Thursday 20 November 2014

Memory of Fire: Genesis

Memory of Fire, 1: Genesis - Eduardo Galeano
(Translated by  Cedric Belfrage)

Genesis is the first part of Galeano's ambitious and brilliant retelling of the history and mythstory of the American continent. Short, anecdotal passages jump from location to location, leapfrogging through time to build a picture of the civilisations that existed in pre-Conquistador America. It's a couple of months since I read Genesis and I stopped part way through the second book in order to complete some reading I had committed to. I hope to get back into it soon, as it has lived up to my high expectations so far, expectations raised by my reading of another of his books: Upside Down, A Primer for the Looking-Glass World.

In Genesis he builds a riveting tapestry of pre-'discovery' America and its many cultures. He also tells stories of how these cultures continued in parallel with that of the European colonists, and of how they were systematically and deliberately eroded by the Europeans.
"Through the centuries, Latin America has been despoiled of gold and silver, nitrates and rubber, copper and oil: its memory has also been usurped. From the outset it has been condemned to amnesia by those who have prevented it from being. Official Latin American history boils down to a military parade of bigwigs in uniforms fresh from the dry-cleaners. I am not a historian. I am a writer who would like to contribute to the rescue of the kidnapped memory of all America, but above all of Latin America, that despised and beloved land:"

Galeano goes on to say that he is not sure what form these books come packaged as: "novel or essay or epic poem or testament or chronicle.." but that he doesn't care. Nor is it an objective work. It is a "huge mosaic" and each fragment "is based on a solid documentary foundation." However it seems to me, objectively, that there are histories that force you to see that one side has greater moral authority than the other.

The book is composed of short chapters, rarely more than a page in length, often much less. The first section is called First Voices and it is full of myths of origin. They are comic, brutal, heartbreaking, beautiful, sensual and many other things besides. When the first man and the first woman met in the Amazonian jungle, his first question was "Did they cut yours off?" He thinks that the woman needs to be somehow cured but when he sees the monkeys 'curing' each other he follows suit and "it was all so beautiful that the suns and the gods died of embarrassment."

This section attacks one of the areas of deliberate amnesia. The aboriginal peoples of America and Australia who were exposed to genocidal waves of aboriginal Europeans are almost always portrayed as 'savages', even if nobel ones. Their culture is ignored. Galeano presents us with a series of windows into rich and complex mythologies, some of which deal with genocide, not necessarily always of the European variety. Here is a complete chapter, called "War":
"At dawn, the trumpet call announced from the mountain that it was time for crossbows and blowguns.
At nightfall, nothing remained of the village except smoke.
A man lay among the dead without moving. He smeared his body with blood and waited. He was the only survivor of the Palawiyang people.
When the enemy moved off, that man got up. He contemplated his destroyed world. He walked among the people who had shared hunger and food with him. He sought in vain some person or thing that hadn't been wiped out. The terrifying silence dazed him. The smell of fire and blood sickened him. He felt disgusted to be alive, and threw himself back down amongst his own.
With the first light came vultures. There was nothing left in that man except fog and a yearning to sleep and let himself be devoured.
But the condor's daughter opened a path through the circling birds of prey. She beat her wings hard and dived. He grabbed onto her feet, and the condor's daughter took him far away."

Galeano, and translator Cedric Belfrage, create a poetic voice that unites all these short chapters pulled from so many various sources, and smoothly transitions from the myths to the even more improbable history of the Old New World. These anecdotes run from 1492 until 1700 when "the feverish eyes of mariners"  and "burning eyes of jailbirds" see "no prophetic reflections of gold and silver in the foam of the waves" but "cross themselves and want to pray and stammer" "Tonight we'll fall off the world". It would be more like they fell on the world.

But before the Europeans there were other Empires, the Incas for example:
"Even these remote heights far to the north are reached by the Inca Empire's tax collector.
The Quillacinga people have nothing to give, but in this vast kingdom all communities pay tribute, in kind or in labor time. No one, however far off and however poor, can forget who is in charge."
But even these vast powerful empires fall to treachery ("Treachery is a weapon as devastating as typhus, smallpox, and hunger.."), disease, bloodlust and the greed of the invading forces. But on the way there are many detours and the cultures that predated the invasion survive in many different ways.

We meet warrior kings; conscience stricken conquistadors; slaves who rise up and defend their own free mountain state; dogs trained to kill people; the clash of homophobic, prurient Christianity with the relaxed culture of many tribes; papal bulls that divide the spoils and assign or remove souls from the Americans depending on how the wind blows; piracy; madness and all the time the rapine of South America to shore up half-bankrupt European monarchies.

Ah, those monarchs:
"Towering over the fog and soot, Elizabeth is at the summit of a nascent empire. She is the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who for having produced a daughter lost her head in the Tower of London. The virgin queen devours her lovers, uses her fists on her maids of honor, and spits on her courtier's clothes."
Screenshot from trailer for new show  Psychobitches, which seemed oddly appropriate when I saw it this evening.
"Charles V owes every saint a candle. With money from the Webers, the Augsburg bankers, he has bought his imperial crown, paid for his wedding, and financed a good part of the wars that have enabled him to humiliate Rome, suppress the Flemish rebellion, and scatter half of Frances' warrior novels on the fields of Pavia.
The Emperor's teeth ache as he signs the decree conceding to the Webers the exploration, exploitation, and government of Venezuela."

