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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)


Uruguayan essayist, journalist and historian. Eduardo Galeano's best-known works include Memoria del fuego (1982-1986, Memory of Fire) and Las venas abiertas de América Latina (1971, The Open Veins of Latin America), which have been translated into some 20 languages. As an author, Galeano defies easy categorization. His works transcend conventional genres, and combine documentary, fiction, journalism, political analysis, and history. Galeano himself denied that he is a historian: "I'm a writer obsessed with remembering, with remembering the past of America above all and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to amnesia."

"I'm a traveler. I walk freely on paths I recognize or invent. Walking on words, from book to book I go." (from 'Galeano, Eduardo, in World Authors 1985-1990, edited by Vineta Colby, translated by Mark Fried, 1995) 

Eduardo Galeano was born in Montevideo, the son of Eduardo Hughes Roosen, a civil servant, and Licia Esther Galeano Muñozof, a bookstore manager. His family, of Catholic Welsh, German, Spanish and Italian heritage, were members of the traditional Catholic landowning and business community, but had falled on hard times. Galeano was educated in Uruguay until the age of 16. "I never learned in school," he once said. "I didn't like it."

In adolescence Galeano worked in odd jobs – he was a factory worker, a bill collector, a sign painter, a messenger, a typist, and a bank teller. At the age of 14 Galeano sold his first political cartoon to El Sol, the Socialist Party weekly. Some of his drawings illustrated the columns of Raúl Sendic, who later founded the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement (MLN-T). Galeano's pseudonym was Gius, the Spanish equivalent for his Welsh patronymic, Hughes. Later he began to use his mother's family name. Galeano's first article was published in 1954.

At the age of twenty Galeano started his career as a journalist, with little formal schooling. He was the editor-in-chief of Marcha, an influential weekly journal, which had such contributors as Mario Vargas Llosa, Mario Benedetti, Manuel Maldonado Denis and Roberto Fernández Retamar. For two years he edited the daily Épocha and worked as editor-in-chief of the University Press (1965-1973). As a result of the military coup of 1973, he was imprisoned and then forced to leave Uruguay. By that time he had published a novel, Los fantasmas del día del léon, y otros relatos (1967) and several books on politics and culture. In Argentina he founded and edited a cultural magazine, Crisis.

Las venas abiertas de América Latina (The Open Veins of Latin America), written in just three months, made Galeano one of the most widely read Latin American writers. It was the first book by the author to be translated into English. Also a copy of the book ended in the hands of President Obama when Venezueland President Hugo Chávez gave it to him as a present. In the well-documented series of essays the central theme was the exploitation of natural resources of Latin America since the arrival of European powers at the end of the 15th century. The Open Veins of Latin America was written "in the style of a novel about love or about pirates," as the author himself said. Decades later, on the 43rd anniversary of the books publication, Galeano disavowed his work. "I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over," he said. "For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it." Open Veins has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

In 1975 Galeano received the prestigious Casa de las Américas prize for his novel La cancion de nosotros. After the military coup of 1976 in Argentina,  his name was added to the lists of those condemned by the death squads and he moved to Spain with his third wife, Helena Villagra. "I lost quite a few things in Buenos Aires," he recalled in Días y noches de amor y de guerra (Days and Nights of Love and War). "Due to the rush or to bad luck, no one knows where they ended up. I left with a few clothes and a handful of papers." This largely autobiographical work earned him again Casa de las Américas prize.

Galeano lived mainly on the Catalan coast, where he made a living as a writer and journalist, and started to work on his masterpiece, Memory of Fire. Its characters are real historical figures, generals, artists, revolutionaries, workers, conquerors and the conquered. Galeano started with pre-Columbian creation myths and ended in the 1980s. His exile lasted eleven years. At the beginning of 1985, he returned to Montevideo, where he re-established Marcha under a new name, Brecha.

