Memory of Fire Essay - Critical Essays

Eduardo Galeano


That Memory of Fire is a personal statement on the part of the author quickly becomes clear. Galeano is not aloof from politics and the struggles of the poor and powerless; although the tone is controlled and the prose often stripped down to an essential statement of facts, the choice of episodes and persons as well as the vocabulary quickly reveals his sympathy with socialist aims. As such, some critics have reacted to the political overtones, while others have focused on the enormity of the task of writing a complete Latin American epic of this type, considering it impossible. Yet the majority seem to believe that, viewed as a subjective, personal collection of moments in this history, Memory of Fire is extremely successful in making history live, in capturing its electricity.

Because of the length of time involved, from pre-Columbian times through 1984, a format of connected fragments was used. These are joined together in a type of symphonic structure with themes or motifs that appear and reappear. In fact, the language of the individual entries, which often read like stories told in front of a campfire as part of the oral tradition, is often poetic and musical, though never florid. It has been suggested that a series of fragments is the most appropriate form for a history of Latin America: The land itself is splintered into individual countries, themselves splintered into factions and classes, with the result that there is no one Latin American identity, only a multitude of voices and faces. Galeano visualizes this history as one of conflict, a record of resistance to injustice and oppression.

Since Memory of Fire is clearly a personal chronicle, it is inevitable that the choice of documentary sources reflect a personal bias as well. Yet because the work is also a presentation of history, that choice is significant. The several hundred sources involved in the three volumes are a heterogeneous collection involving everything from myths and stories to newspaper reports and data gleaned from standard texts on the conquest and colonization. Galeano does not distinguish among the kinds of documents but rather borrows from them as they fit his total vision. The result underlines the fact that this is not a historian’s history, certainly not an objective analysis or an attempt to weigh the validity of documents. In his sources are tales of magic along with reports and opinions based originally on insufficient evidence or even possible misinterpretation. The questions of what really happened and how to interpret it are important, particularly as Galeano attempts to unmask how the lies of history become the official version: for example, “The Government Decides That Peronism Doesn’t Exist” and “The Government Decides That Truth Doesn’t Exist.” Another humorous illustration is the episode in which the President of Guatemala proclaims the Santa Maria volcano dormant despite the lava destroying Quetzaltenango. The ironic title reads, “The Government Decides That Reality Doesn’t Exist.”

The cyclical format of Memory of Fire is introduced in Genesis, in Spanish los nacimientos (“beginnings” or “births”). Appropriately, the first fragments deal with the “birth” of creation in a dream by God. The myth introduces the idea of cyclical time because woman and man will be born and die again and again: “They will never stop being born, because death is a lie.” Much of the first section of Genesis then focuses on indigenous myths of nature. Only toward the end of the section is the prophecy of the “rule of greed” introduced: “Men will turn into slaves,” and “the world will be depopulated, it will become small and humiliated.”

Genesis then presents historical moments to illustrate the fulfillment of this prophecy. From the beginning, the Indians lose in the clash of cultures which Columbus’ discovery causes. In a report ironically titled “Day of Glory,” the few surviving Indians brought to Europe as trophies are paraded before a hostile audience which would have preferred gold or spices.

Religion and greed as causes of tremendous suffering in the Americas becomes the theme of Genesis. In separate fragments, six Indians are burned alive for the sacrilege of burying images of Christ and the Virgin (to fertilize their crops), and Aztec human sacrifices are...

(The entire section is 1805 words.)