Memoirist of Fire
On 12th April, the Chinese media reported that Puren, the youngest half-brother of Puyi, the last emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty, had died at the age of ninety-six. The outside world barely noticed. With Puren’s passing vanished last of the tenuous linkages to a medieval world that was as baroque as the eventual Communist regime of Mao was to be radical. To the outside world, however, replacing the Manchu Qing with the Communists was merely the replacement of one form of opacity by another. Well before the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci threw light on Puyi, the relationship between the Communist Party and the last of the Chinese royals was merely an historical footnote, albeit not as bloody as the Romanoffs in the wake of Lenin and his gang. Eduardo Galeano, the iconic Uruguayan writer died earlier this week, was one of the few reporters who managed to finagle an interview with Puyi in 1963. The red shadow of Mao’s persona, understandably, darkened the mood of the hour. During their conversation, mediated by a Mandarin to Spanish translator, Puyi let in Galeano on a secret with, what must have been by then, a well practiced routine of humility: the Last Emperor of China, who now lived as a gardener and librarian, was not a member of the Communist party. When asked why he hadn’t joined, Puyi confessed: “The title of Communist is a most noble title. I am very far from attaining that incomparable glory… I must finish changing my ideas if I am to reach such an elevated goal.” Galeano doesn’t write what he felt when he heard those words but he leaves behind a cryptic, but sympathetic, note about the cup in which his jasmine tea was served: “The dragons on the porcelain surface are fighting.” Such encounters with those cast away onto the sides of history fueled Galeano’s journalistic and writing career wherein he gently peeled away layers of self-deceptions that the defeated entertain, not to self-aggrandize themselves but often to eke out morsels of dignity.
Galeano’s death comes after more than half century long career wherein he wrote about the vanities and follies of men, the loneliness of back breaking labor in flea markets and coal mines, the worm addled utopias promised by demagogues on the Right (mostly) and the Left, the gray suited high priests of modern finance capital who have sacrificed countries to their great God called productivity, the historical amnesias of the global South and the post-industrial oblivions in the North. When he died, Galeano was 74, thrice married, bald and a prophetic voice who once dreamed of being a footballer.
For much of his life as a journalist, Galeano wielded words with the self-awareness of a poet. As authoritarian regimes across Latin America propped themselves up with bullets and violence, words were Galeano’s sole weapons. In his youth and middle ages, when the brush fire of revolution and counter-revolutions promised to turn the post colonial worlds upside down and inside out, the lure of the caudillo, the strongman, as the answer to all problems was played once more across Latin America. Unlike many of his peers, Galeano was more skeptical of their promises, for he knew this lure of authoritarian father figure was a recurring Latin American political ailment. After the short lived promises of democracy in countries like Argentina under men like Hipólito Yrigoyen, Galeano’s career spanned an age when the epidemic of authoritarianism swept in, like some biblical pestilence: Peron in Argentina, Castro in Cuba, Pinochet in Chile, Trujillo in Dominican Republic, Duvaliers in Haiti, Martinez in El Salvador, Somoza of Nicaragua, Rios Montt in Guatemala, and the military dictatorships of Brazil, Paraguay, and Honduras. In many of these cases, these strong men were representatives of the elaborate appendages and vassals who remained when the old colonial powers had withdrawn but not vanished. What these regimes had in common was the casual reliance on violence, arbitrary arrests, and eventually even killings. Predictably, these ruling juntas stymied the flourishing of a democratic society. But they weren’t solely to blame either. The frigidity of the Cold War froze the grounds and that which was allowed to emerge, politically speaking, under the malevolent gaze of the CIA and the KGB, was distorted, macabre, and cannibalistic. Societies became abattoirs; governments became family run shakedown enterprises; armed forces were gangsters with uniforms, and violence replaced Spanish or Portuguese as the lingua franca. To write openly about these claustrophobias was tantamount to inviting death or worse, to be disappeared away into prisons, baby gulags, and an abyss from which humans and humanity rarely returned. Galeano himself fled Uruguay to Argentina, then fled from Argentina to Spain.
