Hunter of Stories
by Eduador Galeano
Nation Books, 272pp. $26.
Eduardo Galeano taught me where my parents came from. Always more historian than novelist, or commentator as chronicler, the Uruguayan maestro’s work was one whole mosaic framing the Latin American experience from conquest to capitalist modernism. Galeano, who shed his mortal coil in 2015, was the modern artist of the vignette, telling history in snapshots. I first read him as a young student when a mentor recommended his classic Open Veins of Latin America, an eloquent history of the economic and social history of the region, told with a journalist’s precision and novelist’s sense of language. The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez famously gave a copy of the book to Barack Obama during a summit in 2009, and I still sadly suspect that Obama didn’t bother to read it.
A more thrilling reading experience was Galeano’s three-part epic, Memory of Fire, which in a collection of short vignettes, anecdotes and memories, tells the entire history of the hemisphere from the pre-Columbian era up to the 1980s. The bloody fall of the Aztecs under the Spanish sword, Humboldt’s journeys through the Americas, Inca war chants, the Cuban Revolution, Mark Twain, the Sandinistas, all of it combines to make an intoxicating and enlightening reading experience. Within every page there is also a radical spirit, because Galeano was always openly leftist in his ideals. Originally a journalist belonging to the generation marked by the Cuban Revolution, Galeano stubbornly held to his ideals, even into the twilight of his life when so many of the revolutionary hopes of his youth had been long dashed or abandoned. Gabriel Garcia Marquez eventually settled into centrist comfort, Mario Vargas Llosa became a neoliberal (a decision which gets you into the best dinner parties), Octavio Paz disappeared into a sort of anti-socialist liberalism, younger luminaries like Roberto Bolano questioned all ideals with anarcho-pessimism, but Galeano continued to write texts celebrating the rebels, the underdogs and the socialists right until that moment when disease defeated the body. Maybe it is because unlike the big celebrities of the 1960s “Latin Boom,” Galeano always remained firmly a grassroots author. When a right-wing military regime took over Uruguay he was forced to flee with his wife into exile to Argentina and then Spain before returning in 1985. This was rarely a fate accorded to masterful but socially elite authors like Carlos Fuentes, who could support the Sandinistas and hang out at Hollywood dinner parties at the same time. Galeano was always full of life and humor, but there was also a sense of a man haunted by having lived the South American Dirty War up close.
Galeano was always a true poet in the way he could evoke great ideas and profound moments with few, but rich, words.
Hunter of Stories is the master’s final gift, written in his trademark style, alive with a joy for living and a special undercurrent of righteous fury. It is a fitting final work, for it contains in its 251 pages the themes and obsessions that fueled all of Galeano’s work. Yet there is also a sense when you read carefully that he was conscious of mortality’s approach. In the style of his recent works, such as Children of the Days, Galeano does not follow a linear timeline and decides to scramble history, preferring to link the short vignettes by theme and spirit. He still opens the book in the farthest reaches of history, sharing stories from Native American and Hindu theology. “Before the before, when time was not yet time and the world was not yet the world, we were all gods. Brahma, the Hindu god, could not bear the competition, so he stole our divine breath and concealed it in a secret hiding place,” reads the chapter “Lost Breath.”
Galeano’s interest in history is in telling the details official histories tend to ignore or purposefully gloss over. A champion of women’s rights, he delights in finding anecdotes such as a story titled “Barbaric Customs,” where early British colonists are horrified to find that Iroquois native tribes give women the right to own possessions and speak their minds openly. In the chapter “If Larousse Says So…,” he tells the story of Joseph Antenor Firmin, a black Haitian who in 1885 published a work entitled On the Equality of Human Races, which was quickly dismissed by the racist society of the time as ridiculous. We learn that the first European to illustrate American natives, Theodor de Bry, got it wrong, drawing indigenous inhabitants as bald cannibals (“In America, not a single Indian was bald”). The style of the prose is vivid in its simplicity. Galeano was always a true poet in the way he could evoke great ideas and profound moments with few, but rich, words. In the second volume of Memory of Fire, Faces & Masks, the classic regional story of an Argentine aristocrat named Camila who runs off with her priest in 1848 is summed up with one line, “They are two by an error that the night corrects.”
The real monsters in Galeano’s literature are fully human. Hunter of Stories never betrays one of the essences of his work, that human stories are lived under the shadow of rapacious and violent forces propelled by capitalism, imperialism and inhumanity.
