Conscientious Objector


Eduardo Galeano speaks to ghosts. He rescues their stories, recounts their lives. And, for his unwavering stance as a critic of contemporary social and economic injustice, this Uruguayan essayist and journalist was imprisoned and exiled, and lost friends to torturers. He has spent much of his life saying goodbye.

In Galeano’s new book, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (Metropolitan, 358 pp., $24), the concerns that seep into each of his books are on full display: the way the powerful trample the powerless, multinational corporations upend the less privileged, and dictators and democracy erase history and pesky citizens. He has, at times, described his own work as “Magical Marxism—one half reason, one half passion, and a third half mystery.” Galeano, who blends memoir with political analysis, tale-telling with cultural critique, is all these things, and more. He makes the world feel larger.

In Days and Nights of Love and War (1983), Galeano offered snatches of his own early life, one threatened by Latin American dictators, military coups, censorship. He survived malaria and the loss of his faith in God; he lived among Indians and guerrillas, presidents and prostitutes. “I wanted to give everything before death came,” he wrote, “empty myself, so that old bitch couldn’t find anything to take with her.”

While exiled to Spain in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he wrote the trilogy Memory of Fire, an epic history of the Americas, as if to reclaim all that he had lost, and with a vengeance. He related 500 years of conquest, myth, and rebellion through spare and dark vignettes, flecked with humor and invective. The stories he tells—from Columbus’s journey to the “Indies” in 1492 to a maypole fiesta in Nicaragua in 1984—overturn textbook history, which, for him, “boils down to a military parade of bigwigs in uniforms fresh from the dry-cleaners.” Here, he brings forth the “downtrodden, those waiting to get into history.”

Galeano writes from the point of view of a working-class boy, self-educated, at once wounded and wise, with a survivalist’s appetite for life. “Point of view is essential to writing, to life,” he says, leaning forward on his hotel couch while in New York to read from Upside Down. “I used to say that from the point of view of a worm, a spaghetti dish is an orgy.” Galeano’s gentle manner, his shock of white hair wrung round a balding pate, his sea blue eyes, and his jauntily crooked teeth belie his writing’s ferocity, but confirm its tenderness. “From my point of view, there are no voiceless people. It is my intention to hear the voices coming from those who for such a long time had not the right to be heard.” His own voice is almost a whisper, as if to counter the tenor of rage.

Conceived as a series of mock lesson plans, Upside Down includes “Lectures on Fear,” a “Master Class on Impunity,” “A Pedagogy of Solitude,” and “The Counterschool.” Galeano puts the New Economy on trial, condemning those who accept a “reality” that rejects the poor, and would allow globalization to reduce culture to entertainment, life to a spectacle, and news to advertising. You’ll have to forgive him his didactic moments. (Smoking a slim brown cigarette, he worries aloud about becoming too solemn “like the many orators I suffered since childhood.”) He’s got a lot to be angry about. Take the corporate theft of time: “Time that isn’t money, free time lived for the pleasure of living and not dutifully in order to produce, provokes fear,” he writes. “Fear of unemployment allows a mockery to be made of labor rights. The eight-hour day no longer belongs to the realm of law but to literature, where it shines among other works of surrealist poetry.”

In Upside Down Galeano savages the privileged world. Where Memory of Fire is an epic of the past, Upside Down is the present epically splayed out like so many skins, blemished and disfigured. And at times, the book is too solemn—with capitalism and corruption continually bearing down upon life, it is hard for him to stay magical. But Galeano, who designs his own books, leavens his truth-telling throughout with tattoo-like engravings of dancing skeletons and flying birdmen—the popular Mexican folk art of early-20th-century artist José Guadalupe Posada. Here, as with earlier works, sidebars feature verbal whistles to the reader—snatches of conversation, jokes, or twists of language. “Where Hindus see a sacred cow, others see an enormous hamburger.”

Galeano’s “story windows” (his term for his vignettes) allow the reader to trespass into historical hypocrisy, as in this found news item from Upside Down.

Goiânia City, Brazil, September 1987: Two ragpickers find a metal tube in an empty lot. They break it open and discover . . . a magic stone that turns the air blue and makes everything it touches shine. . . . The entire barrio is a lamp. The poor, suddenly rich in light, celebrate. The next day the ragpickers start vomiting. . . . The blue light burns and devours and kills. . . . It was one of the greatest nuclear catastrophes in history.

Galeano distrusts machines (he checks on my tape recorder twice), doesn’t drive, writes in longhand. He is a voracious reader of “the most boring documents”—reports and missives put out by the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank, all of whom come under fire in Upside Down. “They are exercising an invisible dictatorship all over the world,” he says quietly. In 1998, the year of the Clinton-Lewinsky obsession, he discovered an article on a London meeting of ecological organizations which issued a report “proving that in the last 30 years the world has lost one-third of all its natural resources. And this,” he cries, “was not a scandal!”

As Galeano tells it, books use him as a surrogate mother from which to fall into the world’s lap. When they are ready “they knock at the door asking to get out,” he says, rubbing his hand against his forehead. And while these creatures wend their way through his system, he walks and dreams in his hometown of Montevideo, a “human scale” city near the sea, which seems “prehistoric” because there are still “more encounters among people rather than among machines.”

Although he shuns the application of the term Magical Marxism to his work today (it’s more like magical democratic socialism), the blend of fictional forms, autobiography, and radical social critique remains fresh for readers who yearn to find literary works with a political compass. This is Galeano—tender, dreamy, indignant, and astute. “I try to write in a feel-thinking way,” he says, “to understand reality deeply in order to help change it, not just with the head, but with the heart.” To read him is to step full- body through his story windows, bypassing the potholes in the brain, walking and breathing, even as bruises flicker ahead.