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Wide Angle

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Delving into Eduardo Galeano’s latest book is akin to opening a box of fair-trade, 78 percent cacao bonbons. You enjoy the chocolate melting in your mouth until a tinge of ancho pepper or cinnamon stabs your conscience and makes you stop and wonder. Galeano delivers the literary and philosophical riches of his incisive intelligence, but he also asks you to think. To reconsider your assumptions, your prejudices, and your place in this world.

Born in 1940 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Galeano is the author of Memory of Fire, Open Veins of Latin America, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Days and Nights of Love and War, The Book of Embraces, Walking Words, Upside Down, and Voices of Time. He lived in exile in Argentina and Spain for 12 years before returning to Uruguay in 1985. He’s revered by the Latin American Left and students, but he is not as well known in the United States. Or he wasn’t until Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Barack Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America at an international summit this year, rocketing Galeano’s sales on Amazon from 54,295th to No. 2. Who knew Chávez could be a South American Oprah? If Galeano is now on more readers’ radars, all the better. His is an indispensable voice.

In Mirrors, Galeano regales us with tales from our shared history in an inclusive manner, from cultural creation myths to major historical figures and inventions to significant current events. It is a truism that history is written by the victors; what if, Galeano seems to ask, history were told instead by the vanquished, the oppressed and the downtrodden of all cultures and times? This unpretentiously ambitious book is an answer.

Mirrors is arranged in semi-chronological order, beginning with entries on the “Origin of fire,” “Origin of the division of labor,” “Origin of beer,” and so forth. He then explores Mexican, Egyptian, Hebrew, Hindu, Roman, Chinese and Greek histories, among others. He pays an extensive visit to Europe and its religions, condemning the pervasive violence Europe has visited on the world in its quest for global supremacy. Then it’s on to entries on “Churchill,” “Buffalo Bill,” “Father of the Boy Scouts,” “Father of the Bomb” and “Barbie Goes to War,” all the way to the present. As advertised, the book is about almost everything and everyone. The key to enjoying it is to relax and trust Galeano’s choices and moral compass.

The book includes a handy name index and table of contents, as well as some charming antique illustrations. Mirrors does not include footnotes or a bibliography, as earlier works did, but much of Galeano’s material amounts to the sum total of the world’s knowledge, the contents of our collective brain, as it were. This is a book to read slowly, savoring it, allowing it to sink into both the intellect and the heart. The rewards of such attention are rich.

These deceptively simple vignettes, written in an intimate voice, challenge and delight. Galeano lets us know that we are all complicit in history, that our gain is often someone else’s pain. Yet he’s never dogmatic, nor does he have an ideological ax to grind. He is more interested in myth, fable, legend and history, weaving past with present, making connections. In “Americans” he writes:

“Official history has it that Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the first man to see, from a summit in Panama, two oceans at once. Were the natives blind? / Who first gave names to corn and potatoes and tomatoes and chocolate and the mountains and rivers of America? Hernán Cortés? Francisco Pizarro? Were the natives mute? / The Pilgrims on the Mayflower heard Him: God said America was the promised land. Were the natives deaf? / Later on, the grandchildren of the Pilgrims seized the name and everything else. Now they are the Americans. And those of us who live in the other Americas, who are we?”

Mirrors touches on curious and fascinating facts, including early European culture’s aversion to water. The entry “Cursed Water” tells us that “… except in baptism, bathing was avoided because it felt good and invited sin. In the tribunals of the Holy Inquisition, frequent bathing was proof of Mohammedan heresy. When Christianity was imposed on Spain as the only truth, the crown ordered the many public baths left by the Muslims razed, because they were sources of perdition. … The elegant Sun King of France, the first man to wear high heels, bathed only once between 1647 and 1711. And that time it was on doctor’s orders.” Galeano offers other lighthearted entries with comic titles, but always with a tinge of irony.

Mark Fried, who translated Galeano’s last several books, does a good job of conveying Galeano’s sparse style, his directness and his conversational tone, while maintaining the musicality of the original. These stories could be told at a campfire or read out loud to adults at bedtime, one or two at a time, letting them linger. The blog of the American Literary Translators Association reports that instead of making multiple passes at the text, Fried reads the source multiple times until he can hear it in his head. Then he translates. The method seems to bear fruit.

While certain of these historical figures and facts may be well known to some readers, and while others may feel that Galeano is preaching to the choir, the author’s unexpected angles and concluding twists keep readers hooked. It’s the writer’s way of linking the past with the present, them with us, the political and the personal, the global and the local. It’s storytelling with a conscience that transforms Galeano’s truths into art.

Poet and literary translator Liliana Valenzuela’s most recent translation is Había una vez una quinceañera: De niña a mujer en EE.UU., a nonfiction book by Julia Alvarez. Valenzuela lives in Austin.