Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1805
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 juxtaposed to the burning of heretics by the Spanish Inquisition. In reaction to mistreatment of the Indians, protests begin to arise—first from Antonio de Montesinos and then from Bartolome de las Casas.
European diseases and overwork wipe out whole populations of Indians, and the slave trade brings blacks from Africa to do the manual labor. The desire for freedom arises repeatedly, and the oppressed revolt: Lautaro and the Araucanians, the Tepehuanes from the Zacatecas mines, the escaped black slaves of the free city of Palmares, to name only a few in a long history. The revolt is followed by repression, which in turn will be followed by another revolt.
The irony of the Spanish exploitation of America’s resources is a theme which is introduced early and followed through the wars of independence in Faces and Masks. Although the conquest was accomplished by Spaniards and many Indians and blacks paid with their lives for the gold which was sent to Europe, “the metals arriving from Mexico and Peru do not even leave a smell in Spain.” European merchants and bankers outside Spain profited instead.
Although Galeano does not paint pre-Columbian America as a Garden of Eden, there is something like a Paradise Lost motif hooked into a hope for the future which he adds to Faces and Masks and Century of the Wind. Already in Genesis, there is an episode in which Mancio Serra de Leguizamo, one of the conquistadores of the Incas, is dying and confesses the inherent goodness he sees in the Indian way of life, with its community property and no greed. Faces and Masks starts with the idea that people have sought paradise in America and continues with a series of episodes illustrating that this hope for paradise remains unfulfilled. Galeano argues the case of the oppressed, demonstrating the crushing weight of history against the powerless while admiring the spirit of those who resist. The motif of the runaway slaves and the city of Palmares recurs, as does the question of the oppression of women, in Genesis with the case of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and then in Faces and Masks with Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane, whose “case will awaken no interest in historians.”
As the wars of independence rage, the oppressed groups show their courage in the resistance against Spain, but the wealthy Creoles fear a real revolution of the underclasses. “Agrarian reform” alternately inspires hope in the poor and is suppressed by the wealthy, who fear the loss of their economic advantages. This reform is connected clearly with the Indians’ idea of common property: “All belongs to all.”
A main figure of Faces and Masks is Jose Marti, whose ideas are important to Galeano. Marti sees Latin America fighting to revive its “hidden and betrayed identity” rather than accept the one imposed by Europe or the United States. Here the theme of the mask from the title is most clearly emphasized. Galeano quotes Marti as writing: “We were a mask, with trousers from England, Parisian vest, jacket from North America, and cap from Spain.” Latin America does not recognize the value of its own customs and language; starting with Genesis, Galeano interpolates episodes showing the devaluing of anything Indian or mestizo and continues in this volume to show that the attitude continues even after independence to apply to art, clothing, dance, customs, and literally anything that is an American product. The image left at the end of Faces and Masks is of an America plundering its raw materials to send overseas and working Indians, blacks, and the poor to do it. Nevertheless, freedom and the end of the rule of greed strike the last chords of the volume.
Century of the Wind reintroduces many of these themes as they apply to the twentieth century. Here the United States becomes the outside power with the strength to crush rebellions. At the same time, the question of the appeal of Marxism is introduced. The Peruvian poet Jose Carlos Mariategui sees the depths of his country in the Indian communities, which are “unconquered in their socialist traditions of work and life.” The events of Cuba and Nicaragua continue that thread.
Many grotesque dictators are introduced in short vignettes, and the suffering of the individual who resists is shown in the person of Miguel Marmol, who escapes death many times during the years of his long life. Events of modern Latin American history show a fragmented continent with individual countries waging war against their neighbors and thus squandering their resources, with the result that debts to foreign powers control their economies. Violent repression occurs whenever the questions of agrarian reform, divorce laws, higher wages, or nationalization are raised, since any of these challenge one or more powerful groups. A president who “dares to commit” reform, for example, Salvador Allende (Chile) or Joao Goulart (Brazil), is eliminated.
The many atrocities are recounted in tones of sadness and irony. The humor inherent in the human condition, specifically in the Latin American condition, is used to relieve the stark portrait the author paints. Even here, however, irony is Galeano’s strongest weapon. “The Soccer War,” for example, between El Salvador and Honduras seems impossibly absurd at one level yet horribly ironic at the same time, as two fragments of what was once a single republic define each other as the enemy and leave thousands dead in battle. In another example, the words “bad luck, human error, bad weather” from the official reports become an ironic litany in the account of the deaths of President Roldos of Ecuador, Omar Torrijos of Panama, and General Rafael Hoyos Rubio of Peru, all of whom had opposed powerful economic groups and died in suspicious plane crashes for it. To round out the irony, Galeano uses an ironic juxtaposition of words (“benevolent multinational corporations”), a stylistic device which is almost a trademark of this trilogy.
Against the chronicle of torture, repression, and wars, Galeano repeatedly infuses an element of hope: Things could change. He writes of the Indians who are “guided by the ancient certainty that someday greed and arrogance will be punished,” and he includes many episodes of brave individuals and groups who stand up for their beliefs in spite of almost certain death. At the end of Century of the Wind, Galeano closes with nine fragments, starting with “Against Forgetting,” which express his purpose in compiling this personal epic. Believing with Carlos Quijano (publisher of the Marcha magazine) that forgetting is “the only death that really kills,” Galeano makes Memory of Fire his pledge that this massive history and tradition will not be forgotten.