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BOOK REVIEW / SHORT STORIES : Woodcuts Put Faces on Folklore's Fables and Maxims : WALKING WORDS by Eduardo Galeano ; Woodcuts by Jose Francisco Borges; Translated from Spanish by Mark Fried; Norton $23, 328 pages

June 22, 1995|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

In "Memory of Fire," the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wrote an epic in the form of a poetic scrapbook. It was a history of the Americas that up-ended the map, so that South and Central America were here and present at the top, and down under was the United States: a Patagonia of the imagination, the nightmare and the dream.

It was told in a tumult of clippings, anecdotes and epigrams--not governed, really, but herded by the author's gifts of irony, paradox, sentiment and surreal association. Some of the hundreds of scraps were trifling or too fragile and oblique to do much; many more were corrosive and magical.

Individually they could seem arbitrary; arbitrariness is one of Galeano's several ways of expression. But they were held together by their epic purpose--that, and anger. Anger or celebration--sometimes both--are the engines of any history that matters, even when the methods and style are more ample and sedate than Galeano's.

"Walking Words" uses a similar scrapbook method and it displays many of the same virtues. The scraps are attached to less of a moving enterprise though. The brief stories and commentaries seem to express Galeano's sensibility more than his need, so that his weaknesses--a use of folkloric pastiche that alternates between stunning reinvention and a stumble into prettiness, and epigrams that hop back and forth between brilliance and cliche--are more exposed.

"Words" consists of fables with such titles as "The Lizard Who Had the Habit of Dining on his Wives" and maxims grouped under the running title of "Windows." The fables use images reminiscent of native folklore from around the Americas; Galeano ranges from Mexico through Central America to Colombia and down to the southern republics. Animals talk and transform themselves, stars descend to pick potatoes, beautiful women emerge from rivers and bewitch men.

The fables are profusely illustrated with woodcuts by the Brazilian artist Jose Francisco Borges. They are striking, but there is something decorative and mechanical about them; they resemble, in a way, the "Ibo" sculptures sold at tropical tourist hotels. Like some of the stories, they wield an ethnic exoticism without inhabiting it.

Only some of the stories, though. Galeano will ramble decoratively and suddenly he will reverse, or take two additional steps that transform things. There are his women, for instance, who go from conventionally mythical to canny marvels.

In the "Lizard" story, the aristocratic Cantalicio, who possesses a pleasant face and a reptile's body, is indulged by his parents with a succession of wives, each of whom he devours. So frequent are the wedding-cum-banquets that the priest offers discounts.

One day, Cantalicio comes upon a woman wearing glasses and reading a book; never has he seen such a thing. Astonishment gives way to hopeless passion when she pats his scales and praises their silkiness. They marry and that night he recites sentimental couplets as she strips.

"Don't be a jerk," she says, undoing his scales and embracing his nakedness. Then, as he sleeps, "she swallows him bit by bit, from the tail to the head, making no noise and not chewing hard, careful not to wake him so that he won't have a bad impression."

There is the lovely, mordant account of Don Ceniza, the dog, who gets into conversation with Don Flores, the guitarist. Don Flores recalls the story about the dogs picnicking in heaven and taking off their tails to swim in the river. God makes the river rise, as a joke, and the dogs get into such a scramble that each grabs the first tail he can find. Which is why, when dogs meet, they sniff each other's tails to try to find their own.

In fact, Don Ceniza says, God subsequently let him know that the story was not true. Ceniza keeps it to himself, though. As long as believed, he had a reason to go out into the world and search. But: "Now no path beckons to me."

Just as the rather practiced prettiness of a number of the stories gives way suddenly to something toothed and lovely, Galeano's maxims conceal their own surprises.

In "Window on Dictatorships," we read a trite two or three--"The solicitous friend exercises the dictatorship of favors" and "Charity exercises the dictatorship of debt"--and then it sharpens: "Free markets allow us to accept the prices imposed on us" and "Free expression allows us to listen to those who speak in our name."

Galeano, always playful, is back in the armed playfulness that suits him best.

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