Memory of Fire III

by Eduardo Galeano

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

There's history, and then there's history. Winston Churchill wrote, "History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it." If Churchill wrote about Latin America, his book might have looked like Century of the Wind, by Eduardo Galeano. In my opinion, everyone should read it, and they should also check out the excellent study guide available on this website. They should keep in mind, though, that not everything written down is the whole (or even partial) truth.

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This third installment in Galeano's Memory of Fire series is as committed as the others, meaning that, while it's an excellent history, it also has a purpose. The purpose is to present the history of Latin America, "warts and all," in the most favorable possible light. One consequence of this is that the 'warts' are almost all on the gringos. There's no ducking the awfulness of Central and South American bad government, corruption, violence, and misery. The author does a good job of addressing these subjects. But not everything bad about twentieth-century Latin America originated in the United States or the international organizations the United States dominates, contrary to how the author writes. An unintended, I think, side effect of this writing is that it denies agency to the people of the Latin American countries. The CIA didn't arrive with Salvador Allende in a box, like some cargo cult, to wreak havoc on Chile. Neither did Theodore Roosevelt dig the Panama Canal without local money and muscle. Galeano doesn't claim either point literally, in the book, but that seems to be his sentiment. Throughout the period covered in the book, millions of people in Latin America, inside and outside government and business, benefited from and helped create the world that Galeano wants us to dislike. Everyone should read the book to judge for themselves whether this analysis is tractable.

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Contents aside, one other thing about the book contributes to the sense of imbalance when you read it. The layout is designed for "quick hits"—what today we call "sound bites." There's a page (sometimes two pages) about most topics, and that's it. This is understandable if you accept that the author wanted to include as many important events as possible in the narrative. However, that adds to the sense that you're supposed to simply accept the author's page of analysis and not ask too many questions. That's a shame, because the history of Latin America is rich. This book is rich, too, but you should read it alongside a more conventional history to get a proper understanding of the topic.

Memory of Fire III

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2009

Distinguished Uruguayan historian and writer Eduardo Galeano’s Century of the Wind (volume 3 of Memory of Fire) is an ambitious undertaking meant to teach his fellow residents of the Western Hemisphere about their own history as well as to educate readers outside the hemisphere regarding the turbulent, often-chaotic events that formed twentieth century Latin America. Century of the Wind is the third volume of a trilogy whose other volumes are Génesis (1982; English translation, 1985) and Las caras y las máscaras (1984; Faces and Masks, 1987).

What sets these works apart from other histories dealing with events of the Western Hemisphere is the novel and unorthodox way Galeano creates history. Rather than relying upon the linear, narrative approach so often used in histories, Galeano uses a series of arrestingly original vignettes about places, people, and events; taken together, these vignettes constitute a pattern of violence, revolution, deceit, intrigue, and death. Like a composer, Galeano introduces powerful themes which are strongly sounded, then are allowed to fade, only to reappear again with greater insistence. The greatest of all of his themes is that of the inevitability of revolution in the Americas, despite the best efforts of military dictatorships and American capitalists to thwart it.

Century of the Wind is mainly concerned with Latin America, though culturally significant North Americans, representing the best and worst aspects of American and Canadian society, are given attention. The West Indies is discussed from time to time, but only as it relates to the larger struggle between the United States and its Latin neighbors. (Though Mexico is technically a North American nation, it is included with nations of Central and South America because of its close cultural and political ties with them.) Galeano shows how the terrors of the past resurface in twentieth century Latin America. Here is a lurid, even nightmarish landscape wherein sadistic generalissimos and rich, land-holding grandees indiscriminately destroy the dreams and lives of the repressed poor, a landscape in which nature is abused by capitalist exploiters from within and without the region and in which voices of discontent are silenced by brutality and bullets. Political revolutions and unsuccessful revolts are chronicled with imaginative flair, as are the successful attacks on the existing order made by such revolutionaries as Nicaragua’s Augusto Sandino, Mexico’s Pancho Villa, Argentina’s Juan and Eva (or “Evita”) Perón, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Just as important as the deeds of the winners are those of losers such as Salvador Allende of Chile and Cuba’s guerrilla leader, Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

A second major theme of Galeano’s work is the United States’ alternating scorn for and indifference to the Latin nations which form such an important part of the Western Hemisphere. Galeano determines that the majority of popular revolts staged by the poor and disfranchised during the twentieth century have met with either distrust or outright hostility from Americans. The United States, in Galeano’s mind, has all too freely given its support to the most vile and malevolent dictatorships to be found anywhere in the world, to brutal, corrupt officials who have denied citizens of their countries the very rights and freedoms that Americans have always claimed to prize. When the United States is indifferent to outrages occurring in neighboring nations, dictators of all stripes are allowed the freedom to imprison, torture, and murder those members of the opposition whose “Communist” ideas make them enemies. On the other hand, when the United States government is hostile to those who would overthrow fascistic regimes, it is known to resort to marines first and negotiation later, if at all.

Nevertheless, Galeano is well aware that American values and cultural icons, inventors and artists have always had a considerable impact on neighboring countries. Even cult figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Rita Hayworth have had an influence on people outside the United States. On the other hand, Latin icons such as Carmen Miranda (the Mexican actress known for her flamboyant head apparel), soccer player Pelé of Brazil, and the Mexican comedian Cantinflas have had minimal impact on North Americans.

Unfortunately for the United States, Galeano believes, its political crimes against its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere have soured some Latins on its calls for freedom and justice in the Third World and its strident attacks on world communism. Many Latin Americans perceive that their powerful northern neighbor, in the name of anti-Communist counterinsurgency, has systematically quashed legitimate peasant rebellions against their oppressors. For example, the powerful and corrupt Somoza family of Nicaragua, Galeano observes, was brought into power by American troops who quelled a popular, peasant-backed, non-Marxist movement which ostensibly would have installed a democratic regime in place of a dictatorship of the worst sort. The accomplished torturer from the Dominican Republic, Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, having proposed to the United States that it help rid him of Communists and atheists, was given the right to mold his nation into a large prison and to rob it of its material wealth. Treacherous to both friend and foe, Trujillo made a mockery of American fair play and justice while at the same time enjoying the many millions of dollars sent to him as foreign aid by Washington.

The supposed friend of the helpless and afflicted, the United States has given its active support to a number of right-wing dictatorships in a string of Latin countries, teaching their soldiers how to subdue agitators and disaffected peasants while unofficially giving advice to death squads on how best to extract information from one’s enemies. To Galeano, the United States, in its consummate hypocrisy, encourages regimes that enslave, starve, beat, and murder innocent people; by so doing it has, in the popular imagination of Latins, become one with their torturers. Moreover, he insists that the lack of real commitment to freedom on the part of the United States is responsible for certain countries’—Cuba, Chile under Allende, and Nicaragua—turning for help to the Soviet Union.

Another major theme of Century of the Wind is the notion that change for the better, though often difficult to discern, is coming to the embattled nations of Central and South America. Despite the horrors that have been so much a part of Latin American life for so many centuries, a new order is seen arising in the Western Hemisphere, created by landless campesinos who have decided that it is more worthwhile to fight and die for a cause than to live the life of a mute slave. Galeano believes that liberation is an irresistible idea that is slowly gathering momentum and that soon all the dictatorships will fall. He cites evidence that fuels such a hope: the enlightened state of Cuba after the fall of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, Nicaragua after the Somozas were forced out; and Haiti after the departure of the last of the Duvaliers.

Those who have had the interests of the poor at heart, though martyred and denounced by the dictators they have fought, serve for Galeano as secular saints, emblems of a selfless, other-oriented, actualized humanity. Extrahuman in dimension, they point the way to a more just and orderly future. The heroes whom Galeano lauds are numerous: Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata, the quiet leader of the peasants against a corrupt dictatorship; the quiet, dedicated, and incredibly persevering hero of Nicaragua, Augusto César Sandino; Juan Perón, who gave his noteworthy administrative talents to the cause of landless peasants in Argentina; Colombia’s Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, who agitated for land redistribution and was murdered for his “imprudence”; Cuba’s Marxist-Leninist premier Fidel Castro, overthrower of the repressive, gangster-ridden regime of Batista in 1959; Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, another martyr who dared to advocate agrarian reforms; and Martin Luther King, Jr., of the United States, a man of vision and bravery who led the cause of black civil rights during the 1960’s.