Among many victims of violence, both human and institutional, an unexpected, even if unsurprising, casualty was language. So dense was the pall of grief that words in newspapers and journals that reported yet another kidnapping or murder meant little. Minds that had been sensitive to inflection of songs and the seductive worlds of ballads, marinera, meringue, capoeira songs, and samba were inured to chronicles of horror. To those with an historical ear, like Galeano, none of this was however new. Since Atahualpa was executed by Pizarro in the 16th century, waves of violence under one pretext or another lashed over these regions rich in minerals, forests, and water. That said, even during these ‘plague years’ of 20th century authoritarianism, people laughed and cried, made love and fought, gossiped and conspired after reading novels and poems. But the originary promise of language — to reimagine the future and past in the present — were increasingly difficult. To do so, demanded an extraordinary ear to the resonances of reality that few could hear and even fewer still could put it on paper. Most writing that emerged was either prosaic or phantasmagorical. To describe reality as it was without a recourse to tedium or the extravagant was difficult. Those who were determined to ride their ideological hobby horses that charged up imagined dragons, like that patron saint of Spanish literature from la Mancha, were condemned to speak a language that was stilted, orthodox, and ultimately grotesque justifications of moral cowardice. The true challenge was to be able to speak of commonplace realities in arresting new ways. To find himself that voice and vocabulary of pain and defeat, Galeano — among the self-selected few — walked the grounds amidst the people. Through copper mines, shanty towns, beaches, marshes, cities and salt flats, he chronicled humans who were dark skinned, tired, exploited, pregnant, and unyielding. All of them, per his narrative, ultimately struggled to get by without sullying too much of that one inalienable human possession: self-respect. Galeano’s narratives had an artful terseness that sought to bring together the casualness of folk tales and the edited precisions of newspapers. The belabored realism of 19th century European literature or the quiet desperations of North American literature was not for him. What was born from his pen was an authenticity slaked by sweat and grime underscored by the aesthetic ambitions at par with any of the 20th century literary greats. Over time his passages, like many of his football heroes from the South American continent, acquired a dribble, a swerve, a fake pass between the legs of conventional narratives and a denouement that laid bare the blandness of conventional and convenient narratives. By the end of his life, his oeuvre had acquired a capaciousness and life of its own that few of Latin America’s great writers could rival.
People travelled from far and wide to hear him read out his epistles about the birds in Amazon and imagined monsters of medieval travelogues, the fishermen and the fanatic, the white elephant football stadiums and the forgotten Mayan ruins, the cruelty of the skin-and-bones poverty and the preposterous indulgences of the dictatorial elite. His words and texts were fragmentary, gently indignant and airy enough to let the reader imagine a world of her own. On the elisions of history, he writes:
“In the entire history of human butchery, World War 2 was the war that killed the most people. But the accounting came up short.
Many soldiers from the colonies never appeared on the lists of the dead. They were Australian aborigines, Indians, Burmans, Filipinos, Algerians, Senegalese, Vietnamese, and so many other black, brown and yellow people obliged to die for the flags of their masters.
When they are alive, people are ranked first, second, third or fourth class. When they are dead too.”
It was this ability to evoke historical cruelty without accompanying rancor, to speak of the vileness of colonial rulers while acknowledging that their blood courses through many today who self-righteously decry those ancient villains, to laugh at the grandiloquent hypocrisy of the rulers while knowing that the ruled themselves are often complicit in their lesser prejudices against those with the wrong color, wrong gender, wrong shape of nose and wrong histories. His permanent enemy were the Rightists (those who “entered history ass backwards”) but by the end of his life, he had abandoned the fervency offered by such easy political taxonomies. The world was more complex and thus all the more simple to conclude that his words no longer mapped well to reality. His books were, in a way, a refuge from a world that was obscured by euphemisms and propaganda.
