Saturday, 19 March 2016

Memory of Fire: Faces and Masks & Century of the Wind

Faces and Masks; Century of the Wind - Eduardo Galeano
(Part 2 & 3 of the Memory of Fire trilogy.)

"History, the pink-veiled lady offering her lips to those who win, will have much to hide. She will feign absent-mindedness or sicken with fake amnesia; she will lie that the black slaves of Brazil were meek and resigned, even happy."

It took me quite a while to get around to the second and third books in Galeano's trilogy after finishing Genesis last year. Not because of quality but perhaps a reflection of the fact that I have been reading less and having difficulty getting through longer books. Mind you, that's nothing to the slow pace of my blogging. But I am making a last attempt to finish this for Richard's annual Literature of Doom over at Caravana De Recuerdos. And to take the chance to wish Richard good health for 2016. (It is months since I wrote this introduction. This time I am just going to post this as an idea toward a blog on books 2 & 3 in Galeano's trilogy without trying to 'finish' it...)

The trilogy as a whole is a towering achievement, poetic, revelatory and both harrowing and life affirming. Somehow the human sprit is what shines through all these examples of man's inhumanity. The strength to resist long after resistance has been proved to be less than futile, the re-emergence of traditions and cultures that had apparently long been eradicated and the very existence of this trilogy, the work in itself a testament to the human spirit and to Galeano's love of his subject and willingness to rummage in the dusty entrails of history to illustrate his thesis. "They were not wrong he said, in reading destinies in the entrails of the animals they sacrificed. In the entrails, he said. In the entrails, not the heads, because a prophet who loves is better than one who can reason."

Galeano is often chatty, seemingly incidental. However, the incremental power of the trilogy is staggering. He ranges from major events, to anecdotes, the movement of capital and ruminations on art and literature. Early on in Faces and Masks he considers Alexander Selkirk and his fictional progeny, Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk was a pirate and when rescued "is a shivering wretch who cannot talk and is scared of everything. Robinson Crusoe, on the other hand, invincible tamer of nature, will return to England with his faithful Friday, totting up accounts and planning adventures."  His comments reminded me of China Achebe on the casual racism of Heart of Darkness. The political propaganda that saw civilisation and savagery as the defining factors of Europe and Native America respectively took very little account of reality.

These books have me noting down the names of writers and painters. Brief pen pictures give enough to make you want more, and the survival of these voices and images is one place where he can find a victory, even if it is the victory of survival. "Perhaps Holguín doesn't know that the marvel is the thing he is creating, believing he is just copying; nor does he know that his work will remain alive when the pomp of Potosí has been blotted from the face of the earth and no one can remember any viceroy."

Melchor Pérez Holguín: Entrada del Virrey Morcillo en Potosí, 1718, Museo de América, Madrid.

Galeano finds the survival of ancient culture in the way they distort those cultures claiming superiority over them and attempting to blot them out. Even when apparently repeating the methods of their 'betters' (a word I hope can contain the irony I am loading it with) the results are often redolent more of the differences than the similarities, and these differences are pointers to the past  that these books are a repository of.

He also finds Europeans who are filled with a clear admiration for much of the culture they are eradicating, and paint a picture that is at times edenic, although not without snakes:
"They do not know about property or envy, says Pouchot, and call money the Frenchmen's snake.
They think it ridiculous to obey a fellow man, says Lafita. They elect chiefs who have no privilege whatsoever; and if one gets bossy, they depose him. Women give opinions and decisions on par with men. Councils of elders and public assemblies have the final word; but no human word has precedence over the voice of dreams." One can't help but think that our culture could have been immeasurably enriched if the traffic between culture had been more evenly balanced. But the military strength of a culture bound together by duty to the crown, or greed, was stronger than that of small groups who lived freely and obeyed no one. The fascism which we like to think of as a 20c phenomenon was clearly evident in the waves of colonisers who washed over the American continent.  Maybe it is a product of the nation state, the rule of law bringing us close to the rule of order, and artificially created identity blinding people to the common humanity of all.

But Galeano is not looking for reasons to despair, despite listing many. He aims to find the kernel of hope buried in each rich serving of despair. The persistence of ideas and identities that have apparently been erased whispers that history may not always be the preserve of the victors and that we are in the end biological entities, a product of and belonging to the natural world and that ways of living and thinking can reassert themselves. Dead/defeated cultures remain a repository of ideas that can act on dominant ones. It reminds me of a much repeated phrase from Irish history, as waves on invaders became "more Irish than the Irish themselves". There are schisms between histories, between different sets of memories: "One memory that death kills, a compass that expires with the journey; and another memory, the collective memory, which will live as long as the human adventure in the world lives."

It seems like a world seeking a spirituality that is not Judeo-Christian will find a repository of ideas in this book, and Galeano manages to give a sense of the beauty of many of the 'pagan' belief systems without necessarily endorsing them or being blind to their faults. Most of all, he finds their poetry.
"A good Huichol takes care of his soul, shining life force, but everyone knows that it is smaller than an ant, softer than a whisper, a little nothing, a puff of wind. In any careless moment it can be lost."

