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Eduardo Galeano Contemplates History's Paradoxes

Aug 24, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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At a Summit of the Americas last spring, Hugo Chavez, the frequently anti-American president of Venezuela, gave President Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America.

First published in 1971, the book presents author Eduardo Galeano's version of the history of "five centuries of the pillage of a continent."

Galeano's name may be unfamiliar to most Americans, but in South America, he's a legend — revered in some circles, reviled in others.

Now 68, the Uruguayan author spends most days at his favorite cafe in Montevideo, Uruguay, where fans phone to ask if he is there or when he's expected. Sometimes they leave letters and books for him to sign. Galeano says he was formed in this cafe and others like it:

"These were my universities. Here in cafes is where I learned the art of storytelling — great anonymous storytellers that taught me how to do it," he says. "I love these places where we may have time to lose time. It is a luxury in this world."

A left-wing intellectual, Galeano was arrested and forced out of Uruguay after the 1973 military coup. He spent 12 years in exile and was put on the Argentine military government's death list.

Now back in his homeland, Galeano has the luxury of time. He writes in his hometown cafe about themes that have preoccupied him for a lifetime.

"Always in all my books I'm trying to reveal or help to reveal the hidden greatness of the small, of the little, of the unknown — and the pettiness of the big," he says.

If President Obama were to read Open Veins of Latin America — an indictment of capitalism, corporations, colonialism and, yes, the U.S. — Galeano says he hopes the president might understand "a certain idea about the fact that no richness is innocent."

"Richness in the world is a result of other people's poverty. We should begin to shorten the abyss between haves and have-nots," he says.

Galeano admits that his notions about power and underdogs are "absolutely out of fashion."

"I am quite prehistoric, absolutely prehistoric," he says.

But the author's "prehistoric" preoccupations are also quite current. Take his thoughts on war, for instance:

"Each time a new war is disclosed in the name of the fight of the good against evil, those who are killed are all poor. It's always the same story repeating once and again and again," he says.

Poverty, injustice, powerlessness, exploitation — no wonder people keep asking Galeano whether he finds any cause for hope in this world. His answer: "It depends on the hour of the day."

"Sometimes I am optimistic at noon, and then at 3 o'clock I am absolutely down on the floor. Later I recover, and then I fall again and so on," he says.

Back in the cafe, a waitress practices the harmonica while Galeano autographs a copy of his latest book, Mirrors, for a fan. Mirrors is his unofficial history of the world — 5,000 years' worth — told in short squibs — a quick paragraph here, a few lines there.

Galeano re-imagines history through the stories of unknowns and better-knowns — like jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt:

He was born in a gypsy caravan and spent his early years on the road in Belgium, playing the banjo for a dancing bear and a goat.

He was eighteen when his wagon caught fire and he was left for dead. He lost a leg, a hand. Goodbye road, goodbye music. But as they were about to amputate, he regained the use of his leg. And from his lost hand he managed to save two fingers and become one of the best jazz guitarists in history.

There was a secret pact between Django Reinhardt and his guitar. If he would play her, she would lend him the fingers he lacked.

"This is a revealing story about paradoxes as a source of hope, because, you see, this man with how many fingers — two? — he was the best!" says Galeano.

Galeano loves the paradox of Reinhardt. He also loves the paradox of slaves in the American South creating jazz, the freest of music. He contemplates such mysteries and writes his wistful musings in this small cafe, in the small capital of one of South America's smallest countries.

When it's time to leave the cafe, a friend appears outside to give him a lift. Galeano doesn't drive, nor does he use his cell phone much. He suspects his computer — and all computers — drink whiskey at night when nobody's watching.

"And that's why next day they do some enigmatic things that nobody can understand," he says.

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