Memory of Fire
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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