In Hunter of Stories some of the small narratives are almost farcical in their delight. In “Monster Wanted,” Galeano traces the urban legend of the Loch Ness Monster to an incident fourteen centuries ago when Saint Columba claimed a giant serpent with a gaping mouth attacked his boat as he rowed idly, only leaving when he made the sign of the cross. Monsters dominate many of the dreams and travels of the European explorers Galeano includes in his final collection. “The Monster of Buenos Aires” displays a description by French priest Louis Feuillee, who was convinced he had seen the beast wandering through the South American lands he termed “kingdoms of Satan” from 1707 to 1711. You can’t help but feel Galeano’s grinning satisfaction at chronicling such an account. 500 years after the conquest and the lands beyond the U.S. southern border are still seen as exotic, violent and fearsome by many of the current world hegemon’s subjects, so much so that you can become president with promises of erecting a giant wall to keep the hordes at bay.
The real monsters in Galeano’s literature are fully human. Hunter of Stories never betrays one of the essences of his work, that human stories are lived under the shadow of rapacious and violent forces propelled by capitalism, imperialism and inhumanity. For every tender, romantic gesture in this book, there is a story of anger and heartbreak. “The Right to Plunder” follows an Iraqi journalist in 2003 who weeps at the sight of plundered relics from his homeland on display in European museums; the text then reveals that in mere months the U.S. would invade Iraq, creating even worse plunder and cultural destruction. One horrifying, three-sentence story entitled “Closed Doors” tells of how in 2004 a shopping center caught fire in Uruguay, killing 396 people, “The doors were barred so no one could escape without paying.”
It is impossible to know someone’s most inner private moments, but if a writer’s personality vibrates through a text, then one gets the sense that Galeano awaited his final passage with the kind of lively verve and calm wisdom that defined his work.
For Galeano consumerism has infected and poisoned the wells of civilization, throwing us into a limbo where we still try to grasp at hope. Gone is the openly socialist or revolutionary fervor of his earlier works, and he is writing here as an aged fountain of wisdom now closing his life in a post-Cold War, capitalist world. The Cuban experiment faltered, the civil wars of Central America in the 1980s have only bred economic refugees. Even the “Pink Tide” of the 2000s in South America has receded, with reactionary forces making a comeback and cancer claiming Hugo Chavez. Yet Galeano was never a blind party hack, because he is fiercely independent — he has not lost his optimism of the will, to paraphrase Gramsci. He celebrates little known heroes in this book, including a poor anarchist who made fake documents during the Spanish Civil War, or the first workers who went on strike in Egypt in 1152 BC. In “The Windbreak” he revives the German priest Thomas Muntzer, who in 1525 led a proto-communist insurrection against the Medieval powers of the time because he felt Martin Luther was too soft. Galeano is reminding us that the urge for liberty transcends time and trends. There are shades here of his grand 2009 work Mirrors, which breathlessly chronicled all human history from initial spark to the present.
Yet, he knew the final journey was at hand. There is a section in the book which diverts from history and loses itself in a series of chapters dealing with world rituals for the dead. In “Papa Goes to the Stadium,” he tells the loving story of a son who takes his father’s ashes to soccer games (a game Galeano loved passionately). In the evocatively-titled “Lost Steps,” the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead is framed with beautiful language, “What was no longer is, and neither is it where it was, and there is no telling who is whom, or whether they are from here or from there or from nowhere.” It is impossible to know someone’s most inner private moments, but if a writer’s personality vibrates through a text, then one gets the sense that Galeano awaited his final passage with the kind of lively verve and calm wisdom that defined his work.
Hunter of Stories makes good literary accompaniment for the beginning of another year overcast with the tone of tumultuous times. Galeano leaves us with this collection of eloquent reminders that the times are always full of upheaval and hope, love and loss. His was one of the last radical voices from an era defined by a specific kind of idealism, later tempered by the way history decided to proceed. But he raged on until the end, not with bitterness, but with heart and soul. In the book’s opening sections his editor tells us that Galeano worked tirelessly amid illness and pain, perfecting every chapter and word. This helps explain why the work never feels tired. It is a craftsman leaving the shore, still furiously creating. A maestro leaves us here a collection to savor in its journey through faiths, experiences, histories and profiles. In darkening times, his work is an elegant lamp casting a needed glow.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.