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Memory of Fire: Genesis by Eduardo Galeano; translated by Cedric Belfrage (Pantheon: $17.95; 293 pp.)

December 29, 1985|Allen Boyer | Boyer, a former student of Latin-American history, teaches law at the University of Oklahoma. and

In the South-American jungle, as history opens, jaguars teach men to build fires and hunt with bows. Columbus wades ashore in the Bahamas, asking the natives (in Hebrew, Chaldean and Arabic) if they can lead him to the Great Khan. The Virgin Mary appears at Guadelupe, Mex., olive-skinned and speaking in Nahuatl. "I am not a historian," Eduardo Galeano explains of the scenes he sketches. "I am a writer who would like to contribute to the rescue of the kidnapped memory of all America, but above all of Latin America." Galeano is overly modest. He may not be a trained historian, but "Memory of Fire: Genesis" is a book as fascinating as the history it relates.

"Memory of Fire: Genesis" is composed of 308 vignettes--scenes from the history of the Americas. The first volume is a trilogy, which will run into the present day. It begins with pre-Columbian creation myths and covers events through 1700. Some of the vignettes are re-creations of historical events, others Spanish documents reprinted verbatim. They amount, as Galeano notes, to a "novel or essay or epic poem or testament or chronicle"--history written with the flair of modernist fiction. For example, take Galeano's report on how the Spanish arrived in Peru:

"The people of Tumbes are dazzled by so many things from another world. They pull Alonso de Molina's beard and touch his clothing and iron ax. They gesture to ask about this captured monster with the red crest that shrieks in a cage: What does it want? Alonso points to it, says "rooster," and they learn their first word in the language of Castile. The African accompanying the soldier is not doing so well. He defends himself by slapping the Indians who want to rub his skin with dry corncobs."

Galeano, a native of Uruguay, began his career as an editorial cartoonist. It is easy to read his vignettes as verbal translations of cartoon panels. In 1522, as Magellan's ships limp home, the first slave revolt breaks out in Santa Domingo. Charles V pawns Venezuela to his German bankers; Nicholas Federmann, bookkeeper turned conquistador, explores the Andes in search of plunder. Mestizo inquisitors tirelessly smash the idols of their mothers' people. Araucanian warriors besiege the settlement of Santiago, Chile. Inez Suarez, mistress of the commandant, seizes a broadsword and leads the counterattack. In Brazil, black slaves flee to the hills and build the free city of Palmares. They pray to St. Michael and St. Lazarus, whom they recognize as their old gods Ogum and Babalu. Opechancanough, the uncle of Pocahontas, is taken to Madrid and christened Luis de Velasco. Europeans learn about the pineapple and potato, and in far-off Chile discover the strawberry. Galeano's chronicle follows the Conquest's well-known heroes and villains--Cortez, Pizarro, Cushtemoc and Las Casas--and there are brief appearances by Cervantes, Shakespeare and Albrecht Durer. (While the rest of Europe saw Aztec ornaments as booty to be melted down, Durer, like Picasso later, was struck by the beauty of primitive art.)

Each vignette cites the source that inspired it, and the bibliography shows that Galeano's research has not been haphazard. He has reread the original chroniclers, Columbus, Bernal Diaz, Las Casas and the English Dominican Thomas Gage. He has also consulted such modern scholars as Jaime Vicens Vives, James Lockhard, Alexander Marchant and J. H. Elliott. These historians' work has given Galeano most of his themes and many of his details.

"There is nothing neutral about this historical chronicle," Galeano warns. "Unable to distance myself, I take sides." Most of the time he leans to the left. (Cedric Belfrage, who translates ably, was a co-founder and editor of the American Labor Party's National Guardian.) But although Galeano is saddened and angered by history, one feels he would rather see justice than revolution. Rather than an ideologist, he is a satirist, realist and historian; and for having realized the grandeur and color of American history, he desrves mention alongside John Dos Passos, Bernard DeVoto and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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