In his books there were no plot twists, cliffhangers to throw the reader astray or that bugbear of Latin American literature called magic realism. Instead he relied on that old exhortation of the algebraist Carl Jacobi -‘invert, always invert’ (‘man muss immer umkehren’). So, his writings were filled with an unexpected inward gaze or a turn of phrase that revealed the contrapuntal as worthy of interest. This instinctive feel for the unexpected and sympathy for the underdog was something Galeano relied on repeatedly. Perhaps this is why, of all his writings about the strong men of Latin America, it was the failed revolutionary’s energetic braggadocio that Galeano melancholically savored. And few brought out the tenderness of his prose and curiosity in his interviews as Che Guevara did, especially when the Argentine put away the mantle of ‘Che’ and became ‘Ernesto Serna’, a medical student with a golden heart and weak lungs. All of this meant that Galeano was easily branded as Leftist, as he often was. It was a descriptor that he seems to have proudly worn till recently, when he grew weary, if not suspicious, of what the Left had turned out. But one suspects this disenchantment was an aesthetic one than any lack of faith in the need for redistribution of wealth and opportunities. The language of the orthodox doctrinaire Leftism grated on his civilized and sensitive ears. The language of revolution had transmogrified into parodies of itself. The rhetorical flourishes in the name of justice and the oppressed had become elaborate head fakes to perpetuate political power. The philosophical efforts to imagine man from the grounds up had been reduced to technical wordplays to land ambitious men and women with tenures in corporate universities. It was this Left — as venal and self-serving as its purported enemy — that Galeano had abandoned. Perhaps it is the sign of his secular beatification that his very enemies have now taken to calling him their own. His radical humanism — leavened by cigarette smoke of his youth and love for gentle sly jokes — is hard to encapsulate into a political project. His writings were, as the great British conservative Michael Oakeshott wrote elsewhere, a “disposition” that was cultivated and looks easy, but is born out of hard work. What his admirers and detractors sought to do was reduce his writings to a political stance at best and more dismissively as merely well meaning discontent. Both views seek to make him less subversive, to shorn away the sharp edges, and to make his discontent more palatable. It is as if Pele was to be merely described as yet another footballer. Like the Brazilian on the field, Galeano on the page was large visioned, generous and willing to somersault riskily. He contained multitudes of voices, as evidenced by the magisterial ‘Memoirs of Fire’ trilogy of Latin American history. It was a history of a place immemorial, magical and bloody, written by one who had no time for the ‘objective’ history of textbooks and academics.
A few years ago, I wrote to a book editor of a major Indian literary magazine to ask if she might be interested in publishing an interview with Galeano, who was then visiting NYC. She refused the pitch, and politely wrote back saying that she didn’t know of him and in any case he had little relevance for Indian readers. That many in the non-Americas don’t know him is partly because he preferred to stick to that which he knew best: the lands peopled by Spanish and Portuguese languages. But over the past decade, Galeano’s classical nemesis — the vicious military juntas and strong men — had begun to depart the scene. They have however been replaced by more secular and globally resonant concerns: environmental degradation, income inequality, deforestation, the hollowing of democracies, vanishing away of cultural niches, and the monocultural crop of American globalization. These ills of the global commons are fanned and nurtured by amorphous corporations with well funded hydra heads that reveal different faces to different audiences. To assuage the conscience of global elite these businesses sing paeans to corporate social responsibility, while in the forests and fields of the South, they rapaciously strip mines and log. Faced with such an enemy, Galeano’s prose crackled with new found indignation.
But beyond that finely felt ire, he had little else to offer by way of how to organize society, how to feed six billion and how to temper the zeal to consume. He resorted to homilies about the virtues of the native tribes in the Amazon. But even he knew that it was a half-hearted answer. Admittedly, he was no philosopher or a social scientist charged with fixing the problem but rather he was merely a self-described old man who spoke of the inequities in the world with the words he could summon. Galeano’s elegant, but mere matter of fact, observations about nature and political economy, made a sage out of him in the global Left movement, which in turn meant many things to many people. This was a role he reluctantly and rarely took to. But what he did enjoy (when I saw him speak publicly in New York City couple of years ago) was the adulation of a younger generation, those in their twenties and thirties, who sought to breakaway and reimagine a future that wasn’t reducible to a life seesawing between the Scylla of adjustable rate mortgages and the Charybdis of global warming. What I saw that day at The New School wasn’t the effusive praises of an elite reading class for a skilled author but love (for there is no other word for that effulgence of warmth that surrounded him, but love). Love for a man who had chronicled the lived experiences of a continent, who had chosen to remind them that when the night of military authoritarianism was at its darkest that the dawn of democracy was near and inevitable. The new morning may not have brought the democracy he hoped for, but it was better than the night. Or so he suggested weakly.
With Galeano’s passing, the world is less fun and tales of resistance and subversion will be more predictable and sanctimonious. He will be canonized by the Left, nodded to respectfully by the Right — with both hoping to ignore the natural drift of his words that flowed, like the mighty rivers of the Americas in search of human dignity for all — the macabre, the middling and the morally courageous. In this, he was a secular saint, who thought that redemption was possible if we changed our actions and lived more conscientiously. But till that time, and being no gullible idealist, Galeano kept his ears to the ground. He scribbled in his notebooks about the smoke and fire that rushes in from the past, engulfs the present and threatens to burn down the future. To this end his words remind us: nothing human shall forbidden to chronicle.