Eduardo Galeano’s mind is a beach he patrols picking up shells. Indiscriminately, and many of them quite ordinary, but a few recall the sea creatures that once inhabited them.
“Children of the Days” is a sequel of sorts to the Uruguayan writer’s three-part “Memory of Fire,” hundreds of brief epigrammatic paragraphs, only seemingly detached from each other. Together they are an anthology from the left that attaches kennel-club ribbons to the underdogs of Latin America, past and present, and fierce-biting fleas to the overdogs: the colonial invaders, the tyrants, capitalists of all sorts, and most especially the United States.
“Memory,” though uneven, has a witty ferocity and a tumble of paradox that tends to redeem its frequent historical and ideological predictability. It is war but also a game of war that offers unexpected comic prizes. A skin of the absurd and beneath it a tunneling truth. Galeano, in style, is a lesser disciple of Jorge Luis Borges though more casual (and as a leftist, his ideological opposite). Both flourish multicolored literary umbrellas, and both hold them upside down, as if rain fell upward.
“Children” shows a somewhat depleted energy. Galeano has assembled a book of days, with one brief entry for each day of the year. Largely it is a dull year. Most are written as straightforward historical snippets: names of a half-dozen women who fought in Mexico’s civil wars, Chinese mothers separated from their babies to serve as wet nurses, the Beatles’ first album rejected by Decca, a boy falling in a river and dying from pollution, not drowning.
CHILDREN OF THE DAYS: A Calendar of Human History
Together, such pieces are a chronicle of the ways in which the common people, mainly in Latin America but also elsewhere, have been abused, along with instances of heroic resistance, and the misdeeds of their abusers. Some are shocking, but the one-paragraph format tends to impart a monotonous percussiveness. Over 365 days it is an unadorned tap-tapping.
There are redeeming flights, though. Considering the destruction of great libraries such as the one at Alexandria, Galeano evokes Abdul Kassem Ismael, 10th-century grand vizier of Persia, who kept his 117,000 books safe by loading them on 400 camels that went wherever he did. Of a Brazilian revolutionary who betrayed his lover and comrade for execution by the military dictatorship of the time, Galeano quotes her father, an old freedom fighter: “If Good does not exist we’ll have to invent it.”
Presumably an atheist, the writer evinces a certain comic bemusement on the subject of God. In the early fiery days of the Russian Revolution, Anatoly Lunacharsky, one of the commissars, put Him on trial for His sins. After the guilty verdict was read out, the firing squad shot their rifles skyward. He writes familiarly of George Washington Carver dreaming that God offered to give him whatever he wanted. Carver asks for the secret of peanuts. “Ask the peanut,” God replies.
Music is a passion. He notes that playing Mozart tends to calm newborn babies. It “is the best way of telling them, ‘This is your new home and this is how it sounds.’ ” Of the itinerant leftist folk singer Atahualpa Yupanqui, he writes: “In life they were three: guitar, horse and he. Or four, counting the wind.”
A number of the entries are quirky or personal. Driving a beat-up Model T through the deserts of Argentina’s Salta Province, Juan Carlos Davalos insists that turtles passed and had to wait for him. For no particular reason, other than wanting to, he mentions Mae West without having anything interesting to say about her.
It is the story of oppression and resistance in Latin America that he mainly has to tell, though, with the United States as main culprit, and sometimes the Catholic Church. Here he also employs paradox and unexpected switch-arounds, but generally to less interesting effect.
He does a nice satirical turnaround, though, on the Iraq War. Here it is Iraq, suspecting the United States of possessing nuclear weapons, that does the invading; the real reason being our oil reserves. Noting that the United States has frequently used its troops abroad while never having been invaded — apart from a brief border incursion by Pancho Villa — he wonders why our military establishment calls itself the Defense Department.
This is OK, if not particularly shattering. There is, though, a passage in which Galeano’s satire swells into something more. He remarks on an International Day for the Eradication of Poverty that we know a lot about the poor except why they are poor. And adds the dark line:
“Could it be because we are clothed by their nakedness and nourished by their hunger?”