Monday, April 13, 2015

Like a Llama Through a Quipu Knot

“Hace tiempo me preguntaron quienes eran mis maestros, aun hoy lo tengo claro: Me educan todos los días personas anónimas.” / "Some time ago they asked me who my teachers were, even today it’s clear to me: The anonymous ones educate me every day."

 --Eduardo Galeano (3 September 1940 - 13 April 2015)

Nine years ago, Eduardo Galeano visited the Seattle Public Library. He leaned back in his chair to look up at us, hundreds of admirers, and said slowly, “In English they have called my book Voices of Time.” He paused and gave the barest hint of a shrug. “It is okay. The voices are the intimacy of trees, of rocks, of stones.”
Seward Park, Seattle, 2014, WLC

Several months later, I showed off Seattle’s famed Elliott Bay Book Company to Mark Fried, Galeano's translator, who brought Bocas del Tiempo’s 341 pages into Voices of Time (though he also disagreed with the English title). We hunted the bookstore for his book, finally finding it in the Biography section.

“Why is it here?” I wondered.

“That’s what the publisher wanted,” Mark said. “They decided they had to market it as a memoir.”

A what?

Because some of the entries are autobiographical, Mark explained to me. I suppose in some cosmic way that’s true. Galeano’s rich life (one truly well-lived) included many discussions with trees and rocks and stones; his mind seems to work on the scale of evolutionary time, taking in everything from blue-green algae to smart bombs. The book’s English subtitle, A Life in Stories–invented by the publisher, Henry Holtis slightly more accurate than the translated title. It’s only one letter off: the book is about life in general, not just one life.

Many of Voices of Time’s short, mostly true stories originally appeared in Latin American newspapers. I first encountered one in August 2000, in Mexico City’s La Jornada. Titled “The Shrimp,” its 175 words appeared on the front page. Es la hora de los adioses del sol. – “It’s the hour of the sun’s goodbyes,” it began, then concluded: “From the looks of them, no one would imagine that these whiskery creatures harbored such a poetic bent. But from the taste of them, any human would swear to it.” What the hell is that? I thought at the time. Still, I was impressed: a prose poem on the front page of a major, national newspaper. It was Galeano at his best, inserting art into quotidian life.  
Language lesson on Radio Huave,
Isthmus of Tehuantepec, 2007, WLC

It is the quotidian, on the smallest and largest scales, that occupied Galeano. In his books, people with household names and people whose names no one ever knew are given equal time. For Galeano, they were equally important, equally ephemeral. Three moments from Voices of Time:

“Every afternoon, Paulo Freire snuck into the movie theater in Recife’s Casa Forte neighborhood to see Tom Mix.”

“There she was born, there she took her first steps. / When Rigoberta returned, years later, her village was gone. Soldiers had left nothing alive in what had been called Laj Chimel….”

“At noon, in a beer hall on the docks of Hamburg, two men were drinking and talking. One was Philip Agee, the former CIA station chief in Uruguay. The other was me.”

Only a handful of Bocas del Tiempo’s stories are about Galeano and even those are “about him” in the way that “Song of Myself” was “about” Walt Whitman.A 1942 anthology titled A Concise Treasury of Great Poems English and American From the Foundations of the English Spirit To the Outstanding Poetry of Our Own Time With Lives of the Poets and Historical Settings Selected and Integrated offers a few of the tamest lines from “Song of Myself,” noting that the critics of Whitman’s time “were revolted not only by Whitman’s use of the vernacular, but by his egotism. They failed to realize that Whitman’s ‘I’ was a symbol representing the common man and that, when he seemed to celebrate himself, he was celebrating all men.”
Times have changed (is there anything beyond the ‘I’ these days?), but the marketing staff for Voices of Time made the same mistake: they failed to realize that Galeano’s ‘I’ represented not himself, but all people.The first time I read Bocas del Tiempo, Whitman’s poem came to mind again and again. Reading Mark Fried’s translation and “Song of Myself” side by side, they braid together. 

I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
Galeano begins by telling the reader, “We are made of time.” He goes on to explain, “Then one fine day, a day that lasted millions of years, some blue algae decided to turn green. And bit by tiny bit, the green algae begat lichens, mushrooms, mold, medusas, and all the color and sound that came later….”

A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
Like Whitman, Galeano understands the wisdom of children; he listens to the answers they give to questions no one bothered to ask them. A three-year-old girl – “a young researcher,” Galeano calls her – thinks about immigration and then declares: “Poor people are the ones they close the door on.”

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, …Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic.
Galeano decodes bits of the earth’s hieroglyphics for us, noting those individuals that have figured them out. He writes of the Shibo people, who “avoid drowning whenever the Ucayali River wakes up in a bad mood and rolls its white-capped waters inland over everything in its path.” How do they know? “Snails give warning. Before each calamity, they lay their eggs on tree trunks above the line where the water will crest. And they never get it wrong.”

Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?
God does not appear often in Voices of Time, but when he does, it’s without reverence. On Christmas Eve a young child overhears her aunt, recently widowed, declare, “They say we have to love God. I hate him.”
Fishing lantern, San Francisco del Mar,
Isthmus of Tehuantepec, 2003, Chris Treter

The friendly and flowing savage, who is he? Is he waiting for civilization, or past it and mastering it?
Galeano tells us about the U’wa people of the Samoré Mountains in Columbia, whose land was drilled over and again by Occidental Petroleum, to no avail. They couldn’t find the oil they had been sure was there. “The U’wa proved once more that the earth is not deaf. She heard their pleas…. In their language, U’wa means people who think.

Unlike Walt Whitman, Eduardo Galeano does not seem optimistic, though he’s surely hopeful. Both are eyes-wide at the wonder of the human spirit. But if Voices of Time (and perhaps, all of Galeano’s work) has an overarching theme, it’s a tsk tsk at the train wreck of modernity and a nod to those who (still) know better. In Voices of Time’s 160th story, “Are You There?”:

Two trains crashed into each other just outside London’s Paddington Station. / A fireman fought his way on board with an ax and stepped into a car tipped on its side. Through the smoke, which added fog to the fog, he could see passengers strewn about like mannequins smashed to pieces amid the splintered wood and twisted steel. His flashlight moved across the debris searching in vain for some sign of life. / Not a moan could be heard. Nothing broke the silence except the ringing of cell phones, calling and calling and calling, from the pockets of the dead.
And yet, as Whitman reminds us, The smallest sprout shows there really is no death. Galeano leaves us with this final line in his book: “Do birds announce the morning? Or by singing, do they create it?”