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Lyrical, Fragmented History Of Cruelty And Hope

Jul 14, 2009

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In April, when Venezuelan head of state Hugo Chavez handed President Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, the book — a history of Latin America first published in 1971 — leapt from No. 54,295 to No. 2 on Amazon's ranking of best-sellers. Whether Obama even read it didn't matter; his holding the book was enough to bring its obscure Uruguayan author into the spotlight.

Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone is Galeano's first release since his newfound fame in the U.S., and it's an interesting addition to his complex body of work, which weaves together journalism, myth, fiction and history to place Latin American politics into a larger context of a worldwide tendency toward tyranny and subjugation. Less polemical than some of the other published titles in his 40-plus-year career, it's also more accessible and lyrical — not to mention less depressing. It's comprised of little snippets of creation myths from all over the world, historical corrections, different perspectives on common knowledge — each only a few paragraphs long. The author begins with the ancients and long-dead gods from Greek to Aztec and moves through the world and time until he reaches the present day.

Whether discussing, in Mirrors, the pen names of the Bronte sisters — "intruders into the male world of literature" — or the 1951 takeover of the Cairo parliament by 1,500 women protesting their inability to vote, Galeano is first and foremost a political writer. He personally knows what it is like to be oppressed, having been arrested in 1973 and forced to leave Uruguay after the military coup. His own struggles perhaps explain Mirrors' humane and light tone. (In it, he describes King Henry VIII thusly: "He widowed easily.") One would need a sense of humor to survive more than 30 years in exile, documenting horrors and uncovering uncomfortable truths.

It's often said that history is written by the victors, but Galeano has been documenting the losing side — the oppressed, the forgotten, the used — for decades. Neither weary nor desperate, these tales have a tinge of hope. He concentrates on those who rose up and resisted, and he delights in their victories, no matter how small.

Despite being perfectly arranged so that one story easily flows into another, Mirrors is best read in fragments. Skip around, read one tiny story here, another a few pages later, and allow the tales to swim around your head a while and see if they change the way you see the world.

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Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone
By Eduardo Galeano
Translated by Mark Fried
Hardcover, 400 pages
Nation Books
List price: $26.95
Read An Excerpt

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