- "The woman and the man dreamed that God was dreaming about them.
--God was singing and clacking his maracas as he dreamed his dream in a tobacco smoke, feeling happy but shaken by doubt& mystery.
--The Makiritare Indians know that if God dreams about eating, he gives fertility and food. If God dreams about life, he is born and gives birth."
(from Genesis, part one of Memory of Fire, 1982)

The trilogy consists of short chapters, episodes which portray the colonial history of the continent. "Each fragment of this huge mosaic is based on a solid documentary foundation. What is told here has happened, although I tell it in my style & manner," Galeano wrote about his work. He also often used non-literary sources, songs, letters, newspaper advertisements, oral tradition. Fragmentary Memoria del fuego turns its back on pseudo-objective history – it is subjective, the prose is poetic and the author's own vision comes clearly through the elaborate web of historical scenes and facts. Among the central characters of the last part, Century of the Wind, is Miguel Marmol, a revolutionary labor organizer, who survives tortures and escapes execution. Galeano also utilized the technique of short narratives in Espejos: Una historia casi universal (2008, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone), which portrays the human history from prehistory to the present.

Memoria del fuego was widely praised by reviewers. The structure of the book was considered as fascinating as the history it related, and Galeano was compared to John Dos Passos and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ronald Wright wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: "Great writers... dissolve old genres and found new ones. This trilogy by one of South America's most daring and accomplished authors is impossible to classify."

"Reality speaks a language of symbols. Each part is a metaphor of the whole." (from An Uncertain Grace, 1990)

In his childhood Galeano had dreamed of becoming a soccer player, as do many Latin American young boys. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995) the author covers the history of soccer and gives highlights of the best games and goals throughout history. Galeano compares soccer with a theater performance and with war; he criticizes its unholy alliance with global corporations but attacks leftist intellectuals who reject the game and its attraction to the broad masses because of ideological reasons. Galeano's other major work includes We Say No (1989), a collection of essays, autobiographical El libro de los abrazos (1989, The Book of Embraces), and Las palabras andantes (1993, Walking Words). It combines urban and rural oral tradition and insights into Latin-American reality with illustrations typical of the popular literatura de cordel.

In An Uncertain Grace (1990) Galeano wrote: "From the standpoint of the great communications media that uncommunicate humanity, the Third World is peopled by third-class inhabitants distinguishable from animals only by their ability to walk on two legs. Theirs are problems of nature not of history: hunger, pestilence, violence are in the natural order of things." Galeano was married three times – in 1959 to Silvia Brando, in 1962 to Graciela Berro and in 1976 to Helena Villagra; Days and Nights of Love and War was dedicated to her.

During his career as a writer Galeano survived a suicide attempt, malaria, a heart attack, imprisonment, exile, dictatorship, and political persecution. Following the creation of the Caracas-based TeleSur (La Nueva Televisora del Sur), a new Latin American TV channel, Galeano was appointed a member of its advisory board. His several awards included Premio Casa de las Américas (1975, 1978) and the American Book Award (1989). In 1999 he received the first Cultural Freedom Award from the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe. The award was given for Galeano's outspoken critique of systemic injustice and his body of work dedicated to improving the human freedom generally. In spite of his literary accomplishments, Galeano's works have not been translated into English as much as the fiction of his countryman Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994). Los hijos de los días (2012, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History), translated by Mark Fried, collected stories, fragments, historical facts, and other pieces for each day of the year. "For all of Galeano’s appreciation of history’s absurdities," said Greg Grandin in his review, "he has chosen a format that leads to an ahistoric, almost medieval experience of time, a liturgical calendar in which the days don’t move forward into the future but rather pile up into an eternal present." (The New York Times, July 26, 2013) Galeano died of lung cancer in Montevideo on April 13, 2015. 

For further reading: Esse mito, a história: a literatura e relações de gênero em Eduardo Galeano by Francielly Baliana (2020); Eduardo Galeano, un ilegal en el paraíso, edited by Roberto López Belloso (2016); Galeano: apuntes para una biografía by Fabián Kovacic (2016); Eduardo Galeano: Through the Looking Glass by Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy (2001); 'Eduardo Galeano 1940-' by David Wood, in Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, edited by Verity Smith (1997); 'Galeano, Eduardo,' in World Authors 1985-1990, edited by Vineta Colby (1995); Silencio, voz y escritura en Eduardo Galeano by Diana Palaversich (1995); El vendedor de reliquias by Mauricio Rosencof (1992); 'Hope Springs Eternal' by Gerald Martin, in History Journal Workshop 34 (1992); Spanish American Authors, edited by A Flores (1991); Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century, edited by M. Tucker (1991); Latin America: the Writer's Journey by Greg Price (1990 - Special thanks to Rasunah Marsden who gave the idea for this page, helped with its material, and selected quotations from Memory of Fire: Genesis.

