Thursday, April 30, 2015
Thursday, April 16, 2015
"Our guy, Eduardo Galeano, died last night," is what I emailed a friend a few days ago after finding out. We've both been reading Galeano's Children of the Days every morning since the beginning of the year, a "calendar of human history," as the subtitle notes, with a page devoted to every day of the year, each pertaining to something significant that happened on that day. Significant in the Galeano sense, I mean.
Eduardo Galeano was a man who knew that the world was upside down. With this in mind, he devoted his energy to undermining the myths and official narratives we've been told so many times, the malevolent stories whose presence distorts the way we understand and think about the world—a world built on, and out of, the wrong stories. To counter this—to offer us, through memory, another world—Galeano highlighted the interesting and notable and important things the "nobodies" have been doing throughout history. His intent, the purpose of his corpus, was not only to give credit where credit is due, but to celebrate that which is truly worth celebrating. That which—through its celebration—enables us to make a more conscious choice regarding the world we want to live in and build. A truer, more colorful world, as he would have it.
In order for his books to match this aim, Galeano had to create an original way of writing about history. His works are "people's histories" (in the Howard Zinn sense), yet written by a poet rather than an historian. His influence can be seen in Florian Illies' 1913: The Year Before the Storm (2013), which is organized by months (often down to the day) and comprised wholly of various short stories, anecdotes, and moments. What both authors aim to do, each in their own way, is capture the ineffable and mysterious sweep of human history—not by assembling facts and building narrative straight lines, but by filling in as many dots as Mystery allows. What we're left with is not just a picture but a feeling—some grand, inexpressible understanding. All of which is to say that this style of writing embodies a wholly different view of life than that which is catalogued by the typical historian. A kind of changing, unknowable flow, to use an exhausted image, compared to something more knowable and concrete.
One can also catch glimpses of Galeano's veins weaving through Mariusz Szczygiel's Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia (2014), another work of history focused largely on those who're not typically thought of as the major players in the official dramas, told in (sometimes) intersecting stories, the style of which, again, offers us a more seemingly complete picture and perspective than that of authors who try to create a sweeping narrative out of disparate facts. Wittingly or not, the style of Szczygiel's writing represents an acknowledgement of the random, chaotic, often meaningless course of events we like to make sense of and call "history." Galeano, Illies and Szczygial all resign themselves to this truth, but this resignation is not cause for their despondency but rather a kind of liberation that they run with and transform.
I suspect that everyone who loves books has had the experience of reading something and, within minutes, feeling a kinship with the author. "This writer is mine. They understand me. They are me." (Probably where the love of reading originates.) Referring to Galeano, I wrote "our guy..." to my friend reflexively, without thought. He was (and is) "our writer" in many senses, not just in the sense of "me" and "my friend" who met with him every morning. If you're reading this, he's probably your writer too, even if you may not know it yet (I recommend starting with Mirrors: An Almost Universal History / Stories of Almost Everyone). He's also "our" guy in the sense that "They" are not "Us" (in the tricky, oversimple, and highly problematic—yet tangible—"Us" vs. "Them.") "Their" stories do not contain "Our" stories. And he's also ours in the sense of the "offering us another world" above—those of us who want one, anyway.
Galeano would never want himself written into Children of the Days, of course. Though he had a great and warm sense of humor, he lacked the arrogance and self-importance to see the irony in something like that. And he'd certainly never have the heart to exclude another story so much in need of being told.
But it wold be very fitting, and a wonderfully bizarre thing for future readers of the book to encounter.
One of the fun things to notice about Children of the Days is its quasi-practical application. Due to its structure and formatting, the book doubles as a kind of hourglass that measures the year rather than the hours and minutes, with flowing pages in place of falling sand. The days, in their thinness, become more like the ticking seconds of a clock rather than their usual 24-hour blocks of time. Here we are now, down to the day (the white mark near the bottom is where the year ends; an index follows):
note: As far as I know, Galeano's books have no obvious antecedent, at least not as far as history books are concerned. Rebecca West, in her nonfiction work 1900 (1982)—which I have not read in full but rather jumped around and sampled in chunks—wrote a history of the title year, with a compassionate eye toward the dispossessed and a large focus on artists (one senses all four of the writers mentioned are in agreement with Shelley's famous remark about who the unacknowledged legislators of the world truly are). But it's still largely a traditional history, however unique the premise might have been at the time, however well the photographs have been integrated, and however personal it is (West lived through 1900 as a girl, knowing and meeting many of the players). Galeano was already writing before West's book was published, but it's possible that Illies' 1913 was birthed more from West than Galeano... though all of this is speculation. Anyway, while we have an excuse, let's make a quick stop in at 1900 to get a quick sample of West's tone and point of view, which I love. In reference to the Queensberry debacle: "Oscar Wilde was not so lucky. He should have been put by the fates on a list of endangered species, not to be hunted like the rest of us human game, for in The Importance of Being Earnest he had written the only great comedy which had graced the English stage since Congreve's day."
Galeano photo via