Memory of Fire

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2234

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 it is larger than Europe. Thus the god to whom Montezuma’s prisoners are sacrificed in 1506 and the god who presides over the Inquisition’s burning of European heretics in the same year stand out in clear parallel.

The voyages of Columbus, which have always seemed so natural a beginning for American history, look different from the point of view of those who were there to greet him. After interrogating the natives in Hebrew, Chaldean, and Arabic, Columbus takes captives. None of the women and children survives. It is the beginning of a long succession of atrocities. Almost immediately, the scene shifts forward to Columbus himself dying in disgrace, and then, just as quickly, the hidden history of rebellion and reaction also begins. In 1511, the Indian inhabitants of Puerto Rico realize that the invaders are not immortal and rise against them. The reader watches the Spanish shoot an old Indian woman with a crossbow; one watches a Haitian chief, about to be burned at the stake, choose Hell rather than join the Christians in their Heaven. In 1522, one watches the first rebellion of black slaves. One watches Balboa, only two days away from his discovery of the Pacific Ocean, setting his dogs to tear apart fifty Panamanians accused of the sin of sodomy. The Araucanians rise against the Spaniards in Chile with extraordinary success; the slave Lautaro makes Valdivia eat Chilean soil. In Peru, the death of Tupac Amaru in 1572 ends forty years of Inca resistance. The Indians of the Caribbean fight for the freedom to make love as they wish. In Mexico, the converted Indians who are dying in the mines of Durango rise against the priests and renounce their religion. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Spaniards take thirteen years to reconquer the lands the Indians have liberated.

Above all, there is the century-long story of Palmares, a nation-state set up in the Brazilian jungle by escaped slaves. Reading of its fortifications, its two corn harvests a year, its use of Portuguese as lingua franca, its negotiations with delegates of the king, its resistance to all expeditions until cannons were brought to the region in 1694, it becomes clear how much history has been hidden and how that history lives on. Chief Zumbi, the last leader of Palmares, was murdered by a traitor, but all the leaders of later rebellions were called Zumbi.

Though Galeano is primarily interested in Latin America, the English colonies to the north do not serve as any sort of moral contrast to the savagery of the Spanish and Portuguese. Beginning with the death of Pocahontas on the Thames before her twenty-first birthday, Galeano proceeds through the bloody suppression of Chief Opechancanough’s rebellion, which leaves nine-tenths of the Indians who had greeted the first settlers at Jamestown dead. One is reminded of the Puritan slave traders and of how the Duke of York’s men burn the initials “DY” with hot irons into the chests of the three thousand slaves sent each year to Jamaica and Barbados. In the Yorktown of 1674, Galeano notes, it is a crime for a laborer to challenge a gentleman to a horse race. As smallpox devastates the Indians of New England, the Puritans turn to the Old Testament to justify their policy of massacring Indian women and children.

In one of the book’s more interesting motifs, Galeano pauses frequently to consider how much and how variously European culture has depended on and been fashioned out of what happened in the colonies. This concern extends from dances such as the saraband and chaconne, which were influenced by the slaves, to the link between Thomas More’s Utopia and the “primitive communism” discovered in the New World. Quevedo and Cervantes come off as valuable early critics of the colonial passion; William Shakespeare’s Caliban and John Donne exploring his mistress’ body in a poem as one discovering America become evidence that the monuments of culture, as Walter Benjamin said, are simultaneously monuments of barbarism. Following the exploits of the pirate Henry Morgan against the Spanish fleet and Panama City, the reader watches as, in 1674, after his casual murder of a half-witted boy, he is appointed by the king to serve as lieutenant governor of Jamaica—with instructions for government drawn up by John Locke.

