In one scene from "Faces and Masks," the second volume in his "Memory of Fire" trilogy, Eduardo Galeano describes the collapse of the Spanish empire:
"The messenger passes an order at the cockfights in Santiago, and another at a smart soiree, and at the same time picks up a report between two horse races in the suburbs. The messenger announces himself at a big house--three taps of the door knocker--and at the same time emerges in the mountains on the back of a mule, and gallops over prairies on horseback . . . The Spanish governor has put a price on the head of Manuel Rodriguez, the messenger, the guerrilla. But his head travels hidden beneath the monk's hood, the muleteer's sombrero, the street peddler's basket, or the fine gentleman's plush topper."
In his native Uruguay, Galeano is known as an editorial cartoonist. Turning these skills to prose, he presents history in a sequence of vignettes. "The author proposes," he writes, "to narrate the history of America, and above all the history of Latin America, reveal its multiple dimensions and penetrate its secrets." "Genesis," the trilogy's first volume, dealt with the history of the New World through 1700. "Faces and Masks" covers the years from 1700 to 1900.
Some vignettes sketch in scenes; others reprint historical documents. Alexander von Humboldt discusses curare with an Indian shaman. Simon Bolivar, defeated and despondent, can find only one government to aid him: the black republic of Haiti, "a nation of peasants, very poor but free." Latin-American literature is born with the publication of El Periquillo Sarniento . Santa Ana marches into Texas with his chef, his jeweled sword, and a wagonload of his beloved fighting cocks. In Bolivia, Mariano Melgarejo stages history's shortest coup d'etat by shooting President Manuel Belzu, to whom he has just surrendered. Levi's jeans appear on the market; Coca-Cola follows. Indians are driven from the Dakota ranges and the Patagonian grasslands. Brazilian rubber, Cuban sugar, Peruvian guano, Chilean nitrates, Argentine beef--Latin America's goods flow out to Europe, while native industries are smothered by imports. In 1800, Spain and Portugal rule South America; by 1900, the United States stands ready to take their place.
Over the course of the book, one comes to understand Galeano's title. The masks represent those who squandered their continent's resources and clamped down their rule upon its people. They also include intellectuals who denied their American heritage, slavishly copying European models. The faces are the nameless people who endured and built, and the patriots and pamphleteers who spoke for them.
Galeano lobs many potshots northward. The United States appears in these pages as a "young voracious country" that gobbles up its neighbors. No one likes criticism from an outsider, but Galeano is even-handed. If he caricatures Teddy Roosevelt, he honors Lincoln, Whitman and Mark Twain. More irksome are minor muddles of fact. (California's Bear Flag, for example, is confused with the Lone Star banner of Texas). There are off-key phrases in the translation, too--anglicisms thrown in by the British-born translator, Cedric Belfrage.
"Faces and Masks" ends by foreshadowing this century's revolutions. Karl Marx's first grandchild is fathered by Cuban Paul Lafargue, "great-grandson of a Haitian mulatta and an Indian from Jamaica." In 1895, as Jose Marti dies fighting to free Cuba, Augusto Cesar Sandino is born in Nicaragua. And, farther south, another epoch is dawning: the Argentines have discovered soccer.
Galeano clearly identifies with Marti, a poet who turned revolutionary. But he never lapses into propaganda; his outrage is tempered by intelligence, an ineradicable sense of humor, and hope. He has taken the New World's history and fashioned from it a compelling book.