Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Review: Mirrors, by Eduardo Galeano

So I was pleased to learn from this book that one name of the form is zuihitsu, based on Sei Shōnagon's The Pillow Book, one of classical Japan's several indelible contributions to literary form. At least it's a word to keep in mind as I attempt to review Steinbeck or Dos Passos doing similar things, even as they may diverge from the contemplative, essay-ish, impression-heavy style that the name more correctly implies. I like it better than writing "mosaic" or "tapestry," and it's nice to lessen the obligation to say things about sums and parts and all that, but of course I will anyway. Mirrors strings together historical tidbits, each several paragraphs long, more or less chronologically, chosen for poignancy, sensitivity, and horror. Given history, it's not like he lacks material. It feels a little bit like some polite children's lesson-book that one only barely remembers, but I'll tell you, picking at the world in three-paragraph chunks is also a lot like reading a blog. It would be a brilliant project in the right hands. Just sayin'.

Subtitling it "stories of almost everyone" is a bit ambitious (the original una historia casi universal appears to convey a slightly different meaning, no? Galeano evidently collaborated closely with the translator, Mark Fried, to ensure the right context), but it is impressive for its comprehensiveness just the same. He takes us through prose-poetry snapshots of lives, starting at the fuzzy dawn of human memory through the bloody birth of our new century, stopping at many corners of civilization along the way. Although I think it takes more excursions eastward than western literature may normally, the focus is still mainly centered on the Americas and Europe, but that's mostly, from Uruguay, what he has been confronted to explain. The language of each individual entry strives for a beautiful simplicity, and I have to admit that I wasn't sure at first that the language quite lived up to the attempted sentiment, but a couple things about that: (1) it's a translation from the Spanish, and (2) it does add up. So it's bigger than the sum of the parts after all; the cumulative effect gets in there quickly, and I surprised myself staying up late pulling through half the book in a night. As for the language, my running hypothesis is that Spanish (heavily Latinate, relatively formal) lends itself well to a certain directness of expression, which may be minimalist or deceptive, but it's pretty hard to make that case with so few data points. It's unfortunate that my language skills are not up to reading it in the original.

Galeano's historical mission is to remind his readers of the causes and the consequences of power. He neglects to address the somber, theatrical regrets that the wielders of power find so ennobling, and shifts his focus to the people who actually bore the cost of it all, on those obvious casualties that history likes to leave unmentioned. Revisionist? More like making a different claim as to What It's All About, which is worthwhile in any honest history, and in literature doesn't even require an explanation. These things happened, and happened more constantly and more universally than big daddy cracker's grand march of progress. The other half of it, the judgment that conquest just isn't so fucking great, becomes hard to refute when you actually start counting the lives, or the quality of lives.

The author's governing philosophy is gently humanist, maybe another Howard Zinn type of anarchist, with a general distrust of power and its justifications, formal or otherwise, perhaps a little optimistic about democracy, appreciative of open-minded scientific inquiry, of art, supportive of common wholesome comforts over the excess grief imposed by the big ideas of powerful men, however noble they may seem. If there's a religious sentiment here, it's more about quiet spirituality--early on, he grants primitive fables a lot of power--than any formal religion, for which he doesn't hesitate to document myriad horrors. If Inkberrow reads this thing, note that Galeano isn't too deluded about it all. He doesn't come out against the Enlightenment, aware that he is sharing many of the values purported at that time, and he extends them as their original proponents failed to. He takes a couple pokes at John Locke's convenient theories of property rights (or of their limits when it came to John Locke), the failures of the French Revolution, the limited sphere of the American founders, etc. What good are values of equality, after all, if after every implementation, the result is still violently unequal for so many people? My favorite quote in this regard was directed against Marxism:

And thus, for what it said and what it did not, the Manifesto confirmed the most profound truth its authors had hit upon: reality is more powerful and astonishing than its interpreters.

The generally equanimous view is one to which I am not unsympathetic, which is no doubt one reason I appreciated the book. In any given one-note vignette, the impression of many of our saints can become monstrous, and of our monsters, unforgotten. But he can sanctify normal people beyond normal too. He doesn't change these perspectives without awareness, and in at least one passage he pens how humans can be all of those things, which is of course true on an individual scale too. I tend to be more forgiving of history's more well-intentioned or half-right actors, who are inevitably flawed products of their times, although Galeano has knocked another chink or two in that apology, pointing to what the wrong half costs. And we can still look critically on the times themselves. Our times too.

1 comment:

Ben There said...


On my way (via your link) to order this one right now. The author's name sounded familiar and then I realized that he's the author of "The Open Veins Of Latin America" which I read several years ago and was fascinated by. Should be required reading for anyone wanting to develop a more balanced view of the world. On that same note, I'll make a recommendation to you, assuming you haven't already read it...."Killing Hope". I'm bad (obviously) at remembering author's names but his last name is Blum. That book has worldview shattering potential for any honest and interested American. Thanks a again for the recommendation.