Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Galeano's Masterpiece Inspires an Irish Delight

One of the most crucial writers for understanding Latin America, and all of the Americas, is the Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano. His Venas Abiertas de America Latina (Open Veins of Latin America) is, I think, the essential history of colonial exploitation of the New World. But his masterpiece, a literary as well as an historical milestone, is Memoria del Fuego (Memory of Fire), a searing review of the injustice, caprice, craziness, but also majesty, magic and drama of the Western Hemisphere from pre-Columbian days through the twentieth century.

It is a work as significant for its form as for its content, as Galeano presents short passages collected from myriad sources to weave an impressionistic collage of events large and small, making connections and stirring intuitions as only the very best literary masters can do. The fact that these passages, paragraphs, stories are for the most part drawn from authentic historical sources draws the reader's amazement and shock beyond the text as literature and outward to the world itself. Only a handful of writers have the erudition and eloquence to transport us the way Memory of Fire does.

The trilogy was composed by Galeano in the 1980s, and nobody really attempted to match it for many years. It was sui generis, until 2005, when along comes Don Akenson's An Irish History of Civilization in two massive volumes, dedicated "To the memory of Sir Walter Raleigh, who should have known better, and in honour of Eduardo Galeano, who certainly does." The collage technique is again deployed to carry us from Biblical times to the twentieth century, and to convey something of the tragic and funny experience of the Irish diaspora. I love Irish history and above all Irish literature, and what is not lost on devotees of the subject is the tremendous weight of melancholy that weighs on the whole terrible Irish experience. Thus the deep, deep sense of humor, evolved as it is to look with clear eyes at a world where men are "straw-dogs." Galeano, Akenson. Now we need the Jewish version.

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