A Telling Chronicle of the Americas : MEMORY OF FIRE : III. Century of the Wind <i> by Eduardo Galeano; translated by Cedric Belfrage (Pantheon: $22.95, cloth; $10.95, paper; 301 pp.) </i>
“Century of the Wind” follows “Genesis” and “Faces and Masks” as the final volume in Eduardo Galeano’s chronicle of the Americas, “Memory of Fire.” In his trilogy, Galeano ranges geographically from Canada to Argentina and Chile and chronologically from the pre-Columbian period to the present. To be sure, Galeano focuses on Latin America, shifting his attention above the Rio Grande primarily to treat events that have had large consequences in Mexico and lands farther south. In any case, “Memory of Fire” has been a hugely ambitious project, embracing vast cultural heterogeneity and complexity. That Galeano has managed to render his history of the Americas at once accessible, coherent and fascinating is a considerable achievement.
In his preface to “Genesis,” which first appeared in Spanish in 1982, Galeano decries conventional histories of Latin America as “lifeless, hollow, dumb . . . drowned in dates,” little more than a “military parade of bigwigs in uniforms fresh from the dry-cleaners.” For Galeano, such works are not only insipid but false, depriving Latin Americans of the knowledge that might break the prevailing mood of resignation and hopelessness. As the title itself indicates, “Memory of Fire” seeks to evoke the combustible, often destructive energy of American history. In presenting his version of events, Galeano makes no pretense of objectivity. I am “unable to distance myself,” he writes. “I take sides.”
And so he does, initially with the aboriginal peoples of America and, later, with its oppressed masses, mostly Indian and black. He takes sides against the particular evils of the European conquest, North American capitalism and imperialism and the endless varieties of Latin American despotism. “Genesis” traces the legacy of the conquistadors’ racism and avarice to 1700, by which time the aboriginal cultures had been virtually demolished and the bonds of colonialism had slackened, leaving an America “torn to pieces.” In “Faces and Masks,” Galeano opens his survey of the 18th and 19th centuries with these lines from a Colombian poem:
I don’t know who I am,
nor just where I was bedded.
Don’t know where I’m from
nor where the hell I’m headed.
From his vantage point, Galeano sees the track of American history somewhat more clearly. Thomas Jefferson appears, to be followed by Toussaint L’Ouverture, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Simon Bolivar. Independence, however, is not freedom, and everywhere, from Washington to Buenos Aires, governments fall into the hands of the wealthy.
During the 19th Century, the United States easily surpasses other American nations in economic development. As an omen of things to come, Galeano recounts the intrigues of William Walker, a pious, self-styled Southern gentleman who descends on Nicaragua with an army of adventurers and a bank account furnished by North American businessmen. A year later in 1856, Walker proclaims himself president, restores slavery, declares English the official language and offers land to any white compatriots willing to resettle in Nicaragua.
As “Century of the Wind” opens, Galeano notes two episodes that provide keys to his understanding of modern Latin American history. The first begins in New York City in 1901 when Andrew Carnegie sells his steel interests to J. P. Morgan for $250 million. Galeano writes that “a fever of consumption” and “a vertigo of money” dominate the United States; the country “belongs to the monopolies and the monopolies to a handful of men.” Meanwhile, the “other America” remains in economic chaos, the individual countries eagerly signing commercial treaties with the United States and European nations but none with their neighbors. “Latin America is an archipelago of idiot countries” laments Galeano, “organized for separation and trained to dislike each other.”
The second definite episode occurs in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, in 1902 as the town is being destroyed by lava and mud avalanches from a volcanic eruption. Choking in a rain of ashes, the town crier bravely reads a proclamation by the president assuring the local citizens that all is quiet in Guatemala, that the rumors of volcanic disturbance are merely the dirty tricks of the “enemies of order.”
“Century of the Wind” fairly runs over with these kinds of moments: tragic, sardonic, provocative and sharply insightful, often all at once. As Galeano depicts it, modern Latin American history resembles nothing so much as the old Latin American history. The same bloody patterns of oppression, exploitation and resistance persist; the only major new factor is advanced technology, particularly in the forms of mass media with their unprecedented ability to shape public opinion.
Otherwise, the United States remains its meddlesome, destructive self, intruding in Panama, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Nicaragua endlessly. Mired in corrupt political systems, Latin Americans continue to exhibit the distressing habit of exterminating precisely those individuals most likely to deliver them from oppression: Villarroel in Bolivia, Gaitan in Colombia, Allende in Chile, to name just a few. The days of jubilee seem as remote as ever in a region where a high government official announces that the most sacred things in the world are, in descending importance, property, public order and human life.
Against long odds, however, Galeano clings to optimism. His hopefulness is embodied in characters such as Miguel Marmol, a Salvadoran Indian who rises to become a leader in his country’s revolutionary movement. Marmol, whose life spans virtually all of the 20th Century, appears regularly throughout Galeano’s history, each time with greater wisdom, dedication and resilience. A clearly symbolic figure, Marmol cannot be killed by the forces of oppression; he remains vigorous to the very end of Galeano’s chronicle, still conspiring.
As he did in the earlier volumes of his trilogy, Galeano renders “Century of the Wind” in a series of vignettes, usually of three or four paragraphs, which together constitute a historical mosaic. Galeano consulted nearly 500 histories, literary works, journalistic accounts and official documents during the preparation of this volume, and he has used his sources well. Arranged chronologically, the vignettes cover an extraordinary range of historical figures, events and cultural phenomena.
In “Century of the Wind,” the reader will encounter Thomas Edison and Pablo Neruda and learn how the appearance of Donald Duck has played a part in Latin American experience. Galeano’s early work as a political cartoonist in his native Uruguay evidences itself in his ironic and economical style of writing.
Many readers in this country will find Galeano’s obvious sympathies for socialist and Marxist causes offensive. Be that as it may, “Century of the Wind” remains a compelling work and represents a point of view widely held in Latin America. Given the results of the most recent Mexican presidential election, it behooves us to understand this point of view as clearly as possible. (See excerpt, Page 15.)