I'm tired of speaking, let's have a coffee. Want a coffee, Rosie?
© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing