Memory of Fire

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The Library of Congress has placed this book of Latin American history in a category of “light” works, works of anecdote, witticism, and satire. Yet it is a minor miracle that the book reads so smoothly and so pleasurably. For the fire that the title remembers is the auto-da-fé in which Christian Europe incinerated the Indian civilizations of South and Central America while filling its coffers and founding its colonies. The subject of this entertaining volume is genocide.

The modulating of this material into prose that human eyes can read without flinching is accomplished by an extraordinary feat of technical virtuosity. Memory of Fire: I. Genesis (the second volume of the projected trilogy has already been published in Spanish) is made up of more than three hundred brief passages, averaging less than a page. With the exception of the passages in the opening section, “First Voices,” which presents myths and folktales of pre-Columbian America, each entry is headed by a date and a place-name. Arranged in chronological order, these passages string together some luminous moments in the history of America’s colonization. Like the “magic realism” that is so distinctive of recent Latin American fiction, Galeano’s writing manages to personalize history; as he says at one point, one learns to smell history in the wind. Each snapshot reminds the reader of how much ordinary life, how much ordinary suffering, is glossed over by any continuous, totalizing, synoptic history of conquest or nation-building. Refusing to rise to the Olympian heights that such subjects seem to call for, Galeano pushes one’s nose in the present-tense particularity, the experiential intensity of the lives that were battered and lost. Yet his format also attenuates this misery: Some of the passages combine to form sequences (the life of the pirate Henry Morgan or the poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, for example), but most do not; as a result, the reader is not bludgeoned into acquiescence by a repetition of horror after horror but, rather, involved in an active, ceaseless weaving and interweaving of pieces, a fitting together of fragments. What is left out is as important as what is said. No scene of horror lasts too long; in a moment one is elsewhere, distracted by new issues, seeking connections. As in a well-conducted slide show, much of the pleasure comes from the brevity of each slide and the spaces for thought that come between them.

Another effect of the slide-show form is to eliminate or at least play down the overarching, omniscient presence of a narrator who would tie everything together in the bitter indignation of a single voice or a single vision. Thus the book is curiously impersonal; the images come out of nowhere. One is left wondering who has undertaken this work of historical reconstruction, to what sort of present life all of this is the background. Perhaps the succeeding volumes of the trilogy will answer these questions.

The Library of Congress classification, perhaps inspired by Galeano’s early work as a political cartoonist, correctly notes that this form is hardly that of academic history, yet it has its own rigor. Galeano has done his homework; the list of source materials at the back of the book, to which the numbers following each passage refer, permits the reader to check up on any episodes that catch his fancy. There is, to be sure, a considerable amount of humor in the book, some of it satiric and some more unsettling than satire. For example, reading the Indian creation myths and folktales that Galeano reproduces in “First Voices,” one’s laughter is mixed with awe. What a sense of human existence this was, which could found itself on a comic view of the creation. By contrast, our own myths of creation—of which the “discovery of America” is one—seem dour.

A vast mosaic of folklore and history, poetry and political analysis, Genesis has more than its share of surprises. It contrasts the creativity of Indian mythology, the fresh discovery of life that leaps from the pages of these native versions of genesis, with the relentless, repetitive greed and dogma of the European invaders, but it also brings their myths closer to ours: One reads Indian variants of Noah’s Flood and of Orpheus’ trip to the underworld. More important, perhaps, it refuses to idealize the victims. Aztec human sacrifice is referred to repeatedly, and when the Aztecs arrive victorious at Tenochtitlan, the prophecies that they hear from the defeated of their eventual fall function as an anticipation of the conquistadores. Told that they will subjugate all the peoples and cities around them from sea to sea, they also receive prophecies of their own subjugation by strangers, people with clothes on, who will draw a spider web around their people and turn men into slaves.

By adhering strictly to chronology, Galeano pulls off another nicely relativizing touch. It is customary to divide the history of Latin America into the period before and after Christopher Columbus’ arrival, but the entrance of the Europeans did not automatically make them the central focus of attention. Much of what had been happening before Columbus simply continued. In a number of passages, the reader watches the Aztecs still pushing forward their conquests, sacrificing prisoners to their gods. One sees conquered Indians paying unwilling tribute to Inca tax collectors, and one sees the Inca empire extended further and further, until...