"All Spain has been praying for Charles II. On waking, the monarch has been taking his posset of powdered snake, infallible for giving strength, but in vain. The penis has continued in a state of stupefaction, unable to make children, and from the royal mouth froth and foul breath have continued to emerge, and not one word worth hearing."

As well as earning money from what is taken out of South America, money can also be made from what goes in: "Spain has no slave business. But a century ago, in Seville, the Chamber of Commerce sent the king a documented report explaining that slaves were the most lucrative of all merchandise going to America; and so they continue to be. For the right to sell slaves in the Spanish colonies, foreign concerns pay fortunes into the royal coffers."

It is also a world of Inquisitions and exorcisms. Inquisitor José Ganzález de la Cruz discovers that devils possess the black slave Leonarda in the town of Remedios:
"The devils are lame, ever since the Fall that all the world knows about. They have goats' beards and horns, bats' wings, rats' tails, and black skin. Circulating in Leonarda's body is more enjoyable to tham because they are black.
Leonarda weeps and refuses to eat.
"If God wants to cleanse you," Father José tells her, "He will whiten your skin.""
 The idea that 'white' blood is tainted by 'non-white' drives some to try to escape their heritage by any means at all: " The great Indian-hunter, killer of indians over many leagues, was born of an Indian mother. He speaks Guaraní, very little Portuguese. Domingo Jorge Velho is captain of the mamelukes of São Paulo, mestizos who have sown terror over half of Brazil in the name of their colonial lords and in ferocious exorcism of one half of their blood."

As well as inquisitors seeing devils in the natives there is early liberation theologian Fray Bartholomé de las Casas who see the mistreatment of the Indians as blasphemous and, briefly, has the law changed to set the natives free from slavery, even if it never progressed far beyond paper. Hated by the colonial masters he is loved by "those who get worse treatment than the dung in the plaza.."

Andrés Sánchez Gallque
Galeano includes descriptions of early painting and writing from the Americas, finding in the faces of paintings and the words of early books and letters a way to get closer to the people of the time, and a way to see the persistence of the pre colonial in the work produced for the colonial masters.

Guamán Poma

Some of the sources are extraordinary, such as the illustrated letter which Guamán Poma wrote to Philip II, a letter which was never delivered, a letter which took "him half a century to write and draw. It runs to nearly twelve hundred pages" and after it is written "For three centuries it will roam the earth, lost."
"To write this letter is to weep. Words, images, tears of rage. The Indians are the natural owners of this realm and the Spaniards, natives of Spain, are strangers here in this realm."
Guamán Poma - Inca Ceremonies
Galeano finds beauty in the lost philosophies of the Americas, a beauty that seems environmentally and psychologically healthier than that which replaced it:
"The Indians Say
The land has an owner? How's that? How is it to be sold? How is it to be bought? If it does not belong to us, well, what? We are of it. We are its children. So it is always, always. The land is alive. As it nurtures the worms, so it nurtures us. It has bones and blood. It has milk and gives us suck. It has hair, grass, straw, trees. It knows how to give birth to potatoes. It brings to birth houses. It brings to birth people. It looks after us and we look after it."
"Like all the Iriquois peoples, the Hurons believe that dreams transfigure the most trivial things and convert them into symbols when touched by the fingers of desire. They believe that dreams are the language of unfulfilled desires and have a word, ondinnonk, for the secret desires of the soul that wakefulness does not recognize."

He finds sources such as the deathbed dictations of one of Pizarro's captains who was part of the army that conquered Peru: "we discovered these realms in such condition that there was not in all of them one thief, one vicious man, one idler, nor was there an adulterous or bad woman..." "the lands and mountains and rivers and pastures and hunting grounds and woods and all manner of resources were governed or divided in such a way that everyone knew and had his property, without anyone else occupying it or taking it..." On his deathbed he is conscience stricken, and the strength of Galeano's work is that we who live in this world shaped by the culture that conquered, can feel the pangs of conscience for the cultures that were destroyed. Genesis ends with the death of the childless Charles II of Spain in 1700, and with his death "so ends the dynasty that conquered America." It is fitting.


  1. Looking forward to more of your Galeano installments. Have heard so many good things about him, but I don't think I've read anything except excerpts here or there. What you share here reminds me of Roa Bastos a little bit, a good thing to be sure!

    1. Have you read the letter of Guamán Poma? There is a site, in Spanish, which has a good digital copy. http://www.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/info/es/frontpage.htm It looks fascinating.

  2. I've been meaning to read Galeano for ages. I think you just inspired me to finally get around to it!

  3. I started to read your review yesterday, but what with one distraction after another, I didn’t get a chance to finish it until today. I admire your commitment in reading this epic and it must give a real insight into the ethnography and development of this region. The passage entitled ‘War’ stopped me in my tracks, as did your final comment: “the strength of Galeano's work is that we who live in this world shaped by the culture that conquered, can feel the pangs of conscience for the cultures that were destroyed.”

    Actually, reading Memory of Fire in stages sounds like the way to go as I can imagine it feeling pretty intense. Thanks for posting on this – I feel as if I‘ve learnt something about the history of these cultures just by reading your post.