I just want to keep skipping from quote to quote, letting them build their own coherence, or not. Here is one on the birth of "café culture" in Montevideo.
"Out of the general store, the café will be born. Montevideo will be the city of cafés. No corner will be a corner without a café as an accessory for secrets and noise, a little temple where all loneliness can take refuge, all encounters be celebrated, with cigarette smoke serving as incense."

And from the birth pangs of cafe culture on the dirt streets of Montevideo to the birth pangs of the British Empire on the open seas, where the English flag served as well as the skull and crossbones.
"The English flag flies intact from the ships' masts. Lord George Anson's fleet will return to London devastated with hunger and scurvy, but the booty will be so splendid that forty ox-carts will not suffice to haul it from the port. In the name of perfecting Cartography, Geography, Astronomy, Geometry and the Art of Navigation, scientist Anson has hunted down various Spanish ships with his guns and set fire to several towns, taking everything, down to wigs and embroidered underwear.
In these years the British Empire is coming to birth in the translation from piracy to contraband, but Anson is a pirate of the old school."

And there are tales after tales of resistance and the brutality brought to bear against those who resist. Canek was the chosen name of a Maya Indian who crowns himself a "king against the power of the powerful, and announces the end of serfdom and whipping posts and of Indians lining up to kiss the master's hand." But his rising is fated to fail but the echoes of another "king", the "king of the jews" are inescapable. "Canek enters the square on mule back, his face almost hidden by an enormous paper crown. On the crown his infamy is spelled out: Risen against God and against the King.
They chop him up bit by bit, without permitting him the relief of death, worse than an animal's fate in a slaughterhouse; then they throw the fragments of him into the bonfire. A prolonged ovation punctuates the ceremony. Beneath the ovation, it is whispered that the serfs will put ground glass in the masters' bread."

Although the focus of these books is largely from Mexico down they do include the whole continent. From this perspective the 'founding fathers' of American democracy don't look quite the shining beacons I remember from school. Rebellions and leaders who stood against the oppression of and discrimination of people due to their race or gender were brutally put down all across the continent and the liberty enshrined in the Declaration of Independence seems only to have been meant for a certain proportion of the population. "Jefferson preaches democracy, a democracy of proprietors, and freedom of thought and religion; but he defends the hierarchies of sex and colour." Benjamin Franklin's life seems a lot less exemplary when compared to that of his sister Jane who's "case will awaken no interest in historians."

We also see the toxic roots of US self-interest in South America, roots which are still choking signs of independence across the continent in far more recent times. One of the longest running threads weaving its way through Galeano's narrative is that of Simon Bolivar, who's quest for independence also becomes entwined with that of equality and freedom, and with a vision for education which sounds forward thinking today. However, it is difficult to maintain momentum and implement change when your enemies include the most powerful economic force in the region:
"The North American consul in Lima, William Tudor, has helped to weave the conspiracy against the American project of Bolivar, the dangerous madman of Columbia. Tudor was upset not only by Bolivar's fight against slavery, a bad example for the southern United States, but also and above all by the excessive aggrandisement of the America liberated from Spain."

The examples of US imperialism rack up over time. Not a great neighbour.
"1909: Managua
Inter-American Relations at Work
Philander Knox is a lawyer and a shareholder in the Rosario and Light Mines Company. He is also secretary of state of the United States. The president of Nicaragua, José Santos Zelaya, does not treat the company with due respect. He wants Rosario and Light to pay taxes. Nor does he respect the Church enough. The Holy Mother has judged him to be in sin ever since he expropriated her lands and suppressed tithes and first-fruits and profaned the sacrament of matrimony with a divorce law. So the Church applauds when the United States breaks relations with Nicaragua and Secretary of State Knox sends down some Marines who overthrow President Zelaya and put in his lace the accountant of the Rosario and Light Mines Company."

Of course the Indians of South America got off lightly compared to the native American tribes, the Sioux, Cheyennes, Arapahos who's victory at Little Big Horn was to prove little more than a blip on the inexorable journey towards the robbery of their land and independence. But their courage and philosophy live on as do all the people mentioned in the pages of this book, brought from the shadows by Galeano, the poet of the past. Did I say I recommend this book unreservedly? Well, I do and now I have!

The mentions of writers and artists keeps drawing me to Google - here is a sort of scrapbook with images and quotes from the books. The books act as a primer on South American culture and Galeano makes clear the key role played by art and culture in shaping history. It is difficult to unimagine the imagined and suppression can only work for a certain length of time. History is the journey to the consciousness of the species. Galeano shows us that as well as bigotry, fear, greed and bloodthirstiness, we have what resists the worst within us and people prepared to die for what they believe in.
Manuel da Costa Ataíde: "In churches, Ataíde creates heavens of this earth. Using the pigments of flowers and plants, he paints the Virgin with the face of María do Carmo, a woman born here, brown madonna from whom spring the sun and the stars; and he paints little angel musicians and singers with very fleshy eyelids and lips, nappy hair and startled or mischievous eyes. The mulatto angels are his children and the Virgin his children's mother."