Though they are the people he examines most extensively, Galeano’s revolutionary martyrs are not the only ones he acknowledges as having brought about change in the Americas. Inventors such as the American Thomas Alva Edison brought gifts of light, sound, and flight to the hemisphere. Artists of bold perspective and startling message such as Mexico’s muralist Diego Rivera; musicians such as the American blues singer Bessie Smith and folk song writer and singer Joe Hill; poets who captured the world’s admiration such as Chile’s Pablo Neruda, Peru’s César Vallejo, and the United States’ Ezra Pound; and novelists such as the prodigiously talented Guimaraes Rosa of Brazil, Mexico’s Octavio Paz, Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, and the United States’ William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway are, in their own fashion, revolutionaries, creating new perspectives on the world.

On the other hand, the deeds of many antiheroes have made life in the Americas nearly unbearable for the poor. Some of the most important are El Salvador’s General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who was responsible for forcing thirty thousand peasants who supposedly opposed him to dig their own graves with their fingers; Anastasio “Tacho” Somoza of Nicaragua, a sadistic torturer of untold numbers of suspected enemies; Venezuelan dictator Juan Vicente Gómez, who made a fortune from oil revenues and kept proceeds from nationalized firms for himself while his countrymen starved; and Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, who ordered that Haitians working in his country be murdered because he hated the sight of their black skin. Galeano allows the terrible deeds of his monsters to speak for themselves, and they reveal a horror so devastating that it is beyond the ken of most North Americans.

In the coming world envisioned by Galeano, land will be distributed fairly, citizens will have a voice in government, and human rights will be sacrosanct. Yet given the dark, violent history of the region, such noble conceits and ringing optimism may prove to be illusory. Even if socialism does triumph, it may have its own shortcomings.

The three volumes of Galeano’s Memory of Fire combine the imagination and immediacy of poetry with the crisp measured prose of the best histories. Critics have likened his work to a brilliant symphony replete with recurring themes, with point and counterpoint. It is rare that a work of history has anything vaguely poetic about it. Century of the Wind, however, stirs its reader’s feelings and imagination, creating a multicolored, many-layered tapestry of life as it is lived in Latin America. This tapestry is a product of ghosts from the past—prehistoric Indians, Spanish conquistadors and churchmen, saints, scholars, holders of vast estates—as well as of the unhappy peasants and their fiery leaders in modern Latin America. With his dreamlike vignettes, each focusing on one person or event, Galeano provides readers with a greater grasp of history than any Latin American historian of traditional stripe can provide, simply because Memory of Fire expresses and evokes emotions associated with the subject, while traditionally written accounts offer factual retellings of events without poetry or emotion.

Galeano does not claim objectivity; his work represents one man’s view of his region in his century, filtered through his feelings. His outrage over the servitude of Latin America’s poor and the obscene wealth enjoyed by their oppressors is the common denominator of the stories in Century of the Wind. As one who has been repeatedly victimized by the rulers of his native Uruguay, Galeano, in his outrage, is talking about subjects he knows at first hand.

In an almost surrealistic way, Century of the Wind celebrates the vibrant, peasant-based cultures of Latin America and denounces the narcissism, racism, and meddling of the United States as well as the abuses of Latin dictatorships. It offers the hope of a new age for that region and an explanation of the proliferation within Latin cultures of both dictators and revolutionaries. Galeano gives his readers not only an account of the origins of twentieth century conflicts and movements but also a grasp of the forces that are transforming the lot of the disenfranchised and dispossessed.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 118

Broderick, Thomas. “Eduardo Galeano: Memory of Fire: Genesis,” in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. VI (Fall, 1986), p. 144.

Christ, Ronald. “Dramas That Scorch: Memory of Fire: I. Genesis,” in The New York Times Book Review. XC (October 27, 1985), p. 22.

Conant, Oliver. Review of Memory of Fire: Faces and Masks in The New York Times Book Review. XCII (March 1, 1987), p. 20.

Franco, Jean. “The Raw and the Cooked,” in The Nation. CCXLIV (February 14, 1987), pp. 183-184.

McMurray, George R. Spanish American Writing Since 1941: A Critical Survey, 1986.

The New Yorker. “Eduardo Galeano.” LXII (July 28, 1986), pp. 18- 20.

Staggs, Sam. “Eduardo Galeano: In His Trilogy Memory of Fire, the Uruguayan Writer Attempts to Portray ‘The Masked History’ of America,” in Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII (June 3, 1988), pp. 64-65.

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