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Unconventional Wisdom of a Historical Author

May 11, 1988|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

South American writer Eduardo Galeano is telling the story of a two-timing 98-year-old man who couldn't quit cheating--even on the edge of death.

The old man with the wandering heart lived in a coastal town in Ecuador, Galeano says. In his younger days, he had been a notorious rake and once had confessed to having affairs with 300 women, a number his relatives considered a serious underestimate and perhaps an effort to seem less sinful in the eyes of God. In late old age, however, the man ostentatiously clung to the memory of a favorite lover named Dolores.

"Each evening," Galeano explains, "this old, old man took a talcum powder box--this old-fashioned box with a powder puff and nice roses and blue designs of flowers, a very delicate, delicate box. And then he took the powder puff and feeling it with his nose, he would say, 'I'm sure we know each other, I'm sure we know each other.'

"But when night fell each evening, he betrayed the memory of his beloved Dolores because he was watching television, which had recently come to that town. He fell in love with the woman who read the news. So each evening he was preparing himself with his best clothes--you know a flower here, and a tie, and a hat, of course, the best hat he had. Like he was going to a feast or a great appointment.

"And he was watching television, watching her and trying to seduce her. So in order to seduce her, he was showing her his account in the bank. From the pocket here, like this, just a little, not too much, but showing a little so that the girl in the television screen would notice that he was quite wealthy."

As he tells the story, Galeano's hands dart from the imaginary lapel where the old man pinned his flower to the pants pocket where he tucked his precious bank statement. When Galeano moves on to other topics, his hands continue to dance in the air, as if invisible but tangible objects are scattered all around.

Ahead of Dictators

A small man adept at staying a jump ahead of Latin American dictatorships, Galeano says the story illustrates his brand of "reality," the fabulous gems of human experience that lie waiting to be discovered practically everywhere. "Reality is telling you beautiful things to remember and to write," he adds, noting that one of the old man's grandsons told him this story because he took the time to hear it.

To a listener, the tale is absurd, touching and tinged with longing and hope. It also betrays a technological innocence like many of the anecdotes in "Memory of Fire," Galeano's ambitious, idiosyncratic history of North and South America, whose third volume has just been published in this country. (For instance, Galeano reports that Indians who first saw white men using paper called it the "skin of God" because it could bring messages from far away.)

Eloquent English

Speaking in English that is eloquent but obviously not his first language, Galeano adds, "Reality is always speaking and we are not prepared to hear her voices because we are trained by the dominant culture to be absolutely passive and deaf and (to keep) our eyes covered with curtains. . . So I think if there is any justification for the profession of writing, it would be to help to unmask reality, to reveal the world as it is, as it was (and) as it may be if we change it."

This particular day Galeano, 48 and a native of Uruguay, is on his first visit to Los Angeles, the final leg of a national tour marking the publication of "Century of the Wind" (Pantheon). The last volume of the trilogy covers the 20th Century, including the ouster of Argentina's military junta and the continuing war in Nicaragua.

"Memory of Fire" has earned Galeano critical acclaim and elevated him to the rank of Latin American authors such as novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Mario Vargas Llosa, who have reached global audiences with their work.

At the same time, however, Galeano's trilogy is something of a puzzle. In Sweden, for example, "Memory of Fire" is classified as history, but in the United States, it is labeled fiction.

The reason for this is apparently because "Memory of Fire" stands in a class by itself. Although Galeano says each of the thousands of incidents charted in the volumes is carefully researched and historically accurate, "Memory of Fire" is totally unorthodox.

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