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A Telling Chronicle of the Americas : MEMORY OF FIRE : III. Century of the Wind by Eduardo Galeano; translated by Cedric Belfrage (Pantheon: $22.95, cloth; $10.95, paper; 301 pp.)

July 17, 1988|Raymund A. Paredes | Paredes teaches English and Spanish literature at UCLA

"Century of the Wind" follows "Genesis" and "Faces and Masks" as the final volume in Eduardo Galeano's chronicle of the Americas, "Memory of Fire." In his trilogy, Galeano ranges geographically from Canada to Argentina and Chile and chronologically from the pre-Columbian period to the present. To be sure, Galeano focuses on Latin America, shifting his attention above the Rio Grande primarily to treat events that have had large consequences in Mexico and lands farther south. In any case, "Memory of Fire" has been a hugely ambitious project, embracing vast cultural heterogeneity and complexity. That Galeano has managed to render his history of the Americas at once accessible, coherent and fascinating is a considerable achievement.

In his preface to "Genesis," which first appeared in Spanish in 1982, Galeano decries conventional histories of Latin America as "lifeless, hollow, dumb . . . drowned in dates," little more than a "military parade of bigwigs in uniforms fresh from the dry-cleaners." For Galeano, such works are not only insipid but false, depriving Latin Americans of the knowledge that might break the prevailing mood of resignation and hopelessness. As the title itself indicates, "Memory of Fire" seeks to evoke the combustible, often destructive energy of American history. In presenting his version of events, Galeano makes no pretense of objectivity. I am "unable to distance myself," he writes. "I take sides."

And so he does, initially with the aboriginal peoples of America and, later, with its oppressed masses, mostly Indian and black. He takes sides against the particular evils of the European conquest, North American capitalism and imperialism and the endless varieties of Latin American despotism. "Genesis" traces the legacy of the conquistadors' racism and avarice to 1700, by which time the aboriginal cultures had been virtually demolished and the bonds of colonialism had slackened, leaving an America "torn to pieces." In "Faces and Masks," Galeano opens his survey of the 18th and 19th centuries with these lines from a Colombian poem:

I don't know who I am,

nor just where I was bedded.

Don't know where I'm from

nor where the hell I'm headed.

From his vantage point, Galeano sees the track of American history somewhat more clearly. Thomas Jefferson appears, to be followed by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Simon Bolivar. Independence, however, is not freedom, and everywhere, from Washington to Buenos Aires, governments fall into the hands of the wealthy.

During the 19th Century, the United States easily surpasses other American nations in economic development. As an omen of things to come, Galeano recounts the intrigues of William Walker, a pious, self-styled Southern gentleman who descends on Nicaragua with an army of adventurers and a bank account furnished by North American businessmen. A year later in 1856, Walker proclaims himself president, restores slavery, declares English the official language and offers land to any white compatriots willing to resettle in Nicaragua.

As "Century of the Wind" opens, Galeano notes two episodes that provide keys to his understanding of modern Latin American history. The first begins in New York City in 1901 when Andrew Carnegie sells his steel interests to J. P. Morgan for $250 million. Galeano writes that "a fever of consumption" and "a vertigo of money" dominate the United States; the country "belongs to the monopolies and the monopolies to a handful of men." Meanwhile, the "other America" remains in economic chaos, the individual countries eagerly signing commercial treaties with the United States and European nations but none with their neighbors. "Latin America is an archipelago of idiot countries" laments Galeano, "organized for separation and trained to dislike each other."

The second definite episode occurs in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, in 1902 as the town is being destroyed by lava and mud avalanches from a volcanic eruption. Choking in a rain of ashes, the town crier bravely reads a proclamation by the president assuring the local citizens that all is quiet in Guatemala, that the rumors of volcanic disturbance are merely the dirty tricks of the "enemies of order."

"Century of the Wind" fairly runs over with these kinds of moments: tragic, sardonic, provocative and sharply insightful, often all at once. As Galeano depicts it, modern Latin American history resembles nothing so much as the old Latin American history. The same bloody patterns of oppression, exploitation and resistance persist; the only major new factor is advanced technology, particularly in the forms of mass media with their unprecedented ability to shape public opinion.

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