Selected works:

  • Los días siguientes, 1963
  • China, 1964, 1964
  • Guatemala, 1967
    - Guatemala: Occcupied Country (translated by Cedric Belfrage, 1969)
  • Reportajes, 1967
  • Los fantasmas del día del léon, y otros relatos, 1967 [The Phantoms of the Day of the Lion]
  • Su majestad el fútbol, 1968
  • Las venas abiertas de América Latina, 1971
    - The Open Veins of Latin America:  Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (translated by Cedric Belfrage, 1973)
  • Siete imágenes de Bolivia, 1971
  • Violencía y enajenación, 1971
  • Crónicas latinoamericanas, 1972
  • Vagamundo, 1973
  • La cancion de nosotros, 1975 [Song About Us]
  • Conversaciones con Raimón, 1977
  • Días y noches de amor y de guerra, 1978
    - Days and Nights of Love and War (translated by Judith Brister and Bobbye S. Ortiz, 1983)
  • La piedra arde, 1980 [The Rock Burns]
  • Voces de nuestro tiempo, 1981
  • Memoria del fuego, 1982-86
    1. Los nacimientos, 1982
    - Memory of Fire: Genesis (translated by Cedric Belfrage, 1985-1988)
    - Tuulen muistot: Vanha ja uusi maailma (suom. Anu Partanen, 1992)
    2. Las caras y las máscaras, 1984
    - Memory of Fire: Faces and Masks (translated by Cedric Belfrage, 1987)
    - Tuulen muistot: Kasvot ja naamiot (suom. Anu Partanen, 1994)
    3. El siglo del viento, 1986
    - Memory of Fire: Century of the Wind (translated by Cedric Belfrage, 1988)
    - Tuulen muistot: Tuulen vuosisata (suom. Anu Partanen, 1997)
  • Aventuras de los jóvenes dioses, 1984 [Adventures of the Young Gods]
  • Ventana sobre Sandino, 1985
  • Contraseña, 1985
  • El descubrimiento de América que todavía no fue y otros escritos, 1986
  • El tigre azul y otros artículos, 1988
  • Entrevistas y artículos (1962-1987), 1988
  • El libro de los abrazos, 1989
    - The Book of Embraces (translated by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer, 1991)
  • Nostros decimos no, 1989
    - We Say No: Chronicles, 1963-1991 (translated by Mark Fried and others, 1992)
  • América Latina para entenderte mejor, 1990
  • Palabras: antología personal, 1990
  • An Uncertain Grace: Essays by Eduardo Galeano and Fred Ritchin, photographs by Sebastiao Salgado, 1990
  • Ser como ellos y otros artículos, 1992
  • Amares, 1993
  • Las palabras andantes, 1993
    - Walking Words (with woodcuts by José Francisco Borge, translated by Mark Fried, 1995) 
  • Úselo y tírelo, 1994
  • El fútbol a sol y sombra, 1995
    - Soccer in Sun and Shadow (translated by Mark Fried, 1998)
    - Jalkapallo valossa ja varjossa (suom. Jukka Koskelainen, 2000)
  • Apuntes para el fin de siglo: antología, 1997
  • Patas arriba: la escuela del mundo al revés, 1998
    - Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (translated Mark Fried, 2000)
  • I Am Rich Potosi: The Mountain That Eats Men, photographs by Stephen Ferry, 1999
  • Tejidos: antología, 2001 (introduction by Jean-Paul Borel)
  • O teatro do bem e do mal, 2002
  • 100 relatos breves: antología, 2002
  • Bocas del tiempo, 2004
    - Voices of Time: A Life in Stories (translated by Mark Fried, 2006)
  • Espejos: Una historia casi universal, 2008
    - Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (translated by Mark Fried, 2009)
  • Ventanas de España: antología, 2010
  • Los hijos de los días, 2012
    - Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (translated by Mark Fried, 2013)
  • El cazador de historias, 2016
  • Hunter of Stories, 2017 (translated by Mark Fried)
  • Cerrado por fútbol, 2017
  • Nochebuena, 2022 (ilustraciones de Miguel Ruiz)

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