Eduardo Galeano has died at the age of 74 in his native Uruguay. The grandson of a Welsh immigrant, Galeano was the author of many articles and books, the best known in the U.S. being translations of Memoria del fuego (Memories of Fire trilogy) and Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina (The Open Veins of Latin America).
Memories of Fire won the American Book Award in 1989. Galeano won numerous other awards, including the first-ever Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom in 1999. In a bit of political theater, Hugo Chavez gave Barack Obama a gift copy of the stridently anti-U.S. Open Veins in 2009 at the Summit of the Americas.
A historian of Latin America, and a victim of two Latin American dictatorships, Galeano was also inevitably a historian of the colossus to the north. As a critic of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism, he was particularly attuned to the disjunction between the rhetoric of democracy and the reality of brute politics in regions he knew intimately.
“I am a man from the South, and Latin American history teaches one to mistrust words,” he wrote in this essay from 1989 (translated by Ed McCaughan) in Social Justice. “Official language rants deliriously, and its delirium is the system’s normality.”
In response, Galeano perfected a “fragmentary, aphoristic” style. His episodic “True Stories: Notes on Extraordinary Things,” here translated by Mark Fried in Manoa, gives a good introduction to this collage-like approach to telling the stories of everyday people.
In this interview with Patrick Madden in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Galeano explains his method this way: “the necessity to express life forces me to violate genres.” The unclassifiable nature of his writings could bedevil publishers and booksellers, but made for a rich and varied canvas. And a question he asks here, taking on Madden’s role for a moment, might well be seen as an epitaph: “What literature isn’t political?”