"The first Latin American novel is born in a printery on Muleta Street. In three volumes, José Joaquin Fernández de Lizardi relates the misfortunes of El Periquillo Sarmiento; readers devour and celebrate. The viceroy bans the fourth volume when it is about to appear, but there is no way to jail the character.
El Pequillo, that American offspring of the Spanish picaresque, has won the streets of Mexico. He goes everywhere, stripping customs naked. He jumps from the cardsharp's table to the notary's office, and from the barber's chair to the prison floor. Many do not enjoy his adventures. The priest drowns him in edifying sermons. Lizardi, enlightened moralist, turns every game into a moral."

In 2014 I read Augustus Roa Bastos' Yo el Supremo. Here is some of Galeano's pen picture of the paranoid dictator: "There are no thieves in Paraguay, that is, none above ground, nor beggars. At the call of a drum, not of a bell, the children go to school. Although everyone can read, no print shop or library exists, nor is any book, newspaper, or bulletin received from outside, and the post office has disappeared for lack of use.
Penned in upriver by nature and neighbors, the country lives on guard, waiting for Argentina or Brazil to lash out. So that the Paraguayans should repent of their independence, Buenos Aires has cut off their outlet to the sea, and their ships rot at the wharves; but they persist in their poverty and dignity. Dignity, national solitude: high over the vast acreage, Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia commands and keeps watch. The dictator lives alone, and alone eats the bread and salt of his land in dishes previously sampled by dogs.
All Paraguayans are spies or spied upon. Very early in the morning, while sharpening his razor, Alejandro the barber gives El Supremo the first report of the day on rumors and conspiracies. After nightfall the dictator hunts stars with his telescope; and they too tell him what his enemies are plotting."

"Beyond the boundaries of official art, far removed from its star performers, the genius engraver José Guadalupe Posada strips naked his country and his time. No critic takes him seriously. He has no pupils, although two young artists have been following him since they were children. José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera haunt Posada's little workshop and watch him labor, with devotion as if at Mass, as the metal shavings fall to the floor at the passage of the burin over the plates."

"1909: New York
What would happen if a woman woke up one morning changed into a man? What if the family were not a training camp where boys learn to command and women to obey? What if there were daycare for babies, and husbands shared the cleaning and cooking? What if innocence turned into dignity and reason and emotion went arm in arm? What if preachers and newspapers told the truth? And if no one were anyone's property?
So Charlotte Perkins Gilman raves, while the press attacks her, calling her an unnatural mother..."

"1921: Rio De Janeiro
It is announced that the Batons will soon be appearing on the Paris stage, and indignation mounts in the Brazilian press. What will Europeans think? Will they imagine Brazil is an African colony? The Baton's repertory contains no operatic arias and waltzes, only maxixes, lands, cortajacas, batuques, cateretés, modinhas, and the newborn samba. It is an orchestra of blacks who play black music. Articles exhort the government to head off the disgrace. The foreign ministry promptly explains that the Batons are not on an official mission.
Pixinguinha, one of the blacks in the ensemble, is the best musician in Brazil. He doesn't know it, nor does it interest him. He is too busy seeking on his flute, with devilish joy, sounds stolen from the birds."

"1937: Mexico City
The Bolero
Mexico's Ministry of Public Education prohibits the boleros of Augustín Lara in schools, because their obscene, immoral, and degenerate lyrics might corrupt children.
Lara exalts the Lost Woman, in whose eyes are seen sun-drunk palm trees; he beseeches love from the Decadent One, in whose pupils boredom spreads like a peacock's tail; he dreams of the sumptuous bed of the silky skinned courtesan; with sublime ecstasy he deposits roses at the feet of the Sinful One, and covers the Shameful Whore with incense and jewels in exchange for the honey of her mouth."

"In this place, gods made by men are crossed with men made by gods, the former descending to earth, the latter launched to conquer heaven, and Bola De Nieve celebrates it all with his salty songs."

Churubusco's monastery at the height of the 1847 Battle of Churubusco, painted by James Walker

I'll end with a passage that I think apt so close to St Patricks Day:
"1848: Mexico City
The Irishmen
In the main plaza of Mexico City, the conquerors mete out punishment. They scourge the rebel Mexicans. They brand with hot irons the faces of the Irish deserters and then hang them from the gallows.
 The St Patrick Irish battalion came in with the invaders, but fought alongside the invaded. From the north to Molino del Rey, the Irish made theirs the fate, ill fate, of the Mexicans. Many died defending the Churubusco monastery without ammunition. The prisoners, their faces burned, rock to and fro on the gallows."


  1. Thanks for the kind wishes, Séamus, and for this very enthusiastic (and enthusiasm-generating) conclusion to your review of these books. I really liked your line about Galeano, "the poet of the past," "not looking for reasons to despair, despite listing many." That seems like an almost unbeatable combination. In any event, will try to make room for Galeano's work sometime this year.

    1. Thanks Richard, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on Galeano..

  2. Really must get round to reading this having enjoyed both Mirrors and Children of the Days (I seem to be working my way backwards). Loved the scrapbook - what a great idea.

    1. Haven't read either Mirrors or Children of the days but I've yet to be disappointed by Galeano so will hopefully get there eventually.