Eduardo Galeano, trans. by Mark Fried, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (Nation Books, 2009)
Borges once recounted the feat of the Frenchman Pierre Menard, who shouldered the “astonishing task” of re-writing Don Quixote. Menard was out to accomplish the impossible: not merely to copy the original Quixote, or, for that matter, to attempt to write another version. Instead, he wanted to “produce pages that coincide word for word, line for line, with those of Cervantes.” The act was so hilariously subtle (since Menard’s and Cervantes’ versions were identical) that we can only marvel at the sheer audacity of Menard, who aimed to be Cervantes some three hundred years after the Spaniard’s death.
Eduardo Galeano’s newly translated book Mirrors, written in 2008 and published in May by Nation Books, reveals a Galeano cut from Menard’s cloth. Only, in Mirrors, the identification Galeano seeks is a return to his own origins – equally beholden, you might say, to legend. Galeano, the Uruguayan journalist and novelist, is still famous for his Open Veins of Latin America, a non-fiction account that launched him into the international spotlight, where he’s largely remained as one of the region’s most respected contemporary voices.
For readers of Galeano, Mirrors will feel familiar. It consists of Galeano’s trademark vignettes—some a single paragraph long, others almost two pages—that together tell the fragmented history of the world, from ancient times to the present. In his march through time, he sketches people and events, locales and cultural artifacts, all loosely arrayed in chronological order. An earlier Galeano creation will instantly come to mind. This book takes its cues from Memory of Fire, a trilogy Galeano wrote between 1982 and 1986 while living in Spanish exile. There, Galeano narrates the history of America beginning with tribal creation myths, and extending to the tortured years of the military dictatorships and the desaparecidos.
Mirrors never quite escapes from the shadow of the trilogy. It’s got all the pretension, but little of the originality of its antecedent—this, in spite of its impressive breath and worldliness. (A Galeano book is like an encyclopedia that disregards the alphabet; where else can you find Isis alongside Whitman and Sappho?)
Still, the thematic and stylistic overlap with the trilogy is curious. Take, for example, his descriptions of Leonardo da Vinci. In Memory, Galeano writes: “The artist invents [the lands of Columbus], as previously he has invented the airplane, the tank, the parachute, and the submarine, and he gives them form…”
Galeano writes this of da Vinci in Mirrors: “…[he] invented the helicopter, the airplane, the bicycle, the submarine, the parachute, the machine gun, the grenade, the mortar, the tank, the moving crane, the floating dredger, the spaghetti-making machine, the bread mill.”
Two distinct titles suggest that these passages are different. But the conceit is the same – da Vinci, the inventor, invents. It’s the sort of thing a woman like Mona Lisa would smirk at.
The books do have their differences, though, and they are telling. The writer of these two da Vinci’s has changed somewhat from Memory to Mirrors. Mirrors showcases a certain confidence, not the same defiance on display in the trilogy but a self-possession and surety that come with age and recognition. Whereas each vignette in Memory cites to the sources where Galeano drew his inspiration (to newspaper accounts, academic work, political and anthropological narratives), Mirrors refuses to look outward in the same way. An index is all Galeano gives us this time; the book lists its topics by name, but does not offer sources, as though the point this time around is that the narrative somehow stands on its own.
Memory is as much about how its own histories are constructed as it is about asserting alternate histories. By Mirrors, Galeano intimates that this history plainly demonstrates its own authority, in a way that his earlier works could not. This is, by necessity, a polemical move. The book is all about reappropriation. The mirror of the self-obsessed West is turned on its head – or better yet, shattered. The scattered shards of the oppressed and the unaccounted-for overtake the single mirror with its reflection of a triumphalist narrative of progress, conquest, and invention. Writes Galeano, in a vignette titled “Euroeverything,” “Europe looked in the mirror and saw the world/Beyond that lay nothing.”
Shattering mirrors is Galeano’s political calling as a writer. He once wrote of literature that it is a “two-way mirror, showing what is visible and what is not but still is…” In this book, as before, he is out to return the invisible to the frame. Of what’s left of the Parthenon’s frieze, Galeano writes: “…in the little that there is lies all that there was.” He sees, in the fractured and frozen marbles of Phidias “…[a] knee [that] walks on in the absent leg; that torso, decapitated, bears an invisible head…” These are elegant lines, and Mark Fried translates them well, faithfully massaging the syntax to capture their poetic lilt.
In spite of the occasional heavy-handedness (a tired jab at George W., some faux profundity on Israel-Palestine), Galeano does handle certain vignettes with skill and a gentle irony. “Strike of the Closed Thighs” is a smart play on the Aristophanes play Lysistrata; “Male Panic” mocks the male fear of relinquishing power, parodying the worry that “woman …[could]…be an entrance with no exit.” A later vignette points out that Che Guevara, in his last letter to his parents, likened himself to Don Quixote, feeling “beneath my heels…Rocinante’s ribs.”
These passages capture Galeano at his best – impassioned, principled, every bit the ideologue and the partisan, and yet, irreverent, endlessly skeptical, self-aware. That he plays Menard in Mirrors to his younger self may, in the end, say less about his abilities as a writer and more about a dated aesthetic. Galeano is at it again, and we’re all grateful for it. But this book should make Galeano fans nervous: all but a rewrite of Memory of Fire, that Mirrors repeats without enlivening may mean that an old rant can’t be resuscitated.
Blitzer is a freelance writer, translator, and works at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.