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Memory of Fire

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The first volume of Galeano’s trilogy, Memory of Fire: I. Genesis (1985), reviewed in these pages in 1986, took as its center the tragic confrontation between the native peoples of the Americas and their European conquerors. The second volume, which follows the same literary method—several hundred episodes reconstructed in less than a page each and arranged in chronological order, keyed to sources in the back of the book—makes it clear that this confrontation did not end in 1700. The first text, as in Genesis, is devoted to an undated piece of Indian mythology, and here again that mythology celebrates a world better than the one Galeano himself is obliged to describe. In the world of history, the story he tells once again details the oppression and murder of Indians and slaves, ranging from the fatal daily exploitation of miners (life expectancy seven years) to the systematic extermination of whole peoples (such as the Indians of Uruguay). The outbursts of resistance and rebellion which punctuate it are put down with a savagery that makes one want to turn one’s eyes away from the page. The reader can feel fortunate that Galeano’s elliptical, montagelike mode, which makes history searingly immediate to the senses, also prevents him from lingering long over any one moment of defeat or atrocity.

It would be hard to object if, reacting against the gloriously dramatic shapings that have been bestowed on a history of kings and generals, Galeano had simply reproduced the quietly awesome monotony of oppression. That, however, is not the sort of book this is. There are repeated patterns. Exploitation is followed by insurrection which is followed by the violent crushing of resistance. Then, after some pages, the cycle begins again. A new Tupac Amaru arises, only to be betrayed, captured, and killed. Sometimes it seems that all of history’s stock of inventiveness is expended in varying the grisly specifics of torture and execution. Even amid these recurrences, Galeano ingeniously settles on small but telling details, such as the New England Puritan hymn composed during a slave-trading voyage. More important, Galeano is not very interested in the uneventful continuities of ordinary life. One reads the orders forbidding Indians to wear their native dress, for example, rather than descriptions of their native dress. One does not learn much about what people ate—though one does hear anecdotes of how the New World potato was successfully implanted in the French diet and how Coca-Cola was invented. In short, this is very much a history of events, inventions, breakthroughs, and cataclysms. Contrary to what one might expect, it does not replace “history from the top down” with “history from the bottom up.” Like the history books Galeano read in school, his own focuses on leaders and other exceptional figures, on their dramatic moments of individual victory and defeat, on their loves, losses, and memorable aphorisms, even on their last words. Instead of lowering its gaze so as to salvage that which the rulers never noticed, a procedure associated with so-called “social history” in the United States, Faces and Masks emphasizes those who rose up against (and were known to) the rulers, giving the former the same illustrious treatment once reserved to the latter.

The center of the book, as it is the chronological midpoint of the two centuries under consideration, is the achievement of America’s independence from Europe, beginning with the rebellion of the Thirteen Colonies in 1776 and continuing into the nineteenth century with the struggles against Spain and Portugal in Latin America. Taking independence as his center gives Galeano the chance for a considerable amount of satire at the expense of colonial dependence. The slavish imitation of Europe by colonial aristocracies is illustrated for example in the anecdote of Pérez Rosales’ brandy factory, which was a great success as long as he labeled the bottles “Imported”; when he told the truth in a flush of patriotism, however, he found that he could not sell a single bottle. In a similar vein, the wife of the Spanish ambassador to Mexico tried on Mexican national dress, thereby sending shock waves of horror through the capital. After an official warning from three ministers, she gave up her idea—in favor of a gown inspired by Italian peasant costume. This time her dress was acceptable.

One benefit of the author’s deliberate fragmentation of history into bite-sized vignettes is that it makes the American struggle for national independence emerge insensibly from among many other insurrections. Thus national independence no longer appears fundamentally “national” at all, but rather as part of the long, internal struggle for social justice waged by the Indians against all of their masters. Nor is it a one-shot affair, finished when the last shots are fired. In Galeano’s telling, independence means that the old set of masters has been replaced by a new one. The thinkers of the Enlightenment, French and American, who sponsored the drive toward national...

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Although the trilogy Memory of Fire has been classified as a work of history, it is a supremely personal and subjective history. The author, Eduardo Galeano, makes no claim to being a historian; in fact, he specifically states the contrary. In school, he found history courses to be like visits to a “waxworks” or “the Region of the Dead,” with the past “lifeless, hollow, dumb.” His literary efforts have been a reaction to such a view of history and the desire to make it vital again. The title Memory of Fire reflects the author’s purpose: “to contribute to the rescue of the kidnapped memory of all America, but above all of Latin America, that despised and beloved land.” To preserve this important...

(The entire section is 878 words.)