This is a story with European heroes as well as European villains. Those who made it their business to see and who bore witness, always at serious cost to themselves, show the reader that atrocities cannot be explained away with the assertion that “everyone thought that way back then.” Of these heroic witnesses, the most famous is Father Bartolomé de las Casas, who tried to deprive the conquistadors’ sons of Indian slaves. The book also surprises the reader with the number of kindred spirits, such as the Jesuit Father Ragueneau, who defended Huron Indian dream interpretations (in terms of unfulfilled desires). The Mexican poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who refused to accept the servile status of women, came to “write like a man” and compared her sufferings to those of Christ, represents another sort of exception. Given Galeano’s sensitivity to any and all subversive behavior, even the existence of a single (unfairly treated) woman conquistadora is credited to the account of the human race.

All Galeano’s fond attention to moments of individual experience does not obscure the large patterns of history. From the beginning, the hold of foreign bankers over the Spanish monarchy is evident, and Galeano notes how the merchants defeat the conquistadores without once drawing a sword. As the decades go by, it is increasingly clear that, thanks to the theological, unproductive bias of its rulers (the gentry have the bedroom as their only battlefield, Galeano says), Spain is losing the wealth of its colonies to Northern Europe. The atrocities of forced labor in Peru’s silver mines are traced to Spain’s need for booty from abroad to make up for the lack of a modernizing economy at home. Producing fewer and fewer things and more and more coins, Spain watches its neighbors modernize while its own board of theologians turns down a project to channel the Tagus and Manzanares rivers in 1641, on the grounds that if God had wanted those rivers navigable He would have made them navigable. In 1655, England begins to seize the Spanish empire. It is something less than justice, but Galeano’s satisfaction as Spain itself collapses, like his careful notation of each horrible death of each conquistador and, finally, of Charles II and the dynasty that conquered America, helps give his narrative an emotional roundness.

The European conquest of the Americas has been narrated before. Information has been available concerning the ruthless extermination of native peoples, the destruction of their cities and cultures, the death ships full of African slaves, and the founding of new colonies on the blood and ash of the conquered. Galeano has not done original research; he has not unearthed previously unknown atrocities. He merely retells stories that have been documented by others. Why has he chosen this duplication of labor? Perhaps the clue lies in his title. The Bible’s Genesis celebrates a divine creation out of nothingness. The New World, on the other hand, came into being by massacre; Europeans found a world already there and turned it into nothingness. Yet those who celebrate the “civilization” of the New World have remained loyal to the biblical model. Our myths, the stories we tell our children, the versions of the past that we not only find in our reference libraries but also live by day to day, integrated into the way we think about ourselves, have not changed. Hence the daring literary experiment of inventing a new form in which to tell it all again—so freshly that it will become our creation myth. For many readers, Galeano has certainly succeeded; his pages will take on the personal intensity of memory and the authority of a story to live by.

Memory of Fire

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2078

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 self-determination, provide a welcome change from slavery’s Spanish defenders. In Candide (1759), for example, Voltaire displayed a slave’s mutilated body and announced that this was the price Europeans paid for their sugar. Unfortunately, as Galeano notes, the universal principles of human rights did not receive universal application. When Uruguay became an independent state, the gauchos, Indians, and blacks who won its independence on the battlefield were not accorded the right to vote. The army used the Indians for target practice. “All men are created equal, says the Declaration of Independence. The slaves, half a million black slaves, don’t even hear about it.” Nor do women. After discussing the many achievements of Benjamin Franklin, Galeano goes on to mention Franklin’s sister Jane, who had a child every two years, took care of her ailing parents, had nothing to do with invention or diplomacy, and awakens no interest in historians.

For the mass of North and South Americans, Galeano explains, political dependence gave way to economic dependence. Since nearly all the new nations chose to buy the chief British export, belief in free trade, their independence came to mean the freedom for British bankers to acquire New World assets. In another illustration of the suggestive power of Galeano’s juxtaposed fragments, one sees within two pages, first, the glory of military victory on the Ayacucho pampa in 1825, ending Spanish power on the whole continent, and then the British takeover: “The Spanish colonies that are born to independent life walk bent over. From the first day they drag a heavy stone. . . that grows and overwhelms. The English debt...” Potosí, the silver-rich mountain that readers have followed through both volumes, is now owned by a British firm.

This economic domination is quickly converted back into political domination, though of a slightly more indirect sort. British policy opposes the unification of the newly liberated areas and supports those local figures who want to break off their own little fiefdoms. The policy succeeds, and the heroes of independence kill off one another. The unity of Hispanic America is destroyed; the Federal Republic of Central America breaks into pieces. Internally, those who have the most to lose begin to reestablish order even while the fighting is going on. In Mexico, the rich Creoles see that this is less a war against Spain than a rising of the serfs. “This is not the sort of independence they were hoping for. They will make another.”

This schematic rendering distorts the feel of Galeano’s writing. He gets credit for discerning a pattern in the apparent chaos of a multileveled history, but that pattern is almost overwhelmed by his swirling, kaleidoscopic presentation, more dazzling than didactic. One instance of that presentation is his fascination with the biographies of the famous, which gives the reader extraordinary close-ups of Toussaint-L’Ouverture, Simón Bolívar, Abraham Lincoln, Billy the Kid, and many others. Hard as it may be to accept the premise that history can be caught and displayed in these conventional spots, Galeano makes the reader believe it. Perhaps that is so because he has such a keen appreciation for the ironies of leadership. Bolívar is inspired by the sight of the coronation of Napoléon I; Napoléon, in the name of the French Revolution, restores slavery to Haiti; Toussaint dies in jail; the Haitian army defeats the French without him; it is the free Haitians who save Bolívar in the darkest days of the liberator’s struggles; yet after Bolívar’s victory, and despite the law, there are still slaves in Venezuela.

This biographical slant creates some problems. An individualized history easily becomes a moralized history, which is especially risky when the author is tempted to focus on leaders. What is one to make of all those rebel leaders who are betrayed to the Spanish by their most trusted lieutenants? What is it that the Judas motif explains about history? Similarly, when America is personified as a woman, or when Galeano identifies goodness with the interior and evil with ports, one wonders whether he is entirely in control of his allegorizing. At the same time, it is useful to know who invented Coca-Cola and Levi’s jeans, how Buffalo Bill turned the West into a commodity, and that for Billy the Kid the Apaches and Mexicans he shot did not count.

Biographical or not, this is clearly not history as it was taught in school. Background to the Alamo: Why did the North American colonists in Texas refuse to obey Mexican law? Because Mexican law had abolished slavery. The North Americans, led by Sam Houston, declared the independence of Texas and brought slavery back to it. In case one is determined to think of North American influence as favoring progress, one hears a considerable amount about William Walker of Tennessee, who invaded Nicaragua with a private army and proclaimed himself its president. “The new president of Nicaragua restores slavery, abolished in Central America over thirty years ago, and re-implants the slave trade, serfdom, and forced labor. He decrees that English is Nicaragua’s official language.” The enemies of slavery, according to Walker, are the enemies of American civilization. Galeano quotes a different view of American civilization from Indian Chief Seattle:The earth is not the white man’s brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. But all things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. . . . Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

In another neat juxtaposition, one has the massacre of Indian women and children at Wounded Knee in 1890 next to Mark Twain’s proposal that the flag be changed from stars and stripes to skull and crossbones.

The figure in whom Galeano finds his own ideals articulated most explicitly is José Martí, father of Cuban independence. After living for ten years in the United States, Martí decides that there is another America, our America.Martí has dedicated his life to that other America: he wants to revive everything in it that has been killed from the conquest onward, and wants to reveal it and make it rebel, because its hidden and betrayed identity will not be revealed until it loosens its bonds.

Its history from the Incas on must be taught, even if that means Greek history is not taught, in order to create a brand of thinking that will be genuinely American. The letter he wrote the night before he was shot from his horse in 1895 warns that if the Cubans do not win their independence from Spain quickly, the United States will take over. His death is juxtaposed to the birth of Augusto César Sandino. Martí “always writes,” Galeano says, “as if hearing, where it is least expected, the cry of a newborn child.”

With the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt and the Battle of San Juan Hill, Martí’s prophecy is realized, leaving the volume to finish on a melancholy note which a concluding Indian prophecy of eventual liberation cannot entirely dissipate. Galeano’s fragmented mode allows him the luxury of not testing such (native) prophecies against the overarching (European) historical rationality he asserts elsewhere. Perhaps this luxury is after all a necessity: the necessity of finding strength in the actual experience of those who have suffered most, and the necessity of making his book into a community where no one will be excluded, where all the dead will be welcome and remembered.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878

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 memory, Galeano wrote a unique series of three books containing short episodes forming a mosaic of the many elements contributing to America’s past.

The format of the trilogy underlines the subjective nature of the work. Although many voices are taken into account, the work reveals one vision, that of the author. It is not an anthology, Galeano maintains, but to classify it as a novel, essay, epic poem, testament, or chronicle is equally difficult—probably because it contains elements of all of these. Every fragment is based on documentary information from a series of sources listed in the back of each volume and referred to by number at the end of the episode involved. The information upon which each fragment is based comes from many types of sources, but the choices of what to include and how to tell what happened reveal Galeano’s own bias. The author recognizes that he is not “neutral” in his reporting; he “takes sides” and the side he takes is clearly that of the oppressed groups, whether Indian, black, poor, or female. Finding traditional textbook history filled with lies and made to serve the function of teaching people to “resign [themselves] with drained consciences to the present,” Galeano presents his history as a vital part of stimulating change, using the repetition of ideas, episodes, and motifs so that the three volumes form one vision of the rich Latin American tradition as well as the history of exploitation of people and natural resources.

Genesis, the first volume of the trilogy, is divided into two parts: “First Voices” and “Old New World.” The “First Voices” are Indian myths of pre-Columbian America, starting appropriately with a creation myth and ending with a prophesy of the “rule of greed.” In between, the harmonious relationship of the Indian with nature is given a full range of expression through stories of many different tribes. As the section closes, a tale called “Authority” introduces a recurring theme, that the power of one group over another (in this case, men over women) is often based on a lie, which is passed from one generation to the next. In this way, he suggests, the rule of master over servant is maintained, once violence and murder have established it. Galeano then introduces three sections titled “Dangers,” “The Spider Web,” and “The Prophet” in which the arrival of the Europeans is foretold: “Men wearing clothes shall come, dominate, and kill.” In contrast to the domination to come, the pre-Columbian Indians’ life resembles Paradise.

The remainder of Genesis is a series of historical moments starting in 1492 on board Christopher Columbus’ ship and ending in 1700 at the deathbed of Charles II. Each episode, whether focusing on a specific incident or an individual, has a heading with the year and location in addition to a title. Galeano consults various sources for his information and occasionally interpolates literal transcriptions which appear in italics.

Faces and Masks continues the same format as the second part of Genesis. This volume begins with an entry titled “Promise of America”—the search for paradise which the land of America stimulated in Indians as well as in the conquistadores— and ends with a second prophecy, speaking of the end of greed through struggle and the establishment of freedom. Historically, however, this book covers 1701 through 1900, the period of the wars of independence, and contains an almost overwhelming amount of violence and betrayal, which the positive tone of the final section cannot counterbalance.

Century of the Wind picks up at the beginning of the twentieth century. “The World Goes On,” as the title notes, in spite of the belief of many that the world would end at midnight on the last day of 1899. Galeano traces modern developments in Latin America and its relations with the United States. Freedom is crushed repeatedly, but each time there is new rebellion. Galeano traces the present-day cycle through many turns and ends on the positive note of the irresistible life force, symbolized here by the “Maypole fiesta” and the “tree of life.” As with the second volume, Galeano reaffirms the positive despite the horrors presented in the historical chronicle of this period.

The sum of the books of this trilogy is a mixed composition drawn from mythology, literature, historical accounts, newspapers, and other varied sources. The sheer number of sources—227 for Genesis, 361 for Faces and Masks, and 475 for Century of the Wind—shows the volume of material which went into creating this mosaic, intended to represent the whole of Latin